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Thursday, April 26, 2012 04:38 am

Nature’s friends

Land preservation group continues to grow

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Vern LaGesse, the executive director of the Friends of the Sangamon Valley.
PHOTOS BY HARV KOPLO

When the Friends of the Sangamon Valley – formerly known as the Friends of Carpenter Park – was established in 1998, the organization began by targeting one piece of land to preserve.

The target was eight acres of land that was to be developed for a hotel, located at the 322-acre Carpenter Park north of Springfield.

Vern LaGesse, executive director of Friends of the Sangamon Valley, said the group had heard there were conversations going on about a developer building a hotel on the land, so the members of FOSV asked the developer how much it would cost them to buy the eight acres from him.

“They wanted $8 a square foot,” LaGesse said. “In total, it would have cost us like a million and a half bucks.”

LaGesse, while chuckling, said the FOSV was trying to buy from a “really unwilling seller” and eventually the FOSV realized they wouldn’t be able to purchase the land.

The hotel was never built on the eight acres of Carpenter Park, but the land is still for sale at the original asking price.

But from this momentary monetary setback came a much larger idea.

LaGesse said that incident made the group realize the need for more than one piece of land to focus on preserving. A few years later, the group of volunteers then agreed to change the name of the organization to Friends of Sangamon Valley to reflect a wider approach to land preservation.

FOSV is a nonprofit conservation organization that works with landowners and local governments in Sangamon County to acquire, restore and preserve land areas in Logan, Menard, Mason, Cass and Sangamon counties, which are along the Sangamon River watershed.

FOSV owns 141 acres and manages more than 2,000 acres of municipal or privately owned land. FOSV has worked closely with the Springfield Park District on projects such as Washington Park. FOSV also worked on the New Salem Historic Site and the Adams Wildlife Sanctuary. FOSV began with eight board members and 100 volunteers in 1998, but currently has about 350 volunteer members, with LaGesse working part-time as the only employee.    

LaGesse said funding for the organization comes from donations and membership fees, which are $20 for students, $25 for an individual and $40 for a family. The organization is also funded by “private investors.” Funding covers various items including tools, fuel, herbicides and burning equipment.

LaGesse said that while the organization focuses on preserving and maintaining local landscapes, it also educates the volunteers through the concept that “connecting people to natural landscapes is through personal experiences.”

“We are seeing multiple generations of people acting scared to go out into the woods or even to go exploring outside,” LaGesse said. “We feel it is very important for people to get connected back to the land.”

LaGesse said FOSV holds four to six educational workshops a year at Adams Wildlife Sanctuary. FOSV also gives tours during the spring and fall season to students of local school districts, where the students get to learn about various forms of plants and nature while they walk through wooded areas.

“Last year, we took about 900 kids total on tours of various wooded areas,” LaGesse said. “It’s impressive that you have kids, parents and teachers worrying that everything is poison ivy or West Nile (virus). Along the way, everyone involved gets to have a great experience because we teach everyone what certain vines are or what a stinging nettle is.”

In addition to educating volunteers, LaGesse said the organization also provides an opportunity for Sangamon County residents to get outdoors and experience natural lands that haven’t been developed yet.

“We are in a rural county and a lot of people say ‘there are lots of open spaces, but can I actually go walk on that property?’ Then they’re told no,” LaGesse said. “If I’m a sportsman in Springfield, I have to go outside of the county to have a public outdoor experience.”

FOSV is currently looking into getting involved with the proposed Hunter Lake, where LaGesse said almost 9,000 acres have already been purchased by the city of Springfield.

Contact Neil Schneider at nschneider@illinoistimes.com.

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