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Saving a Web of Life in Dixon

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Few city parks earn the designation of Illinois Nature Preserve, but part of Dixon’s Lowell Park beats the odds. Learn why its caretakers believe they have a gem that deserves protection.

Deb Carey and Greg Hunter inspect rare grasses at Lowell Park, an Illinois Nature Preserve in Dixon, Ill. (Louise Brass photo)

Deb Carey and Greg Hunter inspect rare grasses at Lowell Park, an Illinois Nature Preserve in Dixon, Ill. (Louise Brass photo)

Deep in a forest north of Dixon is a place where silence is broken only by whispering winds and bird chatter. Occasionally a deer carefully picks its way between the white oak, wild black cherry and basswood trees.

Sometimes a birdwatcher or nature lover comes here to observe the activities of a redheaded woodpecker or perhaps a neo-tropical migrant warbler.

Here, Jacob’s ladder, wood anemone, wild columbine and Chinese lantern plants are plentiful. Spiky, rare, black-seeded rice grass offers a reminder that precious things in nature can survive invasive species, when friendly humans pull the intruders up by their roots.

It’s finally a certainty that construction clatter and rumbling automobiles will never compete with the bird chatter, here, because this site, part of Dixon’s Lowell Park, is now an official Illinois Nature Preserve (INP). Just the thought of perhaps losing forever the bloodroot, Missouri gooseberry, and great Solomon seal plants that populate the forest and cliffs of Lowell Park was heartbreaking to Deb Carey, executive director of the Dixon Park District, which owns the land.

“There’s a lot of small wildlife here,” Carey says. “They’re not quite as charismatic as polar bears, and that sort of thing, buy they’re very important. Living things like butterflies and moths are all part of the cycle that we don’t often think about.”

Only lands of extremely high quality are even considered for the designation of Illinois Nature Preserve and the process of achieving this status takes about two years. Only a few park districts in Illinois have INP properties.

“This little area is truly a jewel,” Carey says.

And it’s really not so little. The 54.3-acre Lowell Forest Nature Preserve is side-by-side with the privately held Walgreen Estate’s Hazelwood Nature Preserve. Ecologically speaking, it’s all part of the same woodland, and was designated simultaneously.

“An amazingly good thing with the Lowell Park designation is that the Walgreen family, who owns the Walgreen Estate on our south boundary, dedicated the 40-acre parcel at the very same time. So we have a 90-acre Illinois Nature Preserve,” says Cary.

Greg Hunter, director of natural resources at the Dixon Park District, and a former Illinois conservation police officer, enjoys giving presentations on the history and value of the Lowell Park Nature Preserve.

“It’s very important to me to tell the story and share my enthusiasm,” Hunter says. “A young couple from North Carolina came here for a wedding in Dixon. They thought there’d be no place to run here. But they were just enthralled to see where they could run in Lowell Park. We have a lot of regulars that come out. Local folk come here to run or walk their dogs. We have a marked trail system through the nature preserve area.”

The trails and roadway through the preserve are flanked with purple pope berry, stately goldenrod and a variety of asters.

A closer look at the two ravines in the preserve reveals a whole different plant community, including families of ferns. They survive in the moisture-rich micro environment as long as turkeys don’t dig too much and the garlic mustard doesn’t take over. Garlic mustard plants are removed by volunteers each year, says Hunter.

Some of the woodland trails were made by Civil Conservation Corps workmen in the 1930s, when work programs were designed to combat massive unemployment during the Great Depression. Men built a one-story lodge in the middle of what is now the preserve, using stone from a nearby quarry and logs from local timber. With a view of the Rock River, the lodge still stands, surrounded by wild geranium, asters, ferns and sugar maples. Although it’s in the middle of the forest preserve, it’s not included in the INP designation, explains Carey. The lodge was circumvented so it could be renovated or demolished if necessary.

A nature preserve designation is the highest form of legal protection in the State of Illinois, explains John Nelson, field representative for the McHenry office of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. “The most unique aspect is that it’s legally protected forever; it can’t be developed,” he says.

Lowell Park was donated to the City of Dixon, in 1907, by Carlotta Lowell, in memory of her parents, Civil War General Charles Russell Lowell and Josephine Shaw Lowell.

“Lowell Park is special because it has the primal character in the overstory [the uppermost layer of foliage that forms a forest canopy.] It’s important to all the people of Illinois, because it’s recognized as having statewide significance,” Nelson says.

This primeval landscape is mostly wooded, carpeted with delicate wildflowers in springtime and ablaze with golden, red and bronze foliage in autumn. And now the forest has a sure future. Had it not been secured as a nature preserve, deep cuts could have been made into the towering trees that seem to brush the sky. Future generations will enjoy these same trees.

“Our grandkids will be able to say, ‘Oh that’s what it looked like when Ronald Reagan was here, or when Blackhawk was here, or even before that,’” Carey says.

The park district’s INP makes up about one quarter of 200-acre Lowell Park, which borders the west bank of the Rock River, where St. Peter Sandstone cliffs jut out in places, creating pale yellow crags.

The popular beach section of Lowell Park is not within the preserve. That area invites swimmers, campers and boaters. It’s also the place where President Ronald Reagan is said to have rescued 77 swimmers, when he was a teenager working as a lifeguard.

The wooded nature preserve section has many trails for those who wish to enjoy, respectfully, what nature has to offer. Camping, culling flowers, or trudging off the designated trails here to have a picnic, are forbidden. And please, no horse-riding or hunting here. Those activities would threaten the delicate nature of a 21st century preserve, Carey says.

However, for those who want to hunt deer or turkey in the fall, The Meadows will accommodate. That 567-acre park also has a good mix of natural areas and welcomes bicyclists, equestrians, archers and snowmobilers.

Once the site of the Dixon State School, The Meadows contains many old trees similar to those found in Lowell Forest, along with second-growth open meadows and farm fields. “It provides habitat for wildlife and there are a lot of good plants out there,” Carey says.

There are smaller ecological gems in Dixon, too. The park district has even nurtured a small natural savanna area just behind the park district office, where many rare flowers can be found in early spring.

“We in Lee County are so fortunate,” Carey says. “We have Lowell Park, we have Franklin Creek, we have Green River. We have a lot of wonderful areas, but in the whole State of Illinois, only one 100th of 1 percent of land is in a natural state. There’s hardly any because it’s all row crops or concrete.”

Because so much of the land surrounding Lowell Park is not in a natural state, lightning-strike fires that spread through the forest, in past centuries, don’t happen here anymore. Those natural prairie burns were important to the regeneration of trees and plants. For that reason, the park district conducts controlled burns, usually in the fall.

Prior to the 2007 designation as an INP, not everyone in the community agreed that some 50 acres of park district property should be kept off limits to any developments for all time. “Who knows what the future could hold,” they reasoned. What if the park district needed to sell land for development as sporting facilities or housing? The right to sell land or change its designation is forfeited.

But others see it as a big gain, Carey among them. “You’re not giving up things,” she says. “You’re getting a million things back.”

Never doubting the area was spectacular and rare enough to qualify as an INP, Carey persisted in her goal of attaining the designation. “I worked and worked and worked to get the board to do this,” she says. “It’s a really serious designation, because you’re not giving up ownership, but you’re giving up all of your rights. That’s quite a decision, and some board members were concerned that they – or future boards – might want to sell Lowell Park for housing development.”

When she joined the park district in 1988 and recognized the rare, raw beauty of Lowell Park, Carey knew that one of her primary goals as executive director would be to work toward preserving a part of this area, regardless of the difficulty. It was a long-time goal, and many surveys of the property had to be completed first.

The idea of preserving the site into perpetuity was first raised, in 1966, by Mrs. Myrtle Walgreen. It lingered on park board agendas for many years, occasionally mentioned in conversation.

To Carey, it was a matter of looking at the big picture. She could see that much of natural Illinois was being paved over by new schools and colleges, mega churches, hospital campuses and vast stretches of highways. And large segments of land were being farmed, which meant natural growth was being removed and replaced with crops. She feared that native plants and trees would be lost forever. “It was becoming a ‘corn desert,’ she says.

People have asked Carey what difference it makes to save a few acres of land for the nurture of nature, when the need for agricultural, educational, religious, industrial, and recreational facilities is important, too.

She responds by asking: “What right do we have to say some part of nature is not important? Maybe a little flower may not seem very important, but it’s part of the whole web of life. What right have we to say, ‘you can survive, but you can’t?’”

She likens it to a puzzle. “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the pieces. We don’t know what pieces are really important. So I think we better save all the pieces.”

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