CISCO — Those who enjoy Friends Creek Conservation Area now have more to love.

Thanks to a $368,280 grant from the private Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation (ICECF), the Macon County Conservation District was able to purchase the farm directly north of Friends Creek and will be returning the land to its natural state — savanna and prairie — during the next two years.

With the addition, the 526-acre Friends Creek area is now 616 acres, which will expand existing wildlife habitat and protect two more miles of Friends Creek shoreline. It will also provide additional space for trails and outdoor recreation such as hiking, cross country skiing, bird and wildlife watching, and creek fishing.

“It’s a great addition,” Friends Creek site manager Alan Roberson said. “I’m excited about what it means for the public, and also for the wildlife in the area.”

The Rannebarger Trust managed by Gerber State Bank in Argenta previously owned the property. In late 2016, the owners sought out the Macon County Conservation District as a potential buyer.

“It was their goodwill to the community to sell it and add it on to Friends Creek,” said Paul Marien, executive director of the conservation district. “And they were very patient while we waited to get grant funding.”

A part of the ICECF’s mission is protecting natural areas and wildlife habitat. Marien said the conservation district made its proposal in January. It was awarded in May, and the district closed on the land on June 30. Marien said the grant paid for 80 percent of the land’s purchase.

“We couldn’t have done it without the grant,” Marien said. “With the way the state has been with its budget, there hasn’t been any grant funding for things like this, so you look for different sources, and (the ICECF) has been great.”

There’s a house, a barn, a shed and several grain bins still standing on the property. Marien said he’s hoping to find a company that will tear the barns down and salvage the lumber. The house will be demolished and the previous owner will be taking the grain bins to use elsewhere.

Marien said the naturally meandering creek and large oak trees lining it are the highlights of the property. Of the 90 acres, 35 acres have crops in the ground. Once they’re harvested in the fall, Marien said the district would begin planting a prairie mix on it in the winter. Of the $368,280, $10,000 will apply toward natural area restoration, which Marien said will take two years to complete.

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Macon County Conservation District executive director Paul Marien shows a section of Friends Creek that has been added to the Friends Creek Conservation Area with the addition of the 90 acres of land.

“We’ll start with a frost seeding in probably December,” Marien said. “We use a no-till method, and just broadcast the seed. The snow and the frost will actually help work the seed into the ground. Over time we’ll restore this entire area to savanna and prairie.”

Marien said the most important part of the expansion is the access to a larger part of Friends Creek itself.

“The creek is a tributary that feeds Lake Decatur, the public water supply for the city of Decatur,” Marien said. “Now, more of it is in our protection. We’ll protect the watershed to help Lake Decatur. The city has a pretty big investment in the lake, so it’s something we can do to help them and also align with our mission to protect natural resources.”

Existing amenities at Friends Creek Conservation Area include the only public campground in Macon County, 3½ miles of trails, Bethel School and a variety of habitats, including prairies, forests, and savanna. The trails will be expanded into the new territory.

“It's going to mean a lot more for people to come out and enjoy — a lot more of a trail system,” Roberson said.

In addition to the Friends Creek grant, the Macon County Conservation Foundation received a $5,500 grant from the ICECF to improve public access and hold programs at Willow Branch Conservation Area in Macon.

With the grant, the Macon County Conservation Foundation will have $5,000 to add a gravel parking area to further accommodate public access to the site. An additional $500 will be dedicated to hosting field trips to the site for a nearby high school.

“We anticipate offering students a field study of the natural area restoration work and wildlife monitoring efforts taking place on the site,” Marien said. “It will also bring awareness to careers available in natural resource and land conservation management.”

Part of Willow Branch was acquired thanks to a $283,000 grant from ICECF in 2012.

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