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Prairie Oaks Forest Preserve features rare habitat

Kingston resident Chad Poegel and his daughter Ally Poegel, 6, take a walk Saturday at the Prairie Oaks Forest Preserve in Kingston.
Kingston resident Chad Poegel and his daughter Ally Poegel, 6, take a walk Saturday at the Prairie Oaks Forest Preserve in Kingston.

DeKALB – Terry Hannan is used to maintaining wetlands, oak savannas and prairies in the county’s forest preserves, but the county’s newest park features one of the rarest ecosystems in the Midwest.

Hannan, superintendent of the DeKalb County Forest Preserve, said the new 43-acre Prairie Oaks Forest Preserve features multiple habitats with special features such as massive 200-year-old oak trees and a rare fen ecosystem.

A fen is similar to a bog, but with key differences such as receiving its nutrients from groundwater, which allows it to support a much more diverse array of plants and animals, Hannan said. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency identified fens as one of the fastest declining ecosystems, which is why preservation efforts are important to the habitat that takes 10,000 years to form naturally.

“It’s very rich in natural resource value,” Hannan said of the new park. “It is a great habitat for birds, mammals and insects.”

The forest preserve opened late last month.

Hannan said the park, located at 7535 Cherry Valley Road northwest of Kingston, has hiking trails and picnic areas and is great for bird watching, nature photography and environmental educational studies.

One local scientist has already taken advantage of the educational opportunities the park provides.

Nick Barber, an assistant professor in Northern Illinois University’s biology department, took his class to the site to gain a better understanding of the work that goes into the early stages of ecological restoration. He said the park would provide another invaluable opportunity for students.

The forest preserves have provided Barber plenty of personal highlights, including spotting rusty blackbirds – a species that has declined by 90 percent in the past 40 years.

“It’s extremely valuable for the biology department to have access to high quality areas like this,” Barber said. “There is only so much class time, so it is helpful we don’t have to drive an hour and a half to see these areas.”

Julia Fauci, D-DeKalb and chairwoman of the forest preserve committee, said it has been great to see the park open after about a year and a half of team efforts to make it a reality.

Fauci credited the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation for providing a $200,000 grant and The Conservation Foundation for holding the property while the county waited for the grant money. Without the organizations’ help, she said the park land would likely not have been purchased.

“It’s an incredible, beautiful setting with very special features,” Facui said. “We’re extremely lucky to have it.”

The $200,000 grant covered about half the cost of the park, with the other half coming from proceeds from a land acquisition referendum that taxpayers approved in 2006, which generates roughly $700,000 a year for the forest preserve district.

The tax revenue that made these projects possible costs residents about $3.50 a month, accounting for less than 1 percent of their total property tax bill. That revenue stream will expire in 2016 as the property tax-increase referendum included a sunset clause after 10 years.

The money has also gone toward the expansion of the Russell Preserve, which will feature the restored 1835 Miller Ellwood Cabin. There are also multiple bike trail projects in the works. More than 100 acres has been added to forest preserves since the referendum.

As with the other 15 forest preserves in the county, Fauci said Prairie Oaks would be open year-round and encouraged residents to visit the site. Hannan said the area is good for some winter activities such as cross-country skiing.

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