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DECATUR -- The Macon County Conservation District didn't exactly evolve like planned, but 50 years in, it's hard to argue with the results.

The original idea was to develop the Oakley Reservoir into a conservation area. That never happened. In fact, it took six years from the time the district was first formed in 1966 before it opened its first site – Friends Creek in Cisco.

But 50 years later, the district has 3,200 total acres with more than 35,000 visitors a year and 8,000 to 10,000 school children who either visit or experience a district program at school.

To commemorate those 50 years, an exhibit -- 50 Years of Conservation – will be displayed at Rock Springs Nature Center beginning with an open house reception from 2 to 4 p.m. today at Rock Springs Nature Center.

Admission to the open house reception, exhibit and Rock Springs Nature Center is free. Visitors can view the exhibit in the North Exhibit Hall during the nature center’s open hours. Hot drinks and cookies will be served at the reception.

The exhibit will reflect on the history of the conservation district, the people instrumental to its development and major milestones along the way.

"There are a variety of displays, various photos, newspaper clippings, brochures, scrapbooks and newsletters highlighting the successes of the district in the last 50 years," said program services manager Jeff Tish, who has been with the district since 1976. "And there's a timeline that goes back to the late 1950s and early '60s to today."

It was in the late 1950s and early '60s that Americans began becoming concerned with the environment. In response, Illinois enacted the Conservation District Act in 1963, enabling each county to create its own conservation district to preserve and protect natural areas and offer recreational opportunities.

Locally, the Decatur Audubon Society was looking to establish a nature center and the Macon County Board of Supervisors needed someone to manage conservation and recreation land around the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ proposed Oakley Reservoir. Led by Decatur resident Norman Greenburg, a steering committee was formed and that committee decided the best course of action was to form a conservation district.

Creating an additional taxing body is never easy – even with the Conservation District Act, only five of Illinois' 102 counties formed conservation districts. But Greenburg, along with a group that also included Lee Slider and Alice Irwin, began a grassroots campaign.

"They talked to anyone who would listen," Tish said.

It worked. Voters passed the referendum with a two-thirds majority.

"People in the community were forward-thinking – I have to commend them for that," said Executive Director Paul Marien, who has been with the district since 1978. "There were people opposed to getting another taxing body, but the steering committee convinced enough people that the benefits would outweigh the cost."

Through the years, the district acquired land along the streams and corridors of Macon County. Eventually, six conservation district sites, including Rock Springs and Sand Creek, were established, as were several historic sites, including the Governor Oglesby Mansion and Homestead Prairie Farm.

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Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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