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Nature group steps up to the plate

July 14, 2018

DIXON – Cody Considine and Austin Webb are used to teaming up on a variety of fields.

The longtime friends bonded on the diamonds as members of the Dixon High School baseball squad, Considine graduating in 2001 and Webb a year later. Now they are working together in the area’s dwindling native habitats, where the stakes are much higher than wins and losses.

While Illinois is known as the Prairie State, the plants and wildlife in the prairie ecosystem are disappearing at an alarming rate. The state once was 60 percent prairie, boasting 2,500 acres of grassland, but only 2,500 acres still exist.

Without increasing the use of prescribed fires and stepping up the battle against invasive species, prairies, savannas, woodlands and wetlands will continue to disappear.

As government resources for restoring and maintaining our natural gems dry up, volunteers play a bigger role in saving delicate ecosystems for future generations.

Middle Rock Conservation Partners, now a 50-member group, is focused on conservation efforts primarily in Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties. Its evolution has been measured and steady, but now energetic young members like Webb and Considine are ready to take the nonprofit to the next level.

Ten years ago, the federal government created a program in which money would be funneled to conservation areas set up by the state, but things didn’t always go as planned.

“That money was held hostage with the budget mess,” said Considine, a restoration ecologist at Nachusa Grasslands. “A mix of professionals and volunteers had been meeting for about 10 years to share our successes and challenges. We finally decided to incorporate and do it on our own.”

Webb, a restoration professional at Byron Forest Preserve, was recruited by Considine to assist at Nachusa, and he now serves as president of Middle Rock. Incorporation last spring as a 501(c)(3) has cleared the path for Middle Rock to take a huge developmental step.

“Now we’re in the fundraising stage, which means finding grant money and donations so we can do things like purchase equipment and hire consultants,” Webb said.

Controlled burns are the group’s biggest job, and it can be done more efficiently without the logistical problems inherent in borrowing equipment.

“We have about half of the $40,000 we’re trying to raise for fire equipment, and we’d really like to have it before the fall/spring fire season,” Considine said.

The group could participate in at least 15 controlled burns when springtime rolls around. Some of the equipment on the wishlist, such as a portable pumper unit, also can be used for herbicide applications.

While equipment can expand the group’s reach, so can increased membership. Volunteers are needed to help with monthly workdays, fundraising, and spreading the word. The group is also looking for a grant writer.

“There are ways to help without actually getting exercise,” Considine said. “Our only membership requirements are to help with one workday a year and make a minimum donation of $1.”

When prioritizing worksites, areas with the highest level of protection are a big factor. That includes areas in the Illinois Nature Preserve system, such as Green River State Wildlife Area near Harmon, part of Castle Rock, a few miles south of Oregon, and Franklin Creek State Natural Area.

“Protection is the most important consideration, because we don’t want to spend money on land that might end up being developed after we do work there,” Webb said.

The need for maintenance is another key component. Building partnerships is another goal of Middle Rock. The group assists the understaffed IDNR in state-run nature areas.

“The state has turned its back on agencies in the system, and IDNR is overwhelmed,” Considine said. “We can help rejuvenate their spirit, and they are more likely to do work in places where they know they have help.”

The group’s first workday, in January, was at Jarrett Prairie Center in Byron. Volunteers gathered Thursday at Green River to remove white sweet clover from remnant prairie.

Webb and Considine say the beauty of Middle Rock is that it’s an intricate blend of seasoned conservation professionals and younger energetic volunteers who are eager to learn.

Bill Kleiman, project director at Nachusa, and area conservation guru Tim Keller are founding members. Deb Carey, former Dixon Park District executive director, has been one of the organization’s cornerstones. Treasurer Paul Soderholm devotes countless hours to the cause in his official capacity and at the worksites.

“All of those people have been so inspiring, and now we feel that we have a responsibility to become the next generation of caretakers so we can pass on the incredible natural resources of the Rock River Valley to our children,” Considine said.

Webb said it’s easy for longtime residents of the area to take the beauty around them for granted. The momentum Middle Rock is building presents a unique opportunity to add to the region’s quality of life.

“People don’t realize how fortunate we are,” Webb said. “We have biking, hiking, trails and incredible species like the Blanding turtle. We have so little of our natural prairie left and those species will go away without the help of volunteer organizations like us.”

For those wanting to learn more the group, Middle Rock Conservation Partners will have a meet-and-greet from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sept. 22 at Cork & Tap at 305 W. Washington St. in Oregon.

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