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Wednesday, June 10, 2009 09:15 am

Restoring Adams Wildlife Sanctuary

A plan to attract birds and people to this 40-acre refuge on Springfields east side

Illinois Audubon Society executive director Tom Clay and Friends of the Sangamon Valley president Vern LaGesse explore the 12-acre addition at Adams Wildlife Sanctuary.

Green doesn’t always mean good.

That’s the message that Tom Clay, the executive director of the Illinois Audubon Society, and Vern LaGesse, an ecological restorationist and president of the Friends of the Sangamon Valley, want to send with their new plan to revamp Adams Wildlife Sanctuary.

The 40-acre preserve, nestled between Clear Lake and Forrest avenues on the city’s east side, has largely been neglected. Aggressive exotic species like garlic mustard, an herb with heart-shaped leaves that smells like garlic, and tree of heaven, a deciduous tree with clusters of tiny, yellow-green flowers, have invaded its grounds and forced out native vegetation. As the sanctuary’s American elm, black walnut and white oak trees disappear, so do the native animal species that depend on their foliage and food.

LaGesse and his organization drive out invasive greenery and promote the growth of Illinois’ native species in natural areas like Revis Hill Prairie in Mason County. He’s helped preserve parts of Washington and Carpenter parks, and now he’s signed up to help the Illinois Audubon Society bring out the best in its Springfield refuge.

The Illinois Audubon Society, the state’s oldest conservation organization and owner of Adams Wildlife Sanctuary, moved into the site’s Margery Adams home in November. Now, with the help of federal grant monies and the acquisition of additional land, the society hopes to breathe new life into the unkempt sanctuary.

LaGesse expects the restoration project to not only attract more birds and animals to the green oasis, but also more visitors wanting to learn about the importance of native species.

The society will eventually replace its sign with one that’s larger and more visible to passers-by.

“If you look in the region of outdoor education, Lincoln Memorial Gardens is about the only other opportunity, and it’s out there,” he says. “It’s not in the town, and it’s definitely not on the east side of the town. This just has such potential for being an asset in the community.”

Clay started with the Illinois Audubon Society at the end of March 2006. On his first day, he drove from Springfield to Danville, where the society’s office was then located. He helped load 110 years of the organization’s history into moving trucks and headed back to the capital city. The society temporarily moved in with the Illinois Association of Park Districts on Monroe Street, intending to reconfigure the Margery Adams home into a permanent headquarters.

Margery Adams was born in 1897 and lived with her family on the 28-acre parcel of land that now sits between Clear Lake and Forrest avenues. Her grandparents had purchased the property in the 1860s; it was later cultivated into a farm, orchard and vineyard. After the 1930s, the family stopped maintaining the property and let nature run wild.

Adams never married and lived all 86 years of her life on the property. When she died in 1983, she donated the land and her home to the Illinois Audubon Society. An anonymous donor recently gave the society 12 adjacent acres, bringing the property’s total to 40 acres.

The society, managed by two full-time and one part-time employee, first wanted to replace the Margery Adams home with a larger, more energy-efficient building. But Springfield’s historic preservation community criticized the plan, arguing that the home, built it 1857 during the Lincoln era, should be saved.

The society consented and incorporated the home into its plans, raising the project cost from $350,000 to more than $750,000. Clay’s main tasks became fundraising and overseeing construction.

The Illinois Audubon Society moved into the Margery Adams home at Adams Wildlife Sanctuary last November. The society added nearly 4,000 square feet of classroom and office space to the 1857 structure.

The Illinois Audubon Society dedicated its new headquarters last September. The organization added nearly 4,000 square feet of office and classroom space to Margery Adams’ original four-room home. A geothermal heating system and other green features were integrated into the building, qualifying it for the U.S. Green Building Council’s silver Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design status.

Clay succeeded in housing his organization. Now he wants to address its mission: preserving Illinois’ native plants and animals and their habitats.

“We always got hung up on the structure instead of looking out into the property,” Clay says. “Now that we’ve taken care of this, we can focus on out there.”

Vern Kleen, a Springfield native, the president of the Springfield Audubon Society and a retired avian ecologist with Illinois Department of Natural Resources, plays a very important role at the sanctuary.

Last fall he conducted the site’s first bird banding in 19 years. During this process, he uses thin mist nets to catch migratory birds. He then measures and weighs them, checks if they’re male or female, affixes a band to their leg and releases them. In just a three-month period, he identified 69 different species and 1,291 total birds in Margery Adams’ woods.

The Illinois Audubon Society included Kleen’s data in its application for the federal landowner incentive program (LIP), which is funded by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and implemented by DNR and local soil and water conservation districts. To qualify for assistance, the society needed to prove that at least five species in greatest need of conservation inhabited the sanctuary; Kleen showed nine, including the yellow-billed cuckoo and blue-winged warbler. This spring, Kleen identified 81 different species and nearly 1,500 total birds in a second banding round.

In April the Illinois Audubon Society was awarded a $27,990 LIP grant for restoration and native species conservation. The society will match the grant at 25 percent, or $9,330, for a total project cost of $37,320.

“Education is going to be our key focus here by developing as many different micro-communities as we can on the site,” LaGesse says.

Last week the project leader introduced a two-year timeline to the new local sanctuary committee, comprised of several society members and DNR employees. They plan to use grant dollars to restructure the new 12-acre parcel at the north end of the property, as well as a 100-foot corridor along Clear Lake and Forrest avenues.

Retired IDNR avian ecologist Vern Kleen uses mist nets to catch migratory birds at the sanctuary. Kleen measures and tags a magnolia warbler.

Their first task is to rid the project site of large invasive trees like Siberian elm so native species have room and sunlight to grow. In normal rural circumstances, LaGesse says, he’d bulldoze and burn them. In Adams’ urban setting, he gets creative.

Next week he’ll bring in tree grinders, machines that consume 70-to-80-foot trees within five minutes. After 12 to 15 days of tree clearing, they’ll start attacking resilient exotic plants like winter creeper and multiflora rose and thinning the corridor around the property.

Bulldozers will be used to create a 1.25-acre wetland on the southern edge of the 12-acre project site in late summer. Water control structures and piping will be installed to control water levels. LaGesse plans to extend four to six frog ponds to the north of the wetland and expand the area’s nearby prairie.

He will also oversee a large planting of wetland shrubs, like prairie willow and indigo bush. Shrub communities are the state’s rarest natural communities, he says; Adams’ will be among only one or two others. LaGesse hopes to include the public in the seed plantings.

“That will be our first real getting the masses dirty here,” he says.

In the future, the local sanctuary committee hopes to replace the site’s oil-and-chip parking lot with a permeable parking lot. This “green” feature catches rainwater in cisterns for reuse. Converting the sanctuary’s remaining 20 acres into a native oak-hickory forest and expanding the current one-mile trail system are also future to-do’s.

While Clay called on LaGesse to manage the backwoods of Adams Wildlife Sanctuary, he looked to someone equally qualified to rework the landscape around the society’s headquarters.

Kent Massie of Massie & Massie Associates, a land planning and landscape architecture firm in Springfield, was initially involved in saving the Margery Adams home and stepped in again to help resurrect the new building’s grounds.

Massie developed a one-year plan to create a historic shade garden and education areas. Clay says some costs will be covered by the building fund; Massie says he’s also working to package projects into items that area groups can adopt. The Illinois Native Plants Society and the Springfield Civic Garden Club have both agreed to help.

Work began Tuesday on a 30-seat council ring that can be used to watch wildlife or hold presentations. A small butterfly fountain will be constructed nearby using boulders from the property. Bird feeders are already in the area.

“I foresee a super nice spot for people who just want to come and experience local nature, to watch birds and butterflies, squirrels and critters,” Massie says. “They can experience it in a nice setting or have the availability to go out on trails.”

In this area, Massie will also develop a series of native, prairie-plant rain gardens that stop runoff by collecting water in basins. This feature, along with marked prairie plantings on the northwestern side of the building, will add to the site’s educational component.

The front yard will become more representative of Adams and her home’s character. Massie plans to plant a historic shade garden, mixing native species like violets and ferns with plant species that pioneers may have brought into the area, like lilacs.

Massie, who has worked inside Springfield and in such outside areas as Petersburg, calls Adams’ gift to the Illinois Audubon Society a gift to the city.

Massie & Massie Associates, a land planning and landscape architecture firm in Springfield, plans to revitalize the grounds around the Margery Adams home.

“That much acreage within one-and-a-half miles of the Old State Capitol is really amazing,” he says. “It’s really different from a park in its purpose and character.”

Clay calls the sanctuary a “poster child” for invasive species, and LaGesse wholeheartedly agrees. After previous protests over the Margery Adams home, the local sanctuary committee intends to be proactive in including the public in its tree and plant removal plans.

“This is a high profile project for the society,” Clay says. “Some folks have been driving by and looking at this place for years and years. And now there’s going to be some changes in the landscape.

“We need to be thinking about inviting the community in here, to say ‘This is what you can expect to see here over the next 18 months. And these are the reasons it’s going to happen.’”

The Illinois Audubon Society has hosted workdays for interested patrons, but it has never created a master list of volunteers. Clay hopes this project will draw a new crowd willing to adopt and maintain their own sections of the property. In just the past month, Springfield School District 186 has offered to send students to photograph the sanctuary and senior organization RSVP Springfield has asked to attend interpretative programs at the site.

LaGesse has had trouble getting young people interested in conservation and agrees that new development at Adams Wildlife Sanctuary could be the turning point.

“It’s from these sorts of experiences that we get the next generation of conservationists and environmentalists,” he says. “Nature isn’t really interpreted as a pleasant experience, so it’s up to us to portray nature as a positive and as a positive experience.”

A great horned owl and its fledglings nested in Adams Wildlife Sanctuary, 500 yards behind the Illinois Audubon Society’s headquarters last winter. The great horned owl is one of North America’s widespread owl species.
Photo by Nicholas Klobuchar

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.


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