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Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016 12:12 am

Nature’s friends

Vern LaGesse and Friends of Sangamon Valley work to preserve our natural heritage

Vern LaGesse, executive director of Friends of Sangamon Valley.


Wherever you are right now, odds are the world surrounding you is made of human-designed objects. With a stretch of the imagination, perhaps this world can become one of nature, filled with acres of prairie, woods and wetlands, inhabited by creatures of all shapes, sizes, abilities and functions. That world, once the predominant structure of our ecosystem, is now in need of a friend to protect and defend its vanishing and altered landscape. An area organization, Friends of Sangamon Valley, is here to help.

The immediate predecessor of Friends of Sangamon Valley was Friends of Carpenter Park, a group formed years before to fight against the possible construction of a Jumer’s hotel next to the 434-acre Carpenter Park owned by the Springfield Park District. Through working together on different projects, members realized the need for a bigger focus and expanded their reach by becoming Friends of Sangamon Valley in 1998. Now, nearly 20 years later, the nonprofit, charitable organization owns 300 acres of land and manages more than 2,000 more, including private and public spaces in nine counties.

Vern LaGesse, the voice and face of FSV from its inception, continues to lead the group as executive director, working with an elected board of directors and hundreds of dedicated volunteers in a world of nature in need of a friend.

“It’s just amazing how nature is changing. I think what we are doing is just trying to save what was the natural heritage of Illinois, what the state once was,” said LaGesse. “The encyclopedia of nature is what we’re going lose if we don’t save some of these places.”

Saving outdoor habitats is generally what Vern and the organization recognize as its mission, officially explained on the FSV Facebook page as, “dedicated to the preservation of our natural heritage by acquiring, restoring and protecting ecologically significant lands in the Sangamon Valley watershed.” Specifically this includes, Sangamon, Cass, Menard and Macon counties, all touched by the Sangamon River, an area including much of what was considered the original Sangamo area when United States settlers moved into the Illinois wilderness. Along with actual management of outdoor spaces through physical work, the group also engages the community in workshops, cleanups, concert fundraisers, nature preserve tours and other interesting activities.

Vern leads a tour through the Wolf Preserve near Petersburg. Below, the cover of the latest Friends of Sangamon Valley newsletter.
PHOTO BY Chris Young

On the schedule for 2016 are the annual Sangamon River Cleanup on Aug. 27 and a Run for the Prairie 5k/10k race at Centennial Park on Sept. 17. The river cleanup, an unfortunately necessary, ongoing process, coordinates bringing volunteers to certain sections of the river, basically from Springfield to Petersburg, with special attention given to areas near bridges that allow for easy fly-dumping for confused folks who still think throwing something in a river gets rid of the problem. The race, a new event for 2016, sends runners on trails through a restoration area that includes wetlands, prairie, savanna and native tree plantings created by FSV as a part of a new development in Centennial Park completed in August of 2013.

A main concern of FSV in 2016 relates to the growth of acreage managed by the group. Each property comes with unique needs and requirements and basically the tasks reached the point of “just too much to do” for one director and his volunteer workers. Add to this the amount of physical labor involved for Vern in these ongoing projects and recent health issues, including having both knees replaced in the last two years, along with his desire to spend time working on his bucket list (“some nature-related and some not”) and changes in the workload were considered. In alleviating these issues, the organization will soon begin a direct mail Stewardship Campaign to raise funds to hire a part-time, on-call, preserve manager.

Often pictured as a bunch of flower-sniffing treehuggers, railing against the destruction of the environment, members of Friends of Sangamon Valley are no such folks. LaGesse explained that this group rarely takes part in protests, preferring to be known as problem-solvers rather than instigators. Many of the FSV members, including Vern, are avid hunters, anglers and outdoor persons, helping to preserve open wild spaces not just for idealistic environmental causes, but to create and keep areas for hunting, hiking and foraging. This is not a new thing. Many of our great, national conservationists, including President Teddy Roosevelt, huge supporter of our National Park system, were robust outdoorsman.

Vern wades in the wetlands at the Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary by Loami.
PHOTO BY Chris Young

LaGesse talked about the lack of accessible public land to work hunting dogs or spaces where folks can just wander without fear of trespassing. He said most people may believe by looking out a car window driving down a local highway that there are plenty of open spaces. But upon closer inspection they learn the vast majority of that land is privately owned. We can only wonder if Illinois had been settled a century later if the prairie would have received more government protection and we could have thousands of acres of virgin prairie to wonder at and walk in. Now, with only 3,000 acres of prairie left, scattered in small parcels across the state, we should recognize that one of earth’s ecosystems – as complex as a tundra or rainforest – no longer exists on our planet.

Gone is the prairie, but with the help of groups such as Friends of Sangamon Valley, efforts are growing to develop the spaces remaining with solid plans for preservation and restoration. The organization coordinates with a variety of entities, from the private landowner with specific plans for an estate legacy, to public services as familiar as CWLP, requesting help in these low-budget times. What may surprise you is the way in which these nature-based goals are accomplished.

“I really see technology leading the way to where conservation is going. What they are using in agriculture can be applied to land restoration,” LaGesse explains. “I see drones as the future for conservation.”

Drones, a popular machine now used in warfare and package delivery, are replacing the chain saw as Vern’s favorite tool for restoring spaces. The bird’s-eye view offered by the flying machine becomes a huge asset during open land burns to determine how and where a fire is heading. Patterns of vegetation become more obvious and identifiable when viewed from above, allowing more cohesive plans of eradication for invasive plant species and better designs of preservation for native and wanted plants.

LaGesse sees the use of drones as a way to increase his advantage in the fight to reclaim natural areas, not only through observation but in real work. With FSV manned by mostly volunteers, aided by a few paid contractors and Vern’s director job, he dreams of the day when drones can identify unwanted plants using a now available computer platform, then perform the task of removal as well, all without human intervention other than programming. He also talks of the day in the not-so-distant future when robots and drones work together for the betterment of humankind in restoring our native habitats to earlier conditions.

“My dream is I get a phone call and it’s my robot,” he seriously joked. “It says, ‘I need fuel and herbicide and I’ll be at the gate on Tuesday,’ and I’ll be there.”

As these technological advances continue to aid our contemporary situations, nothing beats a group of dedicated volunteers ready to work together to accomplish a goal. Every Tuesday several FSV workers meet in Chatham and head to the CWLP-owned Glenwood Woods. There Vern and the crew cut, spray, pull and otherwise remove unwanted vegetation to allow the habitat to return to what it once was before changes brought by recent actions of human intervention. Equipped with battery-powered chainsaws, among other tools of the trade, these mostly retired workers use the time to socialize, work out of doors and accomplish good for the community.

In an example of the healthy interaction between public institutions and Friends of Sangamon Valley, the FSV Glenwood Woods restoration is supported by a grant from Sangamon County’s Soil and Water Conservation District, yet the woods is actually owned by City Water, Light and Power. The cleanup of the Glenwood area helps prevent erosion, part of the SWCD’s function, and by doing that, helps keep silt out of Lake Springfield, part of the work of CWLP. Other areas owned and managed by CWLP and the SWCD are currently aided in management by FSV, with more spaces possibly in the works. LaGesse explained that most communities of our size already have a forest preservation district or similar organization in place, but Sangamon County lacks a public entity of this type. Bridging the gap and filling a void between public and private organizations with like-minded goals has became a vital part of the group’s work.

In addition to partnering with public institutions, FSV also maintains private acreage owned by individuals or institutions under contract for maintenance and restoration. FSV members worked at Adams Wildlife Sanctuary on Clear Lake Avenue, clearing invasive and exotic plants. Here Vern described how seeds of wildflowers, already in the ground from seasons past, sprouted again after honeysuckle and winter creeper, two extremely aggressive non-native plants, were cleared from the ground cover. In 2013, the group completed an extensive restoration project of wetlands and prairie at Centennial Park for the Springfield Park District.

Most of the 300 acres now owned directly by FSV came through estate donations and others were purchased outright by the group. The Boyle Woods in Cass County and the Wolf Preserve near Petersburg are beautiful, wild places, now mostly returned to their natural habitat of a generation ago. But without a doubt, the crown jewel of Friends of Sangamon Valley is the Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary, about two miles southeast of Loami.

Just 15 years ago this 120-acre preserve was simply a row-cropped field like much of central Illinois. Now the restored land hosts a tallgrass prairie and a wetland, plus a permanent building housing a nature center used for educational purposes and available for social outings. There is also acreage set aside for agricultural purposes designated to pay for continued maintenance of the preserve.

Frank and Gladys Nipper, owners and farmers of the land, placed a bequest in their will to FSV to create the legacy of a prairie-based, nature preserve. After Frank died in 1989, the estate established the preserve in 1992. Gladys oversaw the land trust until she died in 1995. After some battles with skeptical farmer neighbors concerned about “the weeds” being planted, and a few skirmishes with others connected to the family, the restoration began. The transformation today is striking.

In 15 years this landscape has changed incredibly. Plants, insects, birds and animals are prevalent in numbers nonexistent in the row crop days and much greater than if the land were allowed to “go back to nature” without the planned guidance of intentional plantings and terrain stewardship. The Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary Facebook page is full of shots from trail cameras and private Facebook pages from sanctuary visitors showing spectacular photos of butterflies hanging on prairie flowers and crescent moons through bluestem silhouettes, a murder of crows gathering and hawks and owls, turtles and crawfish. Plus everyone always hopes for a glimpse of the famed and fleeting “white” albino deer that visits the property.

“Those are the things that are letting me know I’m doing the right thing, these cues from nature,” Vern said. “Bringing back the right balance and actually seeing what can happen when it’s done. We operate by doing and that creates solutions.”

As FSV heads toward 20 years of service, Vern and company, including longtime supporter and current president (and well known area artist) Bill Crook, along with officers, Vice President Dick Poynter, Treasurer Kate Hawkes and Secretary Charlene Falco, plus eight board members and hundreds of members, look to a strong future. As more and more citizens realize the bounty of nature is not just in the commercial value of a landscape, but as a way to be more human in relation to our environment, Friends of Sangamon Valley will grow in significance.

What began as a dream to save a few acres evolved into a developing movement directly involving hundreds of people and intrinsically affecting countless beings through the ages to come. What lies ahead is definitely a good deal of work to continue with the mission of FSV, but an undercurrent beneath the work carries a deeper truth that needs to be recognized. Vern sees it very clearly is his day-to-day interaction with the natural worlds.

“We are at a critical point where nature is going to evolve with us or without us. That part of it is frightening,” LaGesse said. “I spent my lifetime being part of these places and trying to understand their secret knowledge. I am learning so much every year. That’s what keeps me going.”

To become a member, sign up for the newsletter, volunteer your time or donate property, money, goods or tools to Friends of Sangamon Valley, please contact the organization at P.O. Box 13352 Springfield, IL 62791 or visit the FSV Facebook page or email vlagesse@fosv.org. or call Vern at 217-525-1410. Monthly board meetings are held the first Thursday of every month at 6:45 p.m. at the Adams Wildlife Sanctuary.

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