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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007 09:41 pm

Prairie wildfire

Neighbors oppose sanctuary plans, but discussions continue

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Vern LaGesse: “This is a place to use all of the senses you have — feel, smell, touch,”
PHOTO BY AMANDA ROBERT
Untitled Document Vern LaGesse steps into the swaying prairie grasses at the Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary, a sprawling 120-acre refuge for flora and fauna located 12 miles southwest of Springfield near Loami. A burly man with encyclopedic knowledge of nature, LaGesse stretches to pull a yellow compass plant down to eye level and spouts facts about the sunflower lookalike’s vertical leaves and how pioneers used their north-south direction for simple navigation. He swabs a sticky residue from the plant and holds it to his companions’ noses, informing them that the piney-smelling substance was once used by Native Americans for medicine. Looking at home in the substantial grasses, LaGesse continues to provide personal insight into what he calls the greatest “outdoor classroom.”
“This is a place to use all of the senses you have — feel, smell, touch,” LaGesse says. “It’s the only way to experience the prairie.”
In recent years, LaGesse — founder and president of the Friends of the Sangamon Valley — and other local conservationists have helped establish and maintain the prairie grasses and other habitats at the Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary — one of the only of its kind in Illinois, established in 1992 by the estate of Frank and Gladys Nipper. When Frank Nipper died in 1989, he left $200,000 to fund the Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary Trust and stipulated that the annual net income from his remaining farmland should fund the preservation, continuation, improvement, and possible expansion of the sanctuary. Nipper also noted in his will that the sanctuary, located at 9560 Withers Rd., should be open for educational purposes and to naturalists and wildlife groups. The first prairie seed was planted in 1999, and since then conservationists have begun restoring the wetland areas and bottomland forest to reintroduce native species of trees, prairie grass, insects, and animals. LaGesse says thanks to the amount of the funding, they have been able to introduce 150 different species of flowers and plants to the wildlife sanctuary.
“Most state projects are only looking at five to 30 species,” he says. “It gives an idea of how much we are able to do here and what makes this such a great project. We’re able to do a Cadillac job and show diversity.”
But the seemingly straightforward project hit a snag this summer when JPMorgan Bank, the administrator of the Nipper trust, put plans into motion to rezone five acres of the wildlife sanctuary into a public park and construct a three-story visitors’ area on the property, to the dismay of area neighbors.
Jim Park and his wife, Sherry, moved into a home near the Nipper sanctuary in 2000, after they fell in love with the serene area and with the abundance of birds and other wildlife. Now, the couple says, both of these aspects of rural living will be altered if the sanctuary is opened to the general public. “We like the concept of the wildlife refuge out here, and the prairie-grass-restoration component has been quite pretty,” Jim Park says, “but our primary concern is turning it into an open public area where people can wander in and out at their leisure.”
The Parks have joined other neighbors in opposing an open wildlife sanctuary for safety and security reasons. They say that partying teenagers may take advantage of the sanctuary’s open space and remote location, potentially leading to vandalism or fires. “If you have ever seen one of these wild prairie-grass stands, they get very dry in the fall time, and any kind of spark can set them off,” Jim Park says. “You’re talking about 100 acres of highly flammable grasses. That’s a serious problem.”
If a fire burned the prairie grasses, Loami’s volunteer fire department would not be able to respond quickly enough to save the sanctuary and nearby homes from widespread damage, neighbors says. Jim Withers, a local neighbor whose family has lived near the Nipper property for more than 50 years, says that these concerns might already have been alleviated if trustees had initially communicated with the neighbors. He says they didn’t learn about the trust’s plans to open the sanctuary to the public until they received a notice from the Sangamon County zoning board of appeals in May. “They never contacted the neighbors when they wanted to do the zoning change,” Withers says, “so when we went to the zoning meeting to voice our objections we had no idea what was proposed or what was going on.”
Even though the zoning board of appeals recommended that the Sangamon County Board approve the Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary Trust’s conditional-use request for the establishment of a public park, the measure was voted down by 16 votes at its June meeting. District 7 representative Craig Hall says that the main issue was neighbors’ concerns and a lack of sufficient information on the proposal. “We have never zoned anything similar to this,” Hall says. “We want to make sure we go slow on this to make sure we have our i’s dotted and t’s crossed. “I believe the reason why it was turned down the first time was because we didn’t have enough information on it, but, truly, I think we’re getting closer.”

John Wilker, manager of natural-areas programs for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and a member of the visitors’ center planning committee, understands why the neighbors are upset over the communication issue, but he says that the trust is trying to work past its initial mistake. He says that representatives of the trust have worked to ease other concerns with the project, including the neighbors’ idea that visitors will chase off native wildlife. The No. 1 goal of the Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary Trust is to provide habitat for wildlife, he says, and the visitors’-area project will actually help restore birds, butterflies, reptiles, amphibians, and insects to their native prairies and wetlands. “Ultimately our stewardship of the property will result in a more abundance of animals that were there historically,” he says. “I wouldn’t be involved in the project if I didn’t feel that way.”
To answer other concerns voiced by neighbors, Wilker says, the trustees visited wildlife sanctuaries across central Illinois and found no problems with vandalism or out-of-control visitors. Like the other sanctuaries, he says, Nipper will have strict limits on the times that the wildlife sanctuary is open to the public. Although some neighbors have said that Nipper’s will would not permit a visitors’ area, Wilker says that it is a necessity, especially when students need to use restroom facilities or take shelter from inclement weather. “Sangamon County used to be about 70 percent prairie when early settlers came, but now there is no native high-quality prairie remaining,” he says. “What I would like to see this discussion framed as is the public service that this property provides to the citizens of Sangamon County. “They will have this open space where they can go and view this, and students can come and see the property and have a nice facility when they come out there.”
Heather Smith, fiduciary officer for the JPMorgan Trust, says that trustees are willing to compromise with the neighbors and are working out the kinks in the visitors’-area plan. Among other changes, Smith says, the trustees have decided to reduce the three-story visitors’ area to a two-story structure to help ease neighbors’ concerns over privacy and security.
Smith has also scheduled a public meeting between the trustees and the neighbors for 5:30 p.m. tonight, Sept. 6, at the Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary, to work out the project’s terms before the sanctuary trust’s request for conditional-use permit comes up for a revote at Tuesday’s county-board meeting. Withers agrees that the public meeting will be a good first move toward rebuilding the relationship between the two parties. “This is not something that couldn’t be worked out, if they are willing to take the steps,” he says. “It’s a matter of them coming to the table and making compromises. I am willing to compromise if they are.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.
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