Recreation & Destinations

Byron Forest Preserve District: Preserving and Enjoying the Land of Ogle County

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For nearly 30 years, this district has quietly grown to include education centers, green construction, a golf course and numerous other attractions. Discover what these 2,000 acres hold for nature-lovers and recreation enthusiasts.

The sloping hills of Prairie View Golf Cub are shrouded in an early-morning fog.

Matt and Jerri Hawkins of Byron, Ill., need not go far to find fun activities for their three energetic boys. Everett, 12, Ethan, 8, and Joey, 4, have learned to golf, gone stargazing and enjoyed numerous birthday parties and school dances at locations throughout the Byron Forest Preserve District (BFPD). “They have very nice facilities,” says Jerri. “Very family-friendly. There’s never a shortage of things to do.”

That seems to be the consensus. Beginning in 1980 with 300 acres of cropland, the District has expanded to nearly 2,000 acres, 450 dedicated to restored prairie. Facilities include the Jarrett Prairie Center, Weiskopf Observatory, 18-hole Prairie View Golf Course, Keller Education Center, Nardi Equine Prairie Preserve, Stone Quarry Recreation Park and Heritage Farm.

The BFPD maintains nearly 6.5 miles of winding trails for hiking, cross country skiing and snowmobiling. They’re popular among nature lovers, who soak up the sights and sounds of prairies and woods.

For 30 years, the BFPD has been preserving open space and natural resources; providing education about nature and community heritage; and offering recreational opportunities at a reasonable cost. It’s become an integral presence in the Byron region, often hosting community meetings and parties at the Jarrett Prairie Center, 7993 N. River Road, which sees about 31,000 visitors each year.

Some 27,500 rounds of golf are played each year at PrairieView and nearly 32,000 people visit Stone Quarry Recreation Park, 6845 German Church Road, for a round of mini golf, a session at the skate park or a few swings in the batting cages.

To Todd Tucker, executive director, success isn’t only about numbers. “Being a forest preserve, our specific goal is to provide a natural experience for our patrons. But we also realize that not everyone is into nature. You can also have a 50th anniversary here, or a golf outing. We offer something for everyone.”

Land Acquisitions

“One of our priorities is to protect open space,” says Tucker. “With the land we acquire, we’re able to teach children and adults about the prairie, woodlands, wetlands and streams and their inhabitants. We have about 7 percent of the county secured, and there are 36,000 [potential] acres in our district. We try to identify the properties that are important.”

Heritage Farm Museum (Gary Gullet photo)

Last November, the BFPD acquired the 228-acre Barrick Homestead Farm, on the northeast corner of Tower and Oak Grove roads, from the Smeja Family Foundation. The foundation entrusted the land to the District because of its ability to restore and protect the woods and wetlands, and to make them available for the public to enjoy.

In December, BFPD purchased the Tower-Colman property in northeast Ogle County, using funds from a $5 million bond issue to buy 280 acres on Meridian Road that adjoin Colman Dells and Severson Dells preserves.

“The Byron Forest Preserve District is committed to protecting our sacred natural resources that we love and enjoy,” says Tucker. “First and foremost, when we acquire land, it’s going to be saved, preserved and protected. We’re also looking toward the future, so our patrons and taxpayers can enjoy it 100 years from now. The onus is on us to do good things with it.”

Staying True to the Mission

The Jarrett Prairie Center offers hands-on exhibits, a natural history museum and a gift shop. It was named for Dr. Robert M. Jarrett, a local veterinarian with a passion for prairie restoration.

The Weiskopf Observatory was donated by Dr. Jerome Weiskopf in 1993. Public sky viewing is offered every Tuesday and Saturday evening, beginning at dark, at no charge.

In 1843, Charlie Wilbur and his family came from New York and settled across the river from Byron. The farm, now called the Heritage Farm, remained in the Wilbur family for five generations. Today it’s a free museum with a replica house, corn crib, horse barn and live chickens. An outdoor concert series is staged there summer evenings.

Todd Tucker, executive director

PrairieView Golf Club, an 18-hole championship public golf course that opened in 1992, earned a four-star rating from Golf Digest in 2003. It has bentgrass tees, greens and fairways. PrairieView has a full-service practice facility, lesson programs, equipment rental, a pro shop and a dining area with bar.

At the Stone Quarry Recreation Park, visitors find a miniature golf course, batting cages, an arcade, skate park, splash pad, horseshoe pit, volleyball courts and playground. “It gives kids plenty of things to do,” says Tucker.

The Nardi Equine Prairie Preserve was donated by Stephen J. Nardi and restored to include a trail system for horseback riding. It’s located on River Road, just a couple miles west of the forest preserve.

The newest facility addition is the Keller Education Center, named after Tim Keller, a local soil conservationist who discovered rare pasque flowers at the main site. It’s located just south of the Jarrett Prairie Center. One of its two large classrooms is dedicated to the district’s Earthkeepers program and bird watching; the other is used by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and is available to rent. It’s expected to earn LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for the sustainable practices used to build it.

Green features include a geothermal heat/cooling system, wind turbine, photovoltaic solar panels, concrete and recycled-glass countertops, reflective roof colors, energy-efficient lights, cabinets made from recycled barn wood, bench seats made from recycled milk jugs and recycled rubber flooring tiles.

“We wanted it to be an example for the rest of the community, in terms of being environmentally friendly,” says Tucker. “You can save thousands of dollars being eco-friendly.”

Leadership Legacy

The BFPD has had just three directors since it opened three decades ago. “They were all forward thinkers,” says Michelle Gerke, administrative services coordinator. “They thought about the now and the future, how generations to come will use the properties.”

Jack Philbrick helped to launch the forest preserve and was hired as its first employee. During his first year, he developed an operational guide that evolved into a long-range plan. He was instrumental in creating a recreational path for Byron; forming the Ogle Top Open Space and Park Foundation; and proposing and supporting a number of cooperative agreements with other governmental bodies. Ed Clift succeeded Philbrick and led the Forest Preserve for 14 years, earning the 2008 Illinois Park and Recreation Association Professional Recognition Award.

Current director Todd Tucker started 16 years ago as a seasonal employee and worked his way up, taking the helm after Clift’s retirement four years ago.

“Jack was the visionary and the developer of the forest preserve,” Tucker says. “Ed was more the recreational type, and my focus is on nature. It’s my job, as the executive director, to run a forest preserve district that enhances our environment and educates our public.” Because a majority of its funding comes from tax revenue paid by the nearby nuclear plant, the BFPD is brimming with year-round activities. “Without the nuclear plant, we wouldn’t be here,” Tucker says. “It accounts for 74 percent of our total assessed valuation. The nuclear plant has been very good to us.”

Michelle Gerke

The District is one of the top employers in Ogle County, with 20 full-time, 20 part-time and 60-plus seasonal employees. Its operating budget is $375,000.

In addition to nuclear plant money, the District has secured about $1.6 million in grants over the past 15 years. Local businesses, such as Byron Bank, sponsor special events like the summer concert series. In 2003, the Matt Johnson scholarship program was started by Dr. Robert and Holly Johnson of Byron. Matt, who was killed in an automobile accident in 1997 at the age of 18, was an avid skateboarder and golfer. The fund aids Byron youths who need financial assistance to participate in BFPD activities like skateboarding, golf, summer day camp and preschool.

Staying True to the Mission

Each season, the district offers a new array of fun classes, guided hikes, camps and special events, such as ice fishing on the golf course pond. Field trips to places like Door County, Wis., or the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, are offered, too.

“There are many programs and events for residents and visitors to enjoy,” says Gerke. “We can get two vans full of people to go shopping at quilt stores in Wisconsin, or to sign up for beekeeping workshops, which are very popular.” Tucker enjoys the enthusiasm for learning new things that people express.

Many special events are hosted by the district, including Halloween on the Prairie in late October, with “haunted” hayrides, face painting, games, and kids’ crafts. An annual holiday gift sale at the Jarrett Prairie Center attracts more than 30 vendors and crafters.

Much has been accomplished in the district’s first 30 decades, and Tucker looks forward to the next ones. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing, while listening to the community’s wants and needs,” he says. “We’ll always be committed to the land and the environment. And we’ll always stay true to our mission.” ❚

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