|Steve Byers, Field Representative,
Illinois Nature Preserves Commission
“Welcome to the Fox River Forested Fen Nature Preserve,” says my guide Steve Byers with a deeply genuine tone of joy and pride. Steve is a Field Representative with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.
We are standing on the 53-acre site of the former Fox River Country Day School, and the location of an incredibly rare wetland complex. Only 15 acres of forested fen remain in the entire state of Illinois, the vast majority of them located here, and as for the calcareous seeps that bubble across the property, only 16 acres remain in the state, also mostly here. So these wetlands are rare almost beyond any measure. In fact, Steve tells me, the US Army Corps of Engineers has described them as the most unique wetlands in the entire continental United States.
I begin to understand that to be in this place on this day with this man is an incredible gift, given to me and to all future generations by the dedication and creative thinking of a number of individuals and organizations, one of which is The Conservation Foundation. As an organization, we were involved with this site when the Fox River Country Day School was still in operation, advising and helping with restoration efforts in the high quality natural areas and instituting the Mighty Acorns® curriculum so the students who had the privilege of attending school in such a place could interact with it and be part of its protection and restoration.
But a couple of years ago, the Fox River Country Day School was forced to close its doors due to insurmountable financial challenges. What was to become of this natural treasure located at I-90 and Route 25 in Elgin?
The bulk of the Fox River Country Day School property consists of very high quality natural areas, including the rare fens and seeps Steve was showing me. It is linked ecologically with the Trout Park Nature Preserve, just across the tollway. In fact, before the tollway cut the property in half in the 1950s, the two were actually one single precious place. Steve’s involvement with the property stems from the fact that 23 of the 53 acres qualify as an Illinois Nature Preserve, the highest designation that can be conferred upon a natural area in Illinois.
After many years, meetings and some hopeless days and sleepless nights, the power of creative partnerships prevailed and the Fox River Forested Fen Nature Preserve was born. The Illinois Tollway Authority provided the bulk of the funds for the purchase of the property as a way to mitigate some minor floodplain and wetland impacts of their I-90 expansion project, and then transferred most of the natural areas to the Forest Preserve District of Kane County, who manages the ecological restoration of the property. This portion is what has been designated an Illinois Nature Preserve, the Fox River Forested Fen. The Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation, which owns land adjacent to this property, also contributed some funding in exchange for about 5 acres of former soccer fields, and the City of Elgin took ownership of the former school buildings and facilities.
In terms of The Conservation Foundation’s role in preserving this extraordinary site, our Director of Land Protection Dan Lobbes had this to say, “This is a great illustration of our donors’ funds at work. We have invested considerable time behind the scenes, with no clear path to success and no opportunity to receive funding for our involvement. But because we had the support of our donors, we were able to help achieve an amazing outcome for an amazing property.”
As for Steve Byers, who was as critical as anyone to the successful preservation of this property and the creation of the Fox River Forested Fen Nature Preserve, he feels it is our obligation as a society to preserve these sites for future generations. “I have known this place for 30+ years,” he says. “I have known it in each of its seasons. Now this site has been dedicated as a nature preserve, and that took collaboration and commitment from a number of organizations, including The Conservation Foundation. It’s been very rewarding professionally, but it has been a personal journey as well.”
A contemplative pause, a shuffling of the feet, and then as his eyes (and mine) well up with tears, he says, “What we’ve been able to do is save this place.” The profundity of those words, what they mean for me and for all future generations, hits me like lightning. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt quite so proud to be a part of The Conservation Foundation.
This work MATTERS. Thank you so much for your support.
Written by Jill Johnson