Illinois Audubon Society and Joliet Park District Announce Major Expansion of an Urban Woodland

Green space is a premium in urban environments, and opportunities to expand existing high-quality parkland and natural areas come along all too infrequently. This week, the city of Joliet (pop. 148,000) learned that its famed urban forest in the East Side green space of Pilcher Park, long recognized as one of the highest quality extent woodlands in the Chicago Region, would be expanded in size significantly and begin the process of becoming a State Natural Area. This announcement from the IL Audubon Society provides the details of this important development.

Pilcher Park is known for its old-growth trees, high biodiversity among tree and understory species, rugged and beautiful woodland ravines, and brilliant native wildflowers. Despite the presence of some invasive garlic mustard, the park retains some of the highest biological quality woodland in the area, and is a frequent destination for plant scientists and botany class field trips.

A BioBlitz is planned for the park in June 2015 under the auspices of the IL Nature Preserves, the University of St. Francis, and possibly the Field Museum of Natural History, among other potential partners. The Park also includes an excellent Nature Center and provides year-round environmental and cultural programming for the community.

JOLIET, IL.  The Illinois Audubon Society today announced this past Tuesday, 24 Feb 2015, the acquisition of 80 acres adjacent to Joliet Park District’s Pilcher Park in Will County. With a generous $1.38 million dollar grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, the Society purchased the property for $1.9 million dollars.

The purchase price exceeds an all-time high in the Society’s history as a land trust. Pending the District’s receipt of an Illinois Department of Natural Resources Open Space Land Acquisition and Development (OSLAD) grant, the Society intends to sell the parcel to Joliet Park District (JPD) at a bargain-sale. Through its Natural Areas Program, the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation assists nonprofit organizations and local governments in acquiring important natural areas and wildlife habitat. Since its inception in 2002, the Foundation has provided over $55 million in grant awards for the protection of habitat at 148 sites located in counties throughout Illinois.

From left: Tom Clay, Executive Director, Illinois Audubon Society; Rita Renwick, Board of Directors and President, Will County Audubon Society; and Marlene & Al Lewis, part owners of the 80-acre tract (photo: IL Audubon Society)

From left: Tom Clay, Executive Director, Illinois Audubon Society; Rita Renwick, Board of Directors and President, Will County Audubon Society; and Marlene & Al Lewis, part owners of the 80-acre tract (photo: IL Audubon Society)

Illinois Audubon Executive Director Tom Clay said, “This acquisition is truly a future model for land protection. We are adding 80-acres of high-quality woodland and wetland communities to one of Joliet’s most beautiful city parks at a minimal cost to taxpayers.” Clay added, “At a time when state and local governments struggle to make ends meet, this transaction demonstrates that private and public organizations can work together in cost-effective ways to protect our most critical landscapes.”  Rita Renwick, President of Will County Audubon Society represented the local chapter of Illinois Audubon Society at the closing. Rita is also a member of the Illinois Audubon Society Board of Directors.

Joliet Park District Chief Executive Officer Dominic Egizio said the District plans to immediately begin working on the addition. “We will demolish existing structures, repair existing roads, address erosion in ravines, culverts and roadsides and align new trails for public use, connecting Pilcher Park to the added acreage,” Egizio said.

Hickory Creek, the southern border of Pilcher Park (photo: M. Bryson, Jan 2012)

Hickory Creek, the southern border of Pilcher Park (photo: M. Bryson, Jan 2012)

Pilcher Park and the surrounding tract offer an appealing mix of graceful ravines, lush bottomland forest and small winding streams. Harlow Higginbotham, an important figure in Chicago during the late nineteenth century, once owned Pilcher Park. Higginbotham was the president of Chicago’s extremely successful Columbian Exposition in 1893. In 1920, Higginbotham sold the parcel to Robert Pilcher, a businessman and self-taught naturalist, who eventually donated his acreage of virgin woodland to the City of Joliet with the stipulation that the land be left wild.

The 80-acre tract buffers Pilcher Park (413-acres) and is in immediate proximity to Highland Park (41-acres) and Higginbotham Woods (239-acres). Pilcher Park is a Category 1 Natural Area Inventory Site (INAI), meaning the site hosts documented high quality natural communities. Glen Marcum, President of Joliet Park District’s (JPD) Board of Commissioners said, “We have wanted to protect this Pilcher Park buffer for many years and today’s acquisition is cause for celebration.”

President Marcum and the remaining JPD Board of Directors, Vice-President Art Schultz, Commissioners Tim Broderick, Brett Gould and Sue Gulas, intend to seek Illinois Nature Preserve status for Pilcher Park.

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