Pine Creek, White Pines State Park
Pine Creek, White Pines State Park

Conserving the Land
The Rock River Country

A living choir

By the standads of the 19th Century wilderness preservation movement, what made a place worth protecting was scenery, And .scenery meant open water, and inevitably, the Rock River Country which boasted not only open water and trees but the closest things to mountains in the Illinois interior was among the first places in Illinois that people wanted to save.

In 1921.the influential Friends of Our Native Landscape included the Rock River country between Dixon and Oregon among 20 places in Illinois deserving to be made state parks. The area included the "White Pine Woods," a grove of native white pines that occupied an estimated 500 acres along the south boundary of the old Chicago Iowa Indian trail.

Growing in a canyon carved by Pine Creek out of dolomite rock, the tallest of the trees measured 90 feet in height. Mrs. Elia Pettie, literary critic of the Chicago Tribuine and member of the Art Colony at Eagle's nest Camp, opffered a rationale for their preservation in their own voice, in a poem that read in part:

Above your acres of corn and grain
We stand, a living choir
To put life's prose into rhyme again

In 1903 local residents, led by Oregon (Illinois) Woman's Council, began lobbying the General Assembly to set aside for public includes the White Pines Forest State Park. The idea of public nature parks was still a novelty, but the Illinois General Assembly approved the measure; however, the then-gove nor vetoed it, citing costs. The tract was not acquired until 1927-at a cost more than double the original estimate.

Private land, public purpose

Not surprisingly, in a region in which more than 98% of the land is privately owned, most of the precious remnants of the presettle mentecosystems of the RockRiver country are not publicly owned. The Illinois Natural Areas Inventory in the 1970s found a bit more than 6,000 acres in the Rock River country to be of statewide significance because their ecological or geological resources made them a teaching or aesthetic resource. Nearly 5,000 acres of them-18 of 33 INAI sites-­are wholly owned by private parties.

State acquisition of resources of even exceptional quality is expen sive and otten politically controversial. Taking of land through eminent domain proved so unpopular that state agencies charged with the protection of wild places no longer seek to acquire new lands except by purchase it from willing sellers. Public by any means is expensive usually more land worth saving than there is money to do it.

As a result, public entities with an interest in resource preservation the State of Illinois (5,273 acres), universities (125 acres), and local forest preserve and park districts (3,732 acres)-own..1ess than 1.5% of the land area of the Rock River country.

Fortunately, there is a tradition in the Rock River country of gener­ous private donation of land for public use. Typical is the Franklin Creek Nature Preserve donated to the state by Mrs. Winifred Knox, whose ancestors settled it. Dedicated in 1970, these 96 acres of upland and ravine forests and bedrock out­croppings are today part of the larger(250 acres) Franklin Creek State Park.Pileated woodpeckers use it for breeding, its seeps and springs sustain skunk cabbage, wild black currant, and swamp rose.

More unusually; a Franklin Creek Preservation Arei Committee formed in 1981 was the first citizens group in Illinois to improvestate owned land for park purposes. The committee has donated materials and labor to build roads, shelters, picnic tables, restrooms. The group has even reconstructed a grist mill that once stood on the creek.

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