Sandhill cranes

Sandhill cranes are shown in the Middle Fork Forest Preserve wetlands area.

RURAL PENFIELD — When the Point Pleasant wetland area on the south end of Middle Fork River Forest Preserve was fully functional, ducks flying were so numerous they would block the sun. It was also the first Champaign County nesting area for bald eagles.

Dark sky park Dec. 11

Middle Fork River Forest Preserve has seen its use increase since it was designated a Dark Sky Park.

The wetland area’s water level has since dropped, but there are plans for it to be returned to its former state, Superintendent Matt Kuntz said.

The wetlands were created by beavers that had dammed up the area, but resulting flooding was affecting area farmland, so the dams had to be busted, and the beavers moved on as did the bald eagles.

Kuntz said the plan is to restore the wetlands without causing flooding problems for adjacent private property.

“We did a successful fundraising effort, and with a grant we might be ready for construction,” Kuntz said.

The work will involve building a berm with a structure that staff will be able to control for the season.

“It’s simple,” Kuntz said of the project, “but the location is going to make it extremely difficult (to work on). It’s one of those spots where it’s back in nature, and it’s going to be a very difficult location to work with.”

Kuntz said when the wetland area was active, “the migratory species alone was unbelievable.”

One Middle Fork photo showed a large flock of sandhill cranes on the water.

Kuntz said many people who visit the forest preserve aren’t aware the wetland area exists, but he said over time it is becoming better known.

Mary Ellen Wuellner, executive director of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, which manages the Middle Fork area, said the last parcel of the wetlands area was acquired “in the last seven or eight years.”

A trail system and parking area were added a few yeas ago.

Wuellner said money from a fundraising effort in 2018, plus a $21,000 grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and a Department of Natural Resources grant will help pay for the wetland restoration project.  

Visitation surges at Middle Fork

In the main area of the Middle Fork preserve, Kuntz said more and more people are visiting the facility. Numbers are at an all-time high.

“We had a wonderful year,” Kuntz said.

He attributed part of the surge to word getting out about the forest preserve’s designation as a Dark Sky Park.

Staff installed a new lighting system during the spring that reduces the amount of light that goes skyward, creating a more vivid sky where the constellations are readily evident. More and more publications are letting people know about the Dark Sky Park designation.

People from across the Midwest — and even farther — have visited Middle Fork.

“We have had people all the way from Louisiana, and they’ll stay a week,”

Kuntz said. “They’re just blown away what the sky is offering up in this area. It will be interesting to see how that develops in the next few years with the advertising.”

Camping numbers have also surged. The campgrounds are full or nearly full every weekend, and holiday weekends find a waiting list of 10 to 15 campers wanting to use the facility.

“I’ve read camping is big business right now,” Kuntz said. “We’re just trying to keep up.”

He said improvements in 2020 will include the installation of new showers and added accessibility to user areas.

Willow Pond restoration

The forest preserve district board earmarked $100,000 of its last budget toward restoration of Willow Pond, which has been experiencing low water levels in recent years, limiting its use by swimmers.

Wuellner said the district board is in the midst of working on the 2020 budget, and she hopes another $50,000 can be set aside toward the restoration of the pond. The project is expected to cost about $350,000.

The pond will have to be dredged and a clay liner installed to eliminate the water level declines. But no Illinois Department of Natural Resource grants are available for dredging projects.

Wuellner said the district has received about $8,000 in private donations.

The water is frequently unsafe due to the presence of E. coli bacteria. The low water levels, an increased goose population using the pond and a build-up of silt from runoff have increased the frequency the pond has had to be closed.

The pond was built in the late 1970s to early 1980s and is near the end of its life expectancy of 35 to 40 years.

Under the restoration project, the island in the center of the pond would be removed, which would eliminate the likelihood that geese will continue to use the pond.