One of the first Peoria Park District conservation areas I visited outside of Forest Park Nature Center was a large woodland off of Singing Woods Road. Access was difficult and there wasn’t even a place to park. Since that first visit about 30 years ago, that unnamed woods has now become a dedicated Illinois State Nature Preserve known as Singing Woods. At over 700 acres, it’s one of the largest nature preserves in this part of the state. In 2008, the Peoria Park District added to the preserve by acquiring a 27-acre property at the southwest corner of the vast woodland known as Tawny Oaks. Among its many wonderful qualities was that it had good road access.
The Tawny Oaks acquisition was funded through several sources including the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Caterpillar Foundation, Forest Park Foundation and the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. Ideally located with easy road access, the Park District knew that someday, it would be a great gateway to Singing Woods Nature Preserve.
After the acquisition, Park District staff worked on plans to create that access. In March of 2013, the Park District was awarded a grant from IDNR’s Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development (OSLAD) program to repurpose a horse barn as a visitor center with parking, restrooms, and trails. Finally, Singing Woods Nature Preserve would have proper visitor access. However, after much work was done on the project, the Peoria Park District (along with many park districts throughout the state) received a letter from IDNR informing them that all of their active grants had been suspended until further notice, and all work had to stop. While the Park District waits for some type of break in the gridlock of Springfield, it is moving forward with at least getting Tawny Oaks and Singing Woods accessible.
All news is not dire. Even though our state budgets seem to be in limbo, others are investing in our natural areas. Recently, Peoria Wilds, a local not-for-profit that assists with ecological restoration work on many of our region’s natural areas, successfully received a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation (ICECF). The Stewardship Challenge Grant program will help fund several important ecological projects at Tawny Oaks. If Peoria Wilds can raise $7,000 in private donations, ICECF will grant $21,000 for ecological restoration projects. That’s a 3:1 ratio, which is an amazing return on a fundraising effort. Also, if Peoria Wilds can coordinate volunteer efforts that will log 400 hours of volunteerism, we can get an additional $4,000 worth of funding for even more projects. So even if you are unable to make a monetary donation, volunteerism will help fund projects. This is a real win-win for everyone involved.
Donations need to be made directly to Peoria Wilds, which is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit. Those monetary donations are fully tax-deductible, and each dollar donated will bring in three additional dollars from ICECF. So, in effect, a $100 donation will turn into a $400 donation. We have from now until December of 2016 to raise funds. Information on how to donate is at the end of this column.
Just what types of projects will be happening? All funds will be used specifically on projects to enhance the ecology of the Tawny Oaks property and Singing Woods Nature Preserve. This includes enhancing native prairie plantings, tree planting in the arboretum, enhancement of an ephemeral wetland, building more Eastern Bluebird and Purple Martin boxes, additional interpretive signage and exhibits, installation of rain gardens and increased monarch butterfly food plots.
While the State of Illinois might be dragging its feet on its financial commitments, we have a unique private sector opportunity to enhance this important natural area. Moving forward on improving the land to provide crucial habitat for native species, after all, is what is really important.
To make a monetary donation, send checks to:
c/o Forest Park Nature Center
5809 N Forest Park Drive
Peoria Heights, IL 61616
To find out about opportunities to volunteer, contact the staff at Forest Park Nature Center (309)686-3360.