FRANKLIN GROVE – Restoration efforts at Franklin Creek State Natural Area that include clearing certain trees and growing prairie have a group of horse riding enthusiasts and others raising concerns about aesthetics and making the trails less “user friendly.”
This is one of the most diverse woodlands in Lee County; the diversity of trees makes it beautiful.”— Marge Dixon, horse rider and parkgoer for 35 years
Earlier this year, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Middle Rock Conservation Partners and The Nature Conservancy cleared an area near the horse trails to get rid of what they describe as “weedy” trees of mostly box elder and some cherry, elm and honey locust. They then planted a mix of more than 100 different wildflowers and grasses.
“At FCNA, open grown oaks are crowded with trees that are not oak,” according to project details from Middle Rock. “Thinning the small trees serves oak regeneration and wildflower recovery, which benefits wildlife.”
According to signage at the park:
“This will create a diverse habitat for all kinds of wildlife and support the rare oak woodland next to it. The oak woodland needs more sunlight, increased air movement and occasional prescribed fire.”
The projects are meant to promote the oak-hickory forest in the park and follow state conservation goals of protecting species in greatest need of conservation, site superintendent Matt Hoogerwerf said.
“The recent habitat projects are designed to restore Franklin Creek State Natural Area, identified as a high-priority focus area, to an oak-hickory-dominated upland forest, as set forth in the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan,” he said. “The Wildlife Action Plan, created in 2005 and updated in 2015 with the help from over 100 partners in conservation, attempts to ‘assess the health of Illinois’ wildlife and supporting habitats, identify the problems they face and, most importantly, outline the strategies and actions needed to conserve them over the long term.’”
Marge Dixon, a horse rider and member of the Franklin Creek Horsecamp and Trails group, said she has been using the trails for 35 years, and the trees provided not only shade near the trails but also beautiful scenery.
Concerned about recent and future plans for tree clearing and increased prairie, Dixon hosted a meeting at the park at the end of May and said about 40 or 50 people attended.
“This is one of the most diverse woodlands in Lee County; the diversity of trees makes it beautiful,” Dixon said. “There’s got to be some kind of compromise.”
She said she wants people’s concerns to be heard and to find a way to work with officials to ease off the clearings.
Jim Lillyman, chairman of the Franklin Creek Conservation Association, and John Nicholson, the organization’s co-chairman, joined Dixon and other area residents Wednesday in asking state Rep. Brad Fritts, R-Dixon, to intervene in plans to remove further trees along the trails.
Nicholson said the area wasn’t a prairie historically, and it has been a recreation area for local residents, created by volunteers who built shelters and trails.
“It wasn’t a prairie unless you go back 20,000 years,” he said.
The park includes 12 miles of equestrian trails and camping only for those using the equestrian trails.
“We use that area. We should have some voice,” said Jim Merrell, a horse rider who lives west of Polo. “The grasslands are beautiful, and what they are doing north of Naylor Road is fine. But not many people can get in to see it on horses or by walking.”
“We have a premiere horse facility that people come from all over to enjoy,” David Dixon said.
Franklin Creek State Natural Area is located in Lee County, northwest of the village of Franklin Grove and east of Dixon. Franklin Creek flows throughout the park, which spans about 900 acres and includes a 198-acre nature preserve.
The mill spring provided water power for the largest grist mill in Lee County, constructed in 1847.
It also is home to the Franklin Creek Grist Mill, which is leased to the Franklin Creek Conservation Association and owned by the IDNR.
Franklin Creek Conservation Association members are the stewards of the grist mill and use it as a Welcome and Education Center, hosting activities and events as well as temporary and permanent exhibits.
Lillyman said the FCCA advocates for all users of the park and will try to keep it as a “people’s park.”
Fritts said he would seek additional information from everyone involved in the project to see if a compromise could be reached. He also said he plans to ride horses at the site soon.
Fritts’ visit to Franklin Grove marked the first day of his 2023 Summer Tour that includes traveling office hours and coffee and conversation events held on alternating weeks until Aug. 30.