After more than five years of hard work, Clifftop is ready to open the Paul Wightman Subterranean Nature Preserve to the public.
Located at 3325 G Road in Fults, the local nonprofit, which focuses on preserving and protecting area bluff lands, acquired the 535-acre property in late 2013.
The preserve sits on top of the 51st largest cave in the country, Fogelpole cave system, which was the impetus for the group buying the land.
“Fogelpole cave is the largest and most diverse cave system in all of Illinois,” Clifftop President Jared Nobbe said. “The importance of acquiring PWSNP was so that Clifftop could ensure that water entering the cave would be clear and provide a strong ecosystem for the life-forms dwelling in the cave.”
Funded by large grants from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and Grand Victoria Foundation, smaller grants and local donors, Clifftop bought the property for $2.7 million.
As of May 2015, the organization took 264 acres of former rowed crop lands out of farm production and seeded them with native plants.
Volunteers have since spent hundreds of hours planting, seed collecting and mowing to restore the property to its natural habitat.
It has also been hard at work to create trails on the preserve.
It did so through support from the Recreational Trails Program through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, the Sophia and Elmer Oerter Charitable Foundation, the William Zimmer Family Foundation and Waterloo Optimist Club.
“The funding came relatively easily because of the excitement for the project and great Monroe County support,” Nobbe said.
One of the most challenging aspects of getting the preserve ready for passive recreation was completing the Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant trail that is a focal point of the preserve.
As with all its projects, Clifftop wanted to keep the land as natural as possible. That meant it needed a hard surface for the trail that was also natural.
“This meant no concrete, asphalt or oil and chip,” Nobbe explained. “In a common theme for this project, we again turned to a community partner, the Columbia Quarry, to help us develop a hard coat surface made of a rock aggregate.”
After that was constructed, Clifftop members restored any damage done on either side of the one-mile-long trail.
Now the work is complete, with that trail and the four miles of mowed grass trails that traverse almost the whole property ready for use.
The grand opening of the preserve will take place May 18 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
There will be a short program with speakers at 11 a.m., with refreshments immediately after. Then, a walking tour of the prairie will start at 1 p.m.
There is a 30-foot-by-36 -foot pavilion and public bathrooms at the preserve.
Individuals must register to attend the grand opening by calling 618-935-2542 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org by May 11.
“Members of the public should come to PWSNP because the wildflowers and grasses are spectacular,” Clifftop member Joann Fricke said. “It is an easy hike, unlike some other preserves in the county. Wildlife abounds and can be seen regularly.”
Clifftop thanked everyone who has worked on the preserve.
“I would just like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank everyone that volunteered to make this project possible,” Nobbe said. “We are lucky to live in a community that supports projects and understands the importance of protecting Fogelpole cave.”
The work is not done on the preserve, however, as maintenance will be needed.
That includes maintaining trails, performing prescribed burns, monitoring sinkholes and plant life and cleaning the bathrooms.
Academic studies will also continue, including ones focused on cave mapping and surveying, copperhead snakes and dragonflies.
Studies on bees and bats have already finished. That work may contribute to making Clifftop’s hope for the preserve a reality.
“We are hoping that PWSNP will inspire you on your own conservation journey,” Nobbe said. “Maybe that is joining Clifftop, maybe it’s adopting one of the sinkhole ponds at PWSNP or maybe it’s something bigger. This beautiful property should be shared by all.”