GRAND DETOUR — Descendants of Samuel and Edna Hill gathered Monday at the edge of 92 acres of land that had been in their family for generations to celebrate its transition to a public preservation site.
In 2019, family members sold the parcel – located south of Grand Detour, just off Illinois Route 2 – to Middle Rock Conservation Partners, allowing for the land’s ecological restoration. On Monday, the site was official dedicated as the Samuel & Edna Hill Preservation Site.
“I’m so glad I contacted you the second time,” Carol Wilson, the Hills granddaughter, told MRCP Director Deb Carey during the event.
“So am I,” Carey replied.
“It was definitely an answer to my prayers, and I just want to thank you for everything,” Wilson said. “MRCP for all the work that they do and have done. It’s just, it’s really great.”
MRCP is a volunteer-run 501(c)(3) not-for-profit that works in Lee and Ogle counties and southeastern Whiteside County to protect habitat and provide stewardship for species in greatest need of conservation.
When the not-for-profit first was organizing, members debated how far they would go, MRCP President Austin Webb said. Would they go cut brush and do prescribed burns and leave it at that, or would they do more?
“Deb (Carey), of course, was like, ‘No. We need to make sure we can protect land also,” Webb said, slamming his fist on a table in mock imitation of Carey. “And we were like, ‘I don’t know, maybe,’ and her and Cody (Considine, MRCP vice president) said, ‘Leave it in there! We have to be able to do that because we never know what opportunity might present itself.’”
The opportunity to purchase the 92-acre site with a mostly savanna-type habitat came in July 2019, he said. MRCP didn’t have any money, and so applied for a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation.
Savanna habitats are even more rare than original prairie habitats – and there’s only one-tenth of 1% of original prairie left in Illinois, Webb said.
Many of the species present on the preservation site were identified by Cassandra Rogers in the 1980s. At the time, she was an ecologist for the Illinois Department of Transportation. Her job was to examine the proposed highway projects and look for natural resources and potential impacts on them.
When the project to reconstruct the portion of Illinois Route 2 that is the Grand Detour bridge came up, Rogers’ team was on it.
“They wanted to move the bridge over and build the new bridge next to the existing bridge so they could keep Route 2 open to traffic during construction,” she said.
Through surveys, Rogers discovered yellow birch trees – an endangered species – on the west side. So they turned to the east, but found some yellow birch there as well, she said.
“When I climbed through the brush to get up into this property … the first thing I saw was the St. Peter Sandstone outcrop and I knew this was a special habitat,” Rogers said. “Because St. Peter Sandstone only comes to the surface in a few places in Illinois and this is the area where it does.
“So then when we were looking around, there were a lot of plants like shooting stars and bird foot violet and puccoons and club moss and a lot of different plants that were indicative of a savanna, a prairie-type habitat.”
Rogers’ team of engineers found a creative way protect the area by designing the retaining wall that’s there today.
The preservation site eventually will be open to the public for hiking, birding and passive recreation, but the exact date is uncertain, Webb said.
“We’re not like, ‘Oh, we’re private owners and whatever.’ It belongs to everybody,” he said. “This is now a piece of land that really does belong to anyone who wants to go out there and hike on it. And I’m not saying pick flowers off it, do whatever you want, but it’s now a part of the community.”