Come See the Splendor of our Paul Wightman Subterranean Nature Preserve

May 9, 2019 clifftop CliffNotes

By Jared Nobbe, Clifftop President

I remember the first time I stepped foot on what would become the Paul Wightman Subterranean Nature Preserve.  At the time, I was called out to help evaluate equipment that was being stored on the property.   As I worked my way through the rather impressive collection of antique equipment among a beautiful soybean field, I thought to myself that while the property had a unique quality, it was just a soybean field.  At the time, I didn’t fully understand what the property could be or the amazing ecological environment that lay beneath.

While I didn’t see the potential, luckily the Clifftop board and membership is filled with people whose creativity and vision are much better than mine.  The board immediately recognized the need for this property to be acquired with the intent of protecting the Fogelpole cave system, along with realizing that the property itself could become a place for our local community to enjoy.  Through funding from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, the Grand Victoria Foundation, and numerous local donors we were able to secure the property.  The next challenge was what to with the property.  Clifftop had already had much success with the trail at White Rock, but we had ambitions to do something bigger.  This thought started us down the road of installing the first Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) approved accessible trail as the focal point of Paul Wightman Subterranean Nature Preserve (PWSNP).

The Illinois Cave Amphipod is one of the many unique lifeforms that dwells in the Fogelpole Cave System. Photo courtesy Dr. Frank Wilhelm, University of Idaho

Before I get to the trail project, I want to take a minute to describe why Fogelpole cave is so important.  Fogelpole cave is the largest and most diverse cave system in all of Illinois.  While the entrance to the cave itself is the focal point of the Fogelpole Cave Nature Preserve, owned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and protected by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, much of the watershed into the cave was not protected.  The importance of acquiring PWSNP was so that Clifftop could ensure that water entering the cave would be clear and provide a strong ecosystem for the lifeforms dwelling in the cave.  Toward that end, the property was taken out of farm production and in May 2015, 264 acres were seeded with native grasses and forbs.

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

Now, back to the trail.  In theory, at least to me, the trail project seemed straightforward, as long as the money was available to complete it.   We were lucky enough to be awarded a grant to fund the infrastructure through the Recreational Trails Program, an assistance program of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration.  This grant was administered through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and required a match for a percentage of the dollars granted.  The matching funds came from our wonderful community partners like the Sophia and Elmer Oerter Charitable Foundation, the William Zimmer Family Foundation, and the Waterloo Optimists.  In the end, the funding came relatively easily because of the excitement for the project and great Monroe County support.  Unfortunately, the infrastructure, the part that I thought would be the easiest, proved to be the most difficult.

Clifftop always desired that any properties under our watch remain as close to natural as possible.  This traditionally has not been a problem.  When we installed the hiking trail at White Rock Nature Preserve, we were able to build a wonderful trail by the minor clearing back of brush and establishing a path on ridgetops.  However, if you have ever hiked White Rock (and if you haven’t please do so) you know that the trail is not ADA accessible.  The dirt trail while natural and beautiful has obstacles such as rock, roots, and inclines that make navigating via wheelchair nearly impossible.  In order for us to build a truly ADA accessible trail, we had to find a building material that provided a hard surface but had to avoid unnatural options.  This meant no concrete, asphalt, or oil and chip.  In a common theme for this project, we again turned to a community partner, the Columbia Quarry, to help us develop a hard coat surface made of a rock aggregate.  During the summer of 2018, we went to work on the trail. 

Work began on the accessible trail system during the summer of 2018. Photo courtesy of Jim Hill.

Since taking possession of PSWNP, many volunteers have spent hundreds of hours planting, seed collecting and mowing to restore the property to its natural habitat.  The last thing the board wanted to have was heavy equipment and dump trucks damaging that hard work.   We were lucky that our trail contractor understood this desire and need.  Even with dozens of trucks coming to the site daily, damage outside of the trail was limited to no more than ten feet on either side, which Clifftop members have worked to restore.

Today Paul Wightman Subterranean Nature Preserve has developed past the early vision into a beautiful place that local residents can enjoy.  Come out and hike the 1 mile accessible trail or if you are in the mood extend the hike on to more than 4 miles of additional mowed grass trails that traverse nearly the entirety of the property.  In addition to the trail, stop by the on-site 30’ by 36’ pavilion that will in the future host Clifftop seminars.  And finally, for those wondering, the site has that all important bathroom facility.

Enjoy our 30′ by 36′ pavilion. Photo courtesy of Joann Fricke.

We are hoping that PWSNP will inspire you on your own conservation journey.  Maybe that is joining Clifftop, maybe it’s adopting one of the sink hole ponds at PWSNP, or maybe it’s something bigger.  This beautiful property should be shared by all. 

During this article I have recognized many people that have helped Clifftop bring this project to fruition, but this space is too small to recognize everyone.  I would just like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank everyone that volunteered to make this project possible.  We are lucky to live in a community that supports projects and understands the importance of protecting Fogelpole Cave, one of the most diverse ecological systems in Illinois.

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

A version of this article appeared in the May 3, 2019 edition of the Monroe County Independent.

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