Prairie Ecology at Paul Wightman Subterranean Nature Preserve

June 8, 2019 clifftop CliffNotes

Clifftop’s 535 acre Paul Wightman Subterranean Nature Preserve (PWSNP) is now open to the public for passive nature oriented recreation and education!

The grand opening occurred May 18 when over 100 folks gathered on the site to dedicate the newly constructed pavilion, accessible hiking trail, outdoor exhibits / trail guide, landscaping and parking / restroom facilities to accommodate general public and member activities at the site. All facilities meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

Coreopsis (yellow) and monarda (pink) in bloom at PWSNP. In the background a sinkhole pond is visible as well as part of the accessible trail.

The site’s sinkhole farmed lands, woodlots and numerous sinkhole ponds were acquired by Clifftop in late 2013 through generous grants and donations. Since 2014, Clifftop, with much partner support, has converted most of the farmed lands to native prairie vegetative cover, improved the forest and sinkhole habitats, reduced erosion, secured Illinois Nature Preserve designation, and developed four miles of trails, as well as public access and educational facilities on the site. Habitat restoration and enhancement will continue as a “work in progress” for many years to come.

The PWSNP surface lands lie over and are connected to a significant portion of Fogelpole Cave Nature Preserve below. Fogelpole Cave is the largest, most diverse cave system in Illinois. Many rare and unique species inhabit the cave and its 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.”

The primary purpose for Clifftop acquiring these lands was to protect the cave’s ground water through the restoration of native vegetation on the surface lands to reduce erosion and contaminated water runoff into the cave via its many sinkholes and connecting dissolved limestone fissures. A secondary purpose and benefit of Clifftop’s work on the surface lands and waters is restoring native plant communities and associated wildlife at the site. The cave subterranean nature preserve is named in honor of Catholic Priest, Father Paul Wightman, who did extensive pioneering exploration, surveying, and research of the cave system in the mid-20th Century.

Native prairie vegetation at PWSNP

One of the most noticeable native habitat restoration features of the PWSNP is the planting and management of 280 acres of native prairie vegetation on former agricultural lands of the preserve. This is one of the largest and most diverse prairie restorations ever undertaken in Southern Illinois. Through a Natural Resource Conservation Service, Conservation Reserve Program grant focused on native pollinator vegetation in 2015, these lands are now covered with over 45 species of native prairie wildflowers (collectively called “forbs”) and 10 species of prairie grasses and sedges. This four 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 offers 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.

Today, less than one-tenth of one percent of Illinois prairie remains in small, isolated and fragmented locations in “The Prairie State.” Prairie re-creations like the one at PWSNP are critical to continuing the existence of native grassland habitats.

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

A version of this article appeared in the June 7, 2019 edition of the Monroe County Independent.

©2019 all content rights reserved Clifftop NFP

Comments are currently closed.

Powered by WordPress and NatureFox.