By Dave Fopay, Journal Gazette/Times Courier
CHARLESTON — The longstanding goal of an area conservation group to develop a natural corridor across much of southeastern Coles County is
more in reach.
The Grand Prairie Friends’ acquisition of two additional pieces of property will play a vital role in a planned city of Charleston bike and pedestrian trail project and provide another slice of natural habitat protection.
The Urbana-based organization is making more of a presence in Coles County in another way, as well.
One of the sites will be the location of its first-ever office headquarters. That’s at the new property added to the surroundings of the the group’s gemstone, Warbler Ridge Conservation Area. One of the sites, a 14-acre stand of floodplain forest, is across Illinois Route 130 from Lake Charleston. The lake is where the planned trail will start and the GPF property will be the location of the trail section that adjoins Bypass Road and leads to Warbler Ridge. Hence the name for the newly acquired site: Warbler Crossing. “This site is a bridge between existing properties and the city of Charleston,” GPF board President Dave Easter said. “It will allow us to eventually have a greenway to connect it. It’s a key acquisition.”
In addition to the woodlands, the property features buildings that will be used for offices and maintenance equipment storage. It’s an “exciting thing” for the 36-year-old organization that first added staff five years ago, GPF Executive Director Sarah Livesay said.
But the focus, of course, will be on the woodlands that allow views of the Embarras River and the historic Blakeman Bridge.
Livesay there are plans to remove invasive, non-native plant species and to make sure the woods’ tree population is healthy. The property will be open to the public but there are no plans to construct hiking trails, she said.
The GPF obtained grants from the Lumpkin Family Foundation in Mattoon and from the Illinois Clean Energy Foundation for the $285,000 purchase price for the property. Livesay said bicycles aren’t allowed on the Warbler Ridge trails but the Warbler Crossing trail section will be an important part of the city’s plan, the timing of which coincided with the GPF’s.
“It came together very organically,” she said. “This opportunity will be our central anchor but it will serve Coles County.”
The wooded, hilly area can treat visitors to spectacular views of the area’s Embarras River valley and bears the deserving name of Warbler Bluffs. Livesay said the GPF agreed to buy the property after a biological inventory showed that it’s “important land” for a conservation efforts.
The group’s ongoing work with bat populations in Coles County will continue at the site with construction of habitat for bat species that live there, she said. The inventory showed that nine of the 13 bat species that live in this part of Illinois inhabit the property.
Easter said there are plans to clear out invasive plant species and do other restoration work at the location. There might be a trail added to the bluff overlooking the river, he said. Livesay said grants from the Illinois Clean Energy Foundation and from Brookfield Energy provided the funds for the $138,000 purchase of the Warbler Bluffs property.
Both sites were purchased from private owners who used them as “get-aways” but, for various, aren’t able to get to them often anymore, she said.