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Thursday, Feb. 26, 2004 03:20 pm

Speaking for the trees

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Litchfield touts Lake Lou Yeager (above) in tourism brochures, but not the rare red-pine forest just a few miles south, along Illinois 16.

Environmentalists worry that a portion of a rare red-pine forest near Interstate 55, south of Springfield, will be removed to make way for a new water treatment plant. They've gathered thousands of signatures in opposition to the plan, which is slated for final action next week.

The City of Litchfield's consultant identified the city-owned property known as The Pines as the least-expensive location for the new plant. But Litchfield activist Kelly Robbins says the plan doesn't factor in the immeasurable value of a unique environmental asset that could serve as an important attraction for this Montgomery County community.

"[The Pines] are the only thing like it in Illinois," Robbins says. "They can't be duplicated in my lifetime. They could be a beautiful park for years." She marvels at the wildflowers that grow in the summer and at the mystical feeling one gets in the depth of the forest. As a child, Robbins played in The Pines. Today, adults use the woods for hiking, bird watching, and generally enjoying nature.

Robbins worries that construction of the plant is just a prelude to opening the forested area to other development. "Money and developers are involved -- the elite," Robbins says. "It's kind of scary; it's happening all over."

But Litchfield's elected officials say it isn't so. "I think in the past there was discussion about more development," says Mayor John Dunkirk. "At this time, no."

City Administrator Bob Knabel says that four or five years ago there was discussion of using the area for executive housing or a golf course, but that this city council decided to leave The Pines as it is -- "keep it more pristine."

The site for the new water treatment facility inside The Pines was recommended as the most economical among a group of 12 sites originally considered. "It results in the fewest new pipelines; it is fairly close to the existing plant," says Edward LaBelle, senior project manager with Crawford, Murphy & Tilly engineers. LaBelle serves as consultant to the city for the water treatment project.

LaBelle said that out of roughly 20 acres of red pines, plans are to clear approximately six acres for the water treatment facility and leave the rest. There could be some damage to trees on the edge of the opening for the plant, he concedes.

Red pine is an endangered species in Illinois. Eventually, city officials will consult with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, according to IDNR spokesperson Carol Knowles. IDNR may or may not choose to make recommendations.

"There are no plans that I'm aware of [for further development of The Pines]," LaBelle says. "I would think that once the plant is there [the city] wouldn't use more of the area."

Litchfield Alderman Bill Dees also says that he is not aware of any plans now to further develop the forest area. "I support the engineer and his conclusions, but am open to additional factual information," he says. "Kelly has an opinion not based on fact. We paid a professional engineer to help us through the process."

Robbins looks at brochures that the city tourism department put out and does not see The Pines anywhere -- a sign to her that the city plans to do away with the forest.

Tourism Director Tonya Flannery said one brochure was prepared at the request of the Shoal Creek Conservation Area. A second brochure touting the city includes recreation available at Lake Lou Yeager. She said the city has not had the funding to publish literature on area parks. If it did, the Pine Plantation certainly could be included, depending on the focus, she says.

Robbins collected approximately 2,200 signatures on a petition asking the city not to build within the pine forest, but she is afraid the city council will ignore the petitions when they take the final vote March 4.

Knabel, the city administrator, can't say how much weight the council's likely to give the petitions, but notes many of the signatures are from non-residents. And many of them, he says, may have never even seen The Pines.

Robbins enlisted the help of the local Concerned Citizens for the Environment. Its chairman, Rita Boucher, said her husband helped plant The Pines in the 1920s and '30s. Boucher also feels that the city council is oblivious of the environmentalists' efforts.

"Nobody wakes up," Boucher says. "Every angle you try -- it is so sad." She says she's had to buy ads in the local newspaper to get her views into the paper.

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