Natural Land Institute purchased this preserve 20 years ago and restored it into wetlands, woodlands and prairies. Today, many animal and plant species call this soothing landscape home.
Located west of Rockton at the intersection of the Rock and Pecatonica Rivers sits a quiet breeding ground for wildlife, nature and protected habitat.
The Carl & Myrna Nygren Wetland Preserve, a 721-acre wildlife refuge owned by the Natural Land Institute (NLI), was former farmland the conservation land trust purchased 20 years ago to restore into wetlands, prairies and woodlands.
Nygren Wetland touches three bodies of water, including Raccoon Creek, which flows through it, giving the preserve nearly three miles of shoreline. The soothing landscape has become home for several animal species, including Sandhill cranes, migrating waterfowl and songbirds.
Volunteers with the NLI have spent the last two decades restoring the protected land, which also serves as a repository for several plant species. NLI has spent more than 60 years conserving natural habitat in our region, including prairies, forests and wetlands for native plants and wildlife.
The existence of Nygren Wetland goes all the way back to prehistoric times.
Archaeological research proves at one point, the land had serpentine, conical and turtle effigy mounds, which were created in prehistoric times. Other common artifacts, like stone, flint tools and charcoal, were also found at the preserve and used during prehistoric times.
The preserve became part of the Old Northwest Territory through the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The Sauk, Fox, Potowatomi and Winnebago American-Indians inhabited the area before Col. William Talcott, Rockton’s founder, claimed the land in 1836.
Once the Natural Resource Conservation Service allowed the land to get enrolled in the Wetland Reserve Program, which allows land to be removed from agriculture production, NLI was essentially given the green light to purchase the property.
NLI purchased the property in 2000 with the help of a benevolent gift to the organization from Carl & Myrna Nygren’s estate, with the stipulation that NLI would purchase land in Winnebago County and protect it for native plants and wildlife, which the organization gladly obliged.
Prior to NLI getting the property, much of the wetland was used for cattle, and it was tilled for corn and soybeans.
“Historically, NLI has preserved land that hasn’t been farmed or developed,” says Kim Johnsen, director of marketing and membership at NLI. “This was the first time we found former agriculture land and restored it to prairie and wetland. This was a new and huge initiative for us.”
When the NLI purchased the property, very little of the natural land was in place, since previous owners drained the fields and used the land for agriculture.
Once NLI acquired the land, volunteers went to work by rejuvenating prairies, woodlands and wetlands. Plants like wild bergamot, sunflowers and gray-headed coneflower helped turn this once ordinary piece of land into a blossoming layer of color.
Hundreds of volunteers have chipped in to restore more than 100 acres of prairie, 450 acres of wetland and 150 acres of woodland all with the goal of restoring the area to it’s original form.
“We’ve had volunteers who planted seedling plugs of native wildflowers and grasses and they’ve distributed seeds throughout the prairies,” she says. “Volunteers also help mow the trail and remove trees and other plants that were invasive.”
Johnsen also says volunteers have planted aquatic plants in the wetland, such as arrowhead and swamp milkweed.
A Public Wetland
Nygren Wetland is one of five properties open to the public out of the 26 preserves owned by NLI. It’s also the easiest to access and there’s a public entrance at 3714 W. Rockton Road, just west of Rockton. When you pull into the small parking lot, you’ll be greeted with a wildlife overlook, which offers amazing views of the preserve.
“People can sit at the wildlife overlook or stand there and look out, and we have a telescope where you can look out at the wetland,” Johnsen says. “We had a lot of pelicans visit this spring, so you’ll be able to see all the wonderful wildlife, like eagles, pelicans and Sandhill cranes. We’ve even had muskrats and river otters pay us a visit.”
If you want to explore the wetland firsthand, take a journey along the Dianne Nora Nature Trail, which is a little less than three miles long.
“People can hike, they’ll bird watch, and I’ve seen photographers use giant lenses and they’ll take some really awesome photos,” Johnsen says. “People can really enjoy this trail.”
In 2004, NLI celebrated a significant milestone with the birth of a Sandhill crane chick, which was the first in the restored wetlands. River otters have also made a return to the area and in 2007, the NLI staff found the first Blanding’s turtle on a neighboring property.
Endangered species have also visited the wetlands. In 2010, Johnsen says Whooping cranes, the tallest bird in North America, started flocking to the area. The bird, which is named after the whooping sound it makes, is a federally endangered species.
“It’s always exciting when we can see Whooping cranes using the preserve,” Johnsen says. “We’ve also had other endangered birds visit the preserve, which has been exciting. That lets us know that we’ve created habitat for wildlife where they feel safe and comfortable where they can live, replenish their energy and find food and shelter as they migrate.”
But the wetland can do more than just help wildlife and native habitat. It can also help prevent flooding in the area, which is a major benefit for homeowners.
“Because the wetland has so much acreage, when it floods, it holds water, so it helps reduce flooding in basements for homeowners along the Rock River,” Johnsen says. “It doesn’t eliminate flooding completely, but it has helped. A few years after Nygren Wetland was restored, people in Rockton said they saw reduced flooding in the area, which was great to hear.”
There are a handful of activities that take place at Nygren Wetlands each year that help shine light on the preserve. There’s “Party on the Prairie,” which happens every other year, with “Wine & Brew at the Wetland” held on alternate years. These events, held in the summer, serves as fundraisers for the wetland.
Guests who attend either event can see NLI’s hard work by walking through the preserve and experiencing the natural setting as they enjoy gourmet food and beverages.
NLI also hosts Family Nature Day at the preserve, which is another great time to see the wildflowers in the prairie. The event, which is designed to help students fall in love with nature and the outdoors, gives them a chance to learn about the plants and animals around them.
“Family Nature Day is about getting kids outside and exploring nature,” Johnsen says. “We want them to find out how much fun it is to learn about nature.”
Because of the ongoing pandemic, this year’s event became Family Nature Adventures, a virtual, hands-on learning program that takes place in your backyard.
“The program will be available on our website indefinitely,” Johnsen says.
The 20th anniversary of the preserve isn’t going unnoticed, but plans have been changing because of the ongoing pandemic.
“We’ve been talking about Nygren Wetland throughout the year and we’ve been promoting it in various ways,” Johnsen says. “We were planning to celebrate it at our annual dinner in March, but it had to be postponed to the fall.”
NLI also has a 20th anniversary video on the preserve that’s slated to be released in the near future.
More Work To Do
NLI has done a lot of hard work on Nygren Wetland, but it’s up to the organization to keep it maintained.
To help with the upkeep of the preserve, The Gordon G. Eggers Fund, an endowment for the preserve, has been established to help support the ongoing restoration and management of the preserve, which ensures it’ll be around for years to come.
“The endowment is in place to help us fund expenses for managing the preserve,” Johnsen says. “It helps us pay for staff, supplies, equipment and other expenses. We’ll have that money in perpetuity to protect it forever.
The continued restoration of the wetlands and prairies is what’ll keep the preserve thriving, Johnsen says.
“We have a healthier wildlife habitat at Nygren Wetlands than we did 20 years ago because we now have many varieties of native wildflowers, grasses and trees,” Johnsen says. “Even though we’ve created this healthier habitat, we have to keep managing it.”