Mill Creek Natural Area

Local Land Trusts Combine Efforts to Protect Southwestern Illinois’

Resource-Rich Natural Areas

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A sandstone canyon at Mill Creek Natural Area. Tom Rollins, Thomas Rollins Photography.

One of Illinois’ geologic jewels, with canyons, gorges and sandstone cliffs, will now be protected in perpetuity under a recent deal announced by Clifftop and HeartLands Conservancy. The two nonprofit land trusts worked jointly to purchase a unique tract of land in Randolph County. “Illinois residents usually think such natural features are unique to the Southwestern U.S. But, Southwestern Illinois also hosts these geologic jewels and our organizations are excited to protect and conserve this property,” said George Obernagel, President of Clifftop’s Board of Directors.

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Sandstone cliff at Mill Creek Natural Area. Tom Rollins, Thomas Rollins Photography.

The 115-acre parcel of land contains sandstone canyons and gorges and cliff systems that host unusual plant communities. A significant stretch of Mill Creek also winds through the property The two groups are planning restoration initiatives that will benefit both the creek and the Mary’s River watershed.

The newly named “Mill Creek Natural Area” hosts plant species now found much further north, but which demonstrate the power of ancient geologic forces. “Under the compulsion of continental glaciation, northern plants were laid at our doorstep,” wrote Robert Mohlenbrock, famed botanist and professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale. The canyons have sheltered plants such as club moss, cinnamon fern, and bishop’s cap for eons.

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Club moss at Mill Creek Natural Area. Tom Rollins, Thomas Rollins Photography.

“The opportunity to bring this tract of land – with its unique geology and plant communities – into permanent protection was a must-do deal for both our organizations,” said Dave Eustis, Executive Director of HeartLands Conservancy. As the property is located at a distance from both Clifftop’s and HeartLands’ standard areas of land preservation work, and because the looming date of the auction sale from the Thompson Estate required fast-tracking the acquisition, “it made sense for our organizations to join together and share the workload of evaluating the property, grant writing and fundraising,” said Carl DauBach, Clifftop’s Executive Director.

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Sandstone shelving provides nooks and crannies for ferns, mosses, and flowering plants. Tom Rollins, Thomas Rollins Photography.

HeartLands Conservancy, formerly Southwestern Illinois Resource Conservation

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Alex LaSalvia explores Mill Creek Natural Area. Tom Rollins, Thomas Rollins Photography.

and Development, is based in Mascoutah, Illinois. The regional nonprofit works to conserve open space and foster livable and sustainable communities throughout the greater Metro-East. Clifftop is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization

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Rich plant biodiversity adds an aesthetic emerald glow to the sandstone walls and cliffs. Tom Rollins, Thomas Rollins Photography.

established in 2006 that works to protect and steward natural area lands in St. Clair, Monroe and Randolph Counties. The organizations worked together in 2010 to purchase, jointly own, and permanently protect the 475-acre White Rock property in Monroe County, now registered with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

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Mill Creek canyon area. Tom Rollins, Thomas Rollins Photography.

The organizations applied for funding from the Grand Victoria Foundation, whose funding in support of Vital Lands Illinois includes provision for just such a quick turn-around and time-limited project as this one.

“We were excited to hear about this opportunity for HeartLands and Clifftop to again work together to save another important natural area property,” said Nancy Fishman, Executive Director of the Grand Victoria Foundation. “From our work with these two land trusts and their experience in jointly acquiring and owning the White Rock lands in Monroe County, we knew their ability to cooperatively bring such a project to completion.”

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Mill Creek canyon area. Tom Rollins, Thomas Rollins Photography.

The Foundation challenged HeartLands and Clifftop to raise a portion of the needed funds locally. The Boards of Directors of both organizations quickly went to work to tap local resources for up to 20% of the purchase price. A Randolph County family foundation, a Randolph County corporation, and four private donors from Monroe, Randolph and St. Clair Counties agreed to meet the Foundation’s challenge. With funding secured, HeartLands and Clifftop prepared to go to the auction sale. Once again, members of the organizations’ Boards provided assistance with the HeartLands’ auction team tracking and keeping pace with the fast-moving auction bidding.

The successful close of the auction opens a new phase in the organizations’ joint work as they plan stewardship and restoration activities on the site. “Part of our work will include reforestation of some small creek-bottom fields. This will reduce soil erosion and help protect Mill Creek and the Mary’s River watershed,” Dave Eustis noted.

“Grand Victoria Foundation is pleased to help protect important sites like the Mill Creek Natural Area,” said Raquel Garcia-Alvarez, Program Officer at the Foundation. “The geologic features, stream quality, and plant communities this site holds are so impressive that it now will be my touchstone for other areas of the state,” she added.

HeartLands Conservancy and Clifftop are planning a number of special guided field trips to Mill Creek Natural Area, but the site will not be open to the general public in the near future. The organizations intend to plan out and schedule their restoration and stewardship work for the benefit of the property and the unique ecological communities sheltered there.

Mill Creek Natural Area, the unique glacial relict plant communities that have survived there for eons, and the superb wildlife habitat that thrives at the site, now are permanently protected.

 

 

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Sandstone cliff at Mill Creek Natural Area, Tom Rollins, Thomas Rollins Photography

 


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