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Thursday, Oct. 7, 2004 12:09 pm

Taking stock

The fate of the state's natural resources increasingly depends on committed volunteers such as Vern LaGesse

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Cover photo by Ginny Lee

A local volunteer-based environmental group has released what is widely being hailed as the most comprehensive inventory of natural areas ever compiled in central Illinois.

Vern LaGesse, president and founder of Friends of the Sangamon Valley, oversaw the nearly three-year project, which entailed walking or canoeing virtually every inch of forest, prairie, and wetland in Sangamon County.

His findings -- represented on more than 300 giant aerial maps -- will be incorporated into the early stages of the planning process used to advise the Springfield City Council and Sangamon County Board on new development.

It replaces a broader but outdated natural-areas inventory prepared by the state more than a quarter-century ago.

"There's never been this extensive an inventory done in the history of Sangamon County," says Shawn Wilcockson, ecosystem administrator for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "It will be a tremendous tool for community planners in determining the value of our natural resources."

Local officials have long recognized the need for a more detailed and current inventory of natural areas to guide development.

During the last decade, the city of Springfield published a report calling for such an inventory, and the county produced a study of its own with a host of other environmental initiatives. But these ambitious proposals carried no legal authority, and most of the policy recommendations were never implemented.

"There's no budget," explains LaGesse. "The city and county say a whole lot but are doing nothing to achieve those actions."

LaGesse's report arrives during an increasingly dark age for proponents of natural-areas conservation and management during which DNR has hacked away at personnel and programs.

Another round of layoffs at DNR is planned for next Friday, and director Joel Brunsvold tells Illinois Times that more heads will roll as soon as next month.

"It's clear to me this administration doesn't give a whit about natural-resources management and protection," says Dr. Brian Anderson, who two months ago resigned in frustration from his post as director of DNR's Office of Resource Conservation.

Now chairman of the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences at Lincoln Land Community College, Anderson says that citizen groups have become critical in protecting the state's natural heritage:

"The conservation ethic of grassroots groups like Vern's is ensuring the survival of natural resources in Illinois."

Getting property owners to cooperate

At 42, LaGesse sports a graying goatee, bushy sideburns, and long, unkempt hair that spills over his shirt collar. His vast knowledge impresses but never intimidates. He smiles easily, and his passion for the outdoors, like his booming laugh, is infectious.

Raised in Bourbonnais, Ill., LaGesse worked heavy construction in the Chicago area for 12 years. LaGesse moved to Springfield in 1997 after landing a gig in Petersburg as site manager for a subdivision. He oversees the conservation of more than 100 acres of woodland and prairie, and maintains trails and bridges. Active in The Nature Conservancy, he owns a consulting company, LaGesse & Associates, and contributes to conservation-oriented publications, including the Illinois Steward, published by the University of Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. His well-known expertise in ecological research and restoration has landed him contracts with many state agencies.

LaGesse attributes much of his knowledge to mentorships and time he spent as a child idling along the Kankakee River.

"I only took three classes in college," he says, "but I work with a lot of Ph.D.s."

Some of these doctors and other leading conservationists came to the Lincoln Library last week to hear LaGesse give his first public presentation of the natural-areas inventory he completed in late July.

Wearing canvas sneakers and wrinkled clothes, LaGesse tells the audience he had two expectations when he began the monumental task of scouting all the county's natural areas: first, that he would find nothing of value outside the Carpenter Park Nature Preserve; and second, that private landowners would prohibit him from surveying their properties.

Neither expectation came true.

For laughs, during a PowerPoint presentation he screens a photo of a handmade sign, posted at the edge of one lot: "Private Property, No Parking, No Looking, No Sitting, No Nothing, Leave."

In fact, of the more than 200 landowners he approached, just three refused him access to their property. LaGesse figured he would be shooed away because he did not represent a government agency. He was tickled to find that the opposite was true.

Before contacting landowners, LaGesse had to determine who owned what. He spent long hours at the office of the Sangamon County Supervisor of Assessments, scanning detailed aerial county maps that delineate property lines for tax purposes.

For LaGesse's project, the county donated 500 of these black-and-white Sidwell maps, which measure 24 by 36 inches and represent one-by-two-mile sections.

The completed inventory includes 309 maps, copies of which have been distributed to the mayor's office, city aldermen, county planners, the Springfield Park District, and DNR.

After contacting landowners by telephone or mail, LaGesse and his staff of four spent the next year and a half, from May 2002 through November 2003, surveying the sites.

"It was an overwhelming concept when I first started," says Bill Crook, a Sierra Club board member who teaches art appreciation at Lincoln Land Community College.

A Sangamon County native, Crook says he was elated to learn of so many unique areas he never knew existed. Among his favorite finds was a small patch of rare orchids in an area near the Sangamon Valley Landfill.

But the work wasn't always rosy.

"I would get stuck in these horrible thorny areas, in 95-degree heat, getting bit by chiggers," Crook says. "There were days like that, too."

Surprisingly, the group identified more than 300 acres of prairie -- which once dominated Illinois on lands now used mostly for farming. Sensitive and diverse prairie-plant species were mostly found along rail lines.

LaGesse, who determined that timber is the county's largest remaining resource, found that Carpenter Park and the Sangamon County Conservation Area harbor some of the best-protected black- and white-oak trees.

But several thousand acres of the dry upland forest that has grown for centuries were found to be in need of restoration. In judging the quality of these areas, LaGesse used the same simple grading system employed by DNR.

LaGesse plans to begin the next phase of the inventory project this fall, informing about 40 private landowners that they own, perhaps unknowingly, some of the most ecologically unique and valuable properties in the county.

He hopes to work one on one with these landowners to help them conserve and manage their estates.

"People love their property," he says. "It gives them validity for loving their property when we tell them what's rare about it."

An aid to local planning efforts

Don't call LaGesse a tree-hugger. He winces at the thought that his scientific research could be reduced to do-gooder activism.

"I am not anti-development," he says.

Yet he acknowledges that what he calls the "grueling, monumental" task of compiling a county-wide natural-areas inventory was, indeed, inspired by protest.

Like many others who opposed the development of Becker Woods, LaGesse becomes wistful as he remembers the natural refuge that once existed at the otherwise busy intersection of Chatham Road and Lawrence Avenue.

"Becker Woods could have been a small wildlife trail," he says. "There's not that much acreage, but it doesn't take much to find a spot of solitude."

The city greenlighted construction of the exclusive Waterford Place subdivision in 2000, and many of the stately oak trees and other old-growth timber that once characterized the area have since died.

Nearby homeowners and conservationists protested the development. But, says LaGesse, county planners claimed that they weren't aware that Becker Woods contained valuable natural resources.

"That is an excuse," he says, "that we cannot stand for, ever again."

The nonprofit group that LaGesse heads, Friends of the Sangamon Valley, grew out of another grassroots organization, called Friends of Carpenter Park, which was formed in 1999 with the aim of purchasing a nine-acre swath of woodland that runs between Business Route 55 and the nature preserve. The land proved too expensive and is still for sale.

The group's name change signaled a broadening scope. What began as a disorganized ragtag gang of about a dozen nature lovers has flourished into a major player spearheading local conservation efforts.

The Friends, as the group is called, has received three state grants -- including $27,050 from DNR to fund the inventory and, more recently, $31,050 to reforest 55 acres of floodplain fields in Gurgens Park.

The Friends operates a land trust, so far with holdings of 9.4 acres located in Menard County; with the acquisition of other properties being negotiated.

And the group -- which sponsors plantings, cleanups, tours, and lectures -- boasts a mailing list that has swelled to 800. Scores of volunteers are active in projects, at times donating hours of service as matching funds for state grants.

"It took about five or six years to build these partnerships," says LaGesse. "Now, when there's an environmental question at the city or county level, they call me."

Complementing the natural-areas inventory, LaGesse provides a report that contrasts conservation efforts made in Sangamon County with those in 20 other Illinois counties with similarly sized populations. His findings reveal that Sangamon County has one of the state's weakest infrastructures in terms of managing natural areas.

Most counties he examined -- including Champaign and Macon -- have forest-preserve or conservation districts charged with restoring and maintaining natural areas. Sangamon County does not.

All of the areas except Sangamon County have environmental-management staffs; Springfield, he writes, is the only community he examined that relies solely on state grants for open-space acquisition.

Local officials are well aware of these lapses.

In September 1997, the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission -- which makes recommendations for all development plans that go before the City Council and County Board -- prepared a detailed plan for the promotion of nature trails and greenways.

The report was titled Sangamon County Greenspaces. Its ominous subhead: Lost Opportunities or Corridors to the Future? At a cost of some $30,000, the final report contained color-coded maps, digital photographs, and informative charts.

The plan set forth in Greenspaces made several recommendations: acquisition of land for trails, establishment of greenways to link parks and subdivisions throughout the county, development of "bike/hike corridors" connecting downtown Springfield to the Lincoln Tomb.

But the commission lacked a legal mandate.

"LaGesse's inventory would make it much easier to implement the greenwaysplan," says DNR restoration ecologist John Wilker. "So far the county has let it gather dust on a shelf."

Senior county planner Susan Poludniak confirms that neither the city nor the county formally adopted Greenspaces, though its trails recommendations have been incorporated into Springfield's comprehensive land-use plan.

In November 2001, the city of Springfield offered its own wish list for the management of natural resources. The report, titled A Guide to the Future of Springfield's Environment, was part of the Springfield Strategy 2020 Plan authorized by former Mayor Karen Hasara.

One of the report's proposals was to create "a comprehensive inventory" of the city's natural resources. Another recommendation was to identify "rare and high quality natural resources areas on both public and private land."

Like the county's plan, the city's 2020 report carried no legal authority, and few, if any, of its policy recommendations were implemented.

LaGesse's copy of the Springfield 2020 report contains notes in the margins, scrawled in black ink. It is a checklist of all the proposals made by the city that the Friends has completed on its behalf -- without any funding from city coffers.

"We've done more for conservation in the county than any group that came before us, and it didn't cost the city a dime," he says. "Our challenge is, how can we find a solution and not be a burden?"

And this, he says, is what separates his group from so-called tree-huggers.

"When you're protesting, or you're labeled an environmentalist, people put a wall up and shut you out immediately," he says. "We're not protesters, we're problem-solvers."

The state abandons its responsibility

After inheriting a huge debt, Gov. Rod Blagojevich authorized state department heads to swing a heavy ax. He calls it "streamlining." His victims have another word for it: unemployment.

Many state agencies are reeling from budget cuts and layoffs, and Blagojevich this week began phase two of a job-buyout program intended to shrink the public payroll.

DNR, which oversees hunting and fishing activities in addition to natural-areas conservation, is one of the hardest-hit agencies. Its fiscal year 2005 budget is $188.8 million. That's a whopping $37.7 million -- or 16.6 percent -- less than the $226.5 million budgeted three years earlier.

Since 2002, as a result of layoffs and retirements, the number of DNR employees has been reduced from 2,116 to 1,827, a cut of nearly14 percent, according to a spokesman. Last month, 38 pink slips were handed out, nearly all of which wiped out positions at DNR headquarters, located on the state fairgrounds.

DNR director Brunsvold says the worst is not over.

"There's a head count that we have to get to," he says. "This month or in November, there will be more layoffs.

"No timeline has been given yet," he adds. "I don't know what agencies or programs will be affected."

Some critics of DNR say there has been a clear shift in priorities under Brunsvold, a former state legislator appointed by Blagojevich in April 2003 to run the department.

"The DNR is focusing on recreational sports, period," says Bill Donels, a landscape architect who recently retired from DNR after 22 years as manager of the state trails program. "Anything to do with nonlicensed areas is on the back back burner."

DNR's mission, says Brunsvold, is to balance recreation and preservation. But, he admits, this mission is being compromised. "Economics are involved here," says Brunsvold. "It's because recreation tends to generate money and natural areas don't."

A DNR spokesman was unable to provide information detailing specific programs that were cut and the agencies most heavily affected.

Some point to the state's recent investment of $29 million in pork-barrel spending to fund a shooting range near Sparta as evidence of DNR's new priorities.

Brunsvold, who expects the new complex to provide an annual economic boost of $50 million, rejects this assertion. "If the money had not gone for that," he says, "it would not go to anything."

Blagojevich's original budget proposal, introduced this past spring, called for the elimination of 48 biologists and Nature Preserves Commission staff members.

It also unsuccessfully sought to dismantle, for one year, a pair of major funding programs used to protect open space, buy high-quality natural areas, and research endangered species.

"That kind of attitude says it all," says Guy Sternberg, a renowned oaks specialist and Petersburg resident who recently retired from DNR after 32 years. "Unless there was public outcry, they would have abolished all attempts to protect natural areas."

The grant program that funded LaGesse's county-wide natural-areas inventory has also been slashed by millions of dollars. LaGesse, who depends on such grants and has received contracts from the department, declines to comment on its current status.

Many current DNR employees were contacted for this article, but none was willing to discuss the looming layoffs.

Donels and Sternberg both say they keep in contact with several former colleagues at DNR who complain of poor morale and an atmosphere of fear. Many of the state's premier biologists and natural-heritage specialists, they say, have already jumped ship or are seeking employment elsewhere.

"People who work for DNR certainly don't want to raise a red flag," says Donels, "and I can't blame them."

Communicating a sense of urgency

On a crisp Saturday morning, about 15 people dressed in flannels and boots make their way to the stone shelter at Carpenter Park, where LaGesse is about to lead a tour. They huddle in a small square of sunlight as he recalls earlier plans to level the 400-acre preserve for a golf course.

Entering the forest along one of its trails, LaGesse observes the change in vegetation leading from the upland hillside down to the Sangamon River valley. He stops along the way to point out a gentle three-foot slope that marks a burial ground some 3,000 years old.

LaGesse talks about the woodpeckers that live in the forest's dead oaks and acknowledges a flock of migratory birds just passing through. He crumples the leaf from a spicebush to reveal its scent, then shakes a skinny pawpaw tree and waits for its green fruit to fall, like coconuts from a palm.

He singles out a massive 435-year-old white oak -- Illinois' state tree and Carpenter Park's eldest. "It saw buffalo; it saw the Indian," he says. "Man, the story it could tell."

LaGesse's reverence for nature and the philosophy that guides his conservation efforts are ultimately rooted in history. Through restoration and management, he seeks to glimpse what existed on these lands centuries ago, when some of the oldest trees were saplings or had yet to sprout.

During the tour he grabs the branch of a honeysuckle tree, covered in berries, and explains the importance of uprooting it before it spreads and dominates the forest's understory. Open lands must be manipulated, he says, as Native Americans did for thousands of years, by clearing brush and removing non-native species.

"Some people think that leaving the land alone is the best thing to do," he says. "I'm a firm disbeliever in that."

Kent Massie, a landscape architect involved in the restoration of the Lincoln Memorial Garden, shares this view. Massie says it remains to be seen whether city and county planners will use LaGesse's inventory, but he hopes that it will at least increase awareness of the natural beauty that exists in central Illinois.

"The Sangamon River is looked at as the sewer for Springfield," says Massie, "but people would be amazed at it beauty, its character. In reality, it is an extremely valuable resource we have, and we should be taking care of that much more."

LaGesse's inventory presents a snapshot of the long, rich history of Sangamon County's natural areas. Like the inventory produced by the state in the late 1970s, it, too, will become a relic, irrelevant to city and county planners, unless it is updated every few years.

DNR director Brunsvold says he has plans to renew the statewide natural-areas inventory, but, he acknowledges, the cash-starved state is unlikely to fund such a project for many years.

In the meantime, LaGesse tries through his advocacy efforts to communicate a sense of urgency that appears not to exist at the city, county, or state level.

During the tour LaGesse mentions a scientist from Decatur who surveyed Carpenter Park in the 1970s and found 275 plant species. LaGesse, who has more recently conducted his own count, says, "I've lost 100 species in 25 years."

LaGesse feels an ownership of natural areas that he wants other people to share. That sense of possession, accomplishment, and pride, he says, can be cultivated in ways as simple as planting a tree.

"It's almost spiritual to me," he says, "to be able to transform the land."

The Inventory of Sangamon County Natural Areas is available for public viewing at the Sangamon Valley Collection at the Lincoln Library.

Friends of the Sangamon Valley holds its fall fundraiser from noon-3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 17, at the Fraase Farm, 782 Farmingdale Rd. The event includes a silent auction, jazz music, and hors d'oeuvres. Tickets are $25. For information, 525-1410 .

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