Oak Ridge project will mean new habitat, trails to explore at Refuge

The Wetlands Initiative will begin a new project at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge in 2014 that will restore rare oak savanna habitat and more than double the existing trail system, allowing visitors to access and explore the interior of the 3.5-square-mile site for the first time.

Called the Oak Ridge Trail and Restoration Project, it will start in May 2014 and span 27 months. The project will restore a 70-acre mosaic of high-quality savanna, marsh, prairie, and sedge meadow habitats in the area of the Refuge that TWI often refers to as “the island”—a natural peninsula of higher ground located between the arms of Hennepin and Hopper lakes. TWI has received a grant from Grand Victoria Foundation and federal funding through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) Small Grants program to launch the restoration portion.

A view of the developing oak savanna at the Dixon Refuge. All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) are currently the only way to easily access this area. Photo by Gary Sullivan/TWI.

“Oak Ridge is one of the few remaining areas at the Refuge where intensive ecological restoration has not taken place over the past 13 years,” said Dr. Gary Sullivan, TWI senior ecologist. “The area is already characterized by its many bur oaks, including some very old trees, but the understory is not diverse and is dominated by invasive species. We’ll be managing those, as well as aggressive cattails in nearby Oak Ridge Pond, and planting a great diversity of native species throughout.”

Meanwhile, TWI will expand public access by constructing a small parking lot along the north levee and a 2.7-mile hiking and biking trail that leads south to Oak Ridge at the center of the Refuge. The trail will pass through a large area of richly diverse, recently restored wet meadow and end with a loop around the restored Oak Ridge area. A viewing platform situated within the trees will let visitors overlook the nearby pond, which is an excellent spot to view migrating waterfowl.

The existing one-mile seep trail and half-mile prairie-wetland boardwalk trail run along the southeastern edge of the 2,700-acre Dixon Refuge, south of the observation tower and main parking lot. But to date there hasn’t been an easy way for visitors to access the interior of the site.

The reward for the long hike will be a chance to experience globally imperiled savanna habitat and the rare plants and wildlife it supports. The restored savanna and adjacent marsh and prairie habitats will benefit birds of priority conservation concern in Illinois, including red-headed woodpecker, barn owl, king rail, least bittern, and Henslow’s sparrow. The marsh restoration will also increase habitat for state-listed fish species like starhead topminnow and red-spotted sunfish.

In February 2014, TWI was selected to receive a $50,000 grant for the restoration work through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) Small Grants program. These grants, which require a private match, support the protection, restoration, or enhancement of wetlands and associated upland habitats for the benefit of wetlands-associated migratory birds.

“With the wet meadow restoration project and the carp removal efforts of the past three years successfully completed, we can now focus on the opportunity to restore Oak Ridge,” said Paul Botts, TWI’s executive director. “This project will add to the already excellent biodiversity at this designated Wetland of International Importance. And we hope many people will enjoy the new trail system, which will give them a truly immersive experience of the Refuge’s natural areas.”

In June 2014, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources awarded TWI a $2,000 grant for new interpretive signage in the Oak Ridge area through its Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fund Grant Program. Funds for this grant program are from the tax check-off offered on Illinois income tax returns. The signage will allow visitors to learn about the restored marsh and savanna habitats at Oak Ridge and the flora and fauna that inhabit them, as well as the site’s drainage and restoration history.

The Sue and Wes Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, located just south of the town of Hennepin in north-central Illinois, had been corn and soybean fields for almost a century before the Wetlands Initiative began restoring native habitats there in 2001. Today it is one of only 36 sites recognized as Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance in the country, and the only one to have been entirely a restoration effort.