Plans Moving Forward at Clifftop’s Paul Wightman Subterranean Nature Preserve

July 25, 2018 clifftop CliffNotes

The 535 acre Paul Wightman Subterranean Nature Preserve (PWSNP) on the sinkhole plain in rural Fults was acquired in late 2013 and established in 2014 by Clifftop, this region’s ALL VOLUNTEER conservation not-for-profit organization dedicated to the preservation, protection and conservation of high quality native Ozark habitats in the bluff lands and karst sinkhole plain in Monroe, Randolph and St. Clair counties.

Wildflowers surround a sinkhole pond at the scenic PWSNP. Photo courtesy Joann Fricke

The PWSNP surface grounds lie over and are connected to a significant portion of Fogelpole Cave below. Fogelpole Cave is the largest, most diverse cave system in Illinois, 51st largest in the US.  Many rare and unique species inhabit the cave’s underground streams and are in decline due to deteriorating water quality caused by surface land use over its 4700 acre recharge area or “underground watershed”. This was a primary purpose for Clifftop acquiring these lands to protect the cave’s ground water through the protection and restoration of native vegetation on the surface lands, reducing erosion and contaminated water runoff into the cave via its many sinkholes and connecting dissolved limestone fissures.

One of the most noticeable native habitat restoration features of the PWSNP is the planting and development of 280 acres of native prairie vegetation on former agricultural lands of the preserve. This is one of the largest and diverse prairie restorations ever undertaken in southern Illinois. Through a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grant in 2015, these lands are now covered with over 45 species of native prairie wildflowers and 10 species of prairie grasses and sedges. This three-year-old restoration effort has yielded tremendous benefits in protecting ground water, improving wildlife habitat and re-creating a very rare native habitat that provides an absolutely beautiful mosaic of colors and awe through every month of the April through October growing season. The colorful native perennial wildflowers are an insect’s pollination dream and offer people a chance to view what over 60% of Illinois’ wild, natural landscape looked like when the first European settlers arrived approximately 300 years ago.

Clifftop wants everyone, not just members, to enjoy and learn from these special lands, so is developing public access and education facilities at the area through a Recreational Trails Program (RTP) Grant received in 2016 from the Federal Highway Administration and administered through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Facilities being developed include an access road and 30 car parking lot, restroom, group pavilion, accessible one mile loop trail, outdoor interpretive displays, landscaping and an entrance gate. When completed, the area will be open to public use for passive, nature oriented activities such as hiking, wildlife watching, nature photography and nature educational activities and events offered by Clifftop.

Restroom facilities at PWSNP. Photo courtesy Jim HIll

To date, the public access road, parking lot and restroom have been completed. Almost 4 miles of interconnecting loop mowed trail is complete throughout the prairie and wooded sinkhole areas. Approximately one mile of trail is being constructed to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) universally accessible standards and is nearing completion. This accessible trail loop also features an elevated “watchable wildlife” overlook that provides scenic views of the prairie and several sinkhole wetlands. This will be an ideal spot to use a camera or binoculars for great photos and view of some of the preserve’s awesome wildlife and other natural wonders! A large group pavilion is being constructed this summer to serve as Clifftop’s primary education and outreach facility, where regularly scheduled nature related events and activities will be conducted. Outdoor interpretive displays and native landscaping are being developed around the main public access site. A PWSNP informational brochure and trail guide are also under development.

Construction of the ADA compliant trail was completed by Huebner Concrete Contracting. Photo courtesy Jim Hill.

In addition to the RTP Grant, Clifftop was recently awarded a Community Stewardship Challenge Grant for the Paul Wightman Subterranean Nature Preserve (PWSNP) from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation (ICECF).

The grant consists of 3 components:

1. Cash Donations: ICECF will contribute $3 in matching funds for every $1 donation that Clifftop raises for stewardship work at PWSNP, up to $21,000.

2. Equipment: ICECF will contribute 80% of the amount paid for equipment to be used to improve natural habitat at PWSNP, up to $5000.

3. Volunteer Labor: ICECF will donate $4000 for a minimum of 400 documented volunteer stewardship work hours at PWSNP, and $2000 for a minimum of 100 documented hours publicizing events and volunteer workdays at PWSNP via social media.

The funds and equipment secured through this grant will all be used exclusively for PWSNP stewardship needs and work activities such as eradication of invasive and exotic plant species, erosion control, timber stand improvement, prairie restoration improvements, and purchase of equipment and facilities needed to conduct stewardship work.  Donations in support of this grant can be mailed to Clifftop, P O Box 131, Maeystown IL 62256, and are tax deductible to the extent allowed by law.

Paul Wightman Subterranean Nature Preserve, 3325 G Road, Fults, will be open soon for all who wish to visit.

CLIFFTOP, a local nonprofit organization, is focused on preserving and protecting area blufflands.

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2018 edition of the Monroe County Independent.

©2018 all content rights reserved Clifftop NFP

Wildflowers fill the landscape at PWSNP. Photo courtesy Paul Feldker.

Wildflowers bloom in abundance at PWSNP. Photo courtesy Susan Rick.



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