Clifftop acquires state’s largest cave system

Clifftop’s newest purchase includes a 15-mile cave system called the Fogelpole Cave, pictured here. (submitted photo)

On Saturday, the local Clifftop organization made its biggest announcement to date: the purchase of a 535-acre farm that includes Illinois’ largest cave system.

In a special celebration meeting at the Monroe County Annex Building in Waterloo, Clifftop presented details of the purchase and what it will entail for both the community and the organization.

The purchase of the land, for more than $2.7 million, was made possible by large grants from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and Grand Victoria Foundation, along with smaller grants and local donors.

Pictured with the check are Clifftop board members Tom Rollins, Pen DauBach, Jared Nobbe, George Obernagel, Steve Gonzalez, Charlie Frederick, Carl DauBach, Ralph Buettner, Jim Hill and Joann Fricke. Presenting the $1,915,050 check from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation is Jolie Krasinski, program officer for the foundation. (Robyn Dexter photo)

The acquisition of the land, which is between Reed Road and G Road near Renault, is valuable because it sits on top of the Fogelpole Cave system, which is the 51st largest cave in the United States and also the most biologically diverse in the state.

Clifftop has been working with Dr. Steve Taylor, a biospeleologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey and University of Illinois-Urbana, to explore and assess the cave system.

With the purchase, Clifftop and lead project adviser Taylor plan to convert the current farmland to a prairie system, which will benefit life both above and below ground in the coming years.

Clifftop president George Obernagel said once some restoration work has been done on the land, it will be opened up to the public for activities such as hiking and wildlife watching.

“We want to convert this back to something the community can enjoy,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of time on this and it’s been very worthwhile.”

JoAnn Fricke, membership chair of Clifftop, said the organization closed on the deal on Dec. 30.

“Along the way, with the help of scientists and volunteers, we will study changes in groundwater, water quality and the health and composition of the cave and surface wildlife to learn how to better live and work within a karst landscape,” Fricke said.

The property contains more than 300 sinkholes, which can lead to soil erosion if not taken care of properly.

Taylor called the farm and cave system a “statewide treasure,” and has high hopes for the opportunities this purchase will provide the community.

After surveying the cave system, Taylor’s team was able to conclude there are more than 15 miles of cave under the 535-acre property, and measures must be taken to make sure the cave system and land above it are properly maintained.

The cave system will not be open to the public at any time because of the fragile ecosystems it contains.

Research will be periodically conducted inside the cave system, but Taylor said the environment inside is too delicate to allow people constantly coming through.

It is also complicated to enter and has several passages that are dangerous and prone to flooding.

“There are so many microhabitats inside the cave for all different kinds of life forms,” Taylor said. “It’s the most bio-diverse in the state and contains everything from bats to toads to salamanders. It’s right here in your backyard, and there’s so much more to discover.”

Clifftop plans to continue work on the farm and cave system by reaching out to other organizations that can cater to the property’s specific needs, including groups like the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Clifftop executive director Carl DauBach closed out the presentation by praising all those who were involved in the purchase and will help maintain it in the future.

“This project, as it moves forward is progress for our organization and progress for southwest Illinois,” he said. “Clifftop is a shared vision. We have to try to preserve some small pieces of natural areas for future generations of wildlife and future generations of human life. That’s what Clifftop is.”

For more information on Clifftop, visit

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