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Patrol the path or close it

July 1, 1993

Patrol the path or close it

By Rod Myers, Naturalist

In my last story, “Many Old Faces”, I told of the trees along the river in a local forest preserve. I didn’t name the river or the preserve in the story, but now I’ll tell you. The forest preserve is Blackhawk Springs, and the river that runs through it is the Kishwaukee. The Kishwaukee and the lands that border it inspired me, but had it not been for the Kishwaukee hard-surface trail, I wouldn’t have gotten close enough to get inspired.

However, the Kishwaukee Trail is controversial, and opponents call it “the road.” Some have sworn never to use it and point to mass destruction of the preserve caused by the act of putting the trail in and predict more preserve degradation as an over-abundance of people use it. Even the visual impact of the trail is disheartening to many nature lovers. Personally, I don’t believe a trail of that magnitude belongs there.

Though feeling some conflicting anxiety, I rode the Kishwaukee Trail in my wheelchair March 20, seeking inspiration for a story. It was a weekday, and only a handful of people were there. Luckily, I had mentally blocked the aesthetic damage caused by the trail’s visual presence; thus the river along with the old faces of the trees succeeded in sensitizing and awing me. Nearing the end of my inspirational journey, I spied an old peachleaf willow that I wanted to draw, but I didn’t have the sketch pad with me, so I vowed to come back on the next warm day to do a portrait.

Sunday, March 23 was that next warm day I was hoping for. When I arrived at Blackhawk Springs, I found the trail loaded with people of all ages. I made my way to the peachleaf willow and whipped out my sketch pad and pen. Shortly after I began sketching, a man in an electric wheelchair pulled up beside me. He had a cigarette in his hand, and no matter how I leaned, I couldn’t dodge his smoke as the light wind pushed it up my sinuses. Should he be smoking with the conditions being so dry here? I thought to myself. I wanted to slam my chair into his, catapulting his cancer stick into the river, but I’m not a violent being.

After 10 minutes, he left, but others were stopping to see what I was doing. Still others walked by slowly or stopped and unwittingly blocked my view. All the people, accompanied with their noise, were affecting my concentration. Then, in a span of five minutes, three women walked by, talking on cell phones; two of them were yapping loudly. I do believe in cell phone restrictions in nature preserves to preserve peace of mind. Groups of teen-age girls were walking by; I couldn’t believe it, it was just like CherryVale!

Obviously, people who wouldn’t dream of going to Blackhawk Springs before the trail was built were now very comfortable with the preserve. Teen-agers were also parking their cars on Mulford Road and walking down the forested slope to get to the Kishwaukee Trail. They weren’t walking down the slope single file on a given path; they were randomly breaking new trails, churning the forest floor, accelerating erosion and helping to spread alien garlic mustard.

Minutes later, four male youths accompanied by a middle-aged man holding a paper wasp nest walked by. The boys were brandishing rustic-looking walking sticks. I yelled out and stopped them in their tracks. “Hey, where’d you guys get that nature stuff?”

The man replied, “Just around the turn in the woods.” “It’s illegal to collect that!” I said. They looked at each other and then walked away. I could hear kids laughing and yelling down by the river. So I looked and saw three kids climbing out on a large tree branch that jutted out over the Kishwaukee. Not only were they damaging the tree, they were becoming potential drowning victims.

When I thought things couldn’t get any worse, a family adopted a picnic table and fire pit close to the river. It was too dry for a safe fire, but that’s what they wanted; only they didn’t bring any wood to burn. Predictably, the old man sent the suburban kids up to the wooded slopes to collect dead wood. When they returned with dead tree branches, I approached the family, telling them it was illegal to collect firewood from the preserve. They said nothing and prepared to roast hot dogs. In their minds, they had made me invisible like the rules that govern the forest preserve. There is a double standard in our forest preserves; damage to natural objects is tolerated, damage to manmade objects is not. Rip a branch off a tree and no one notices; rip a board off a picnic table, and you go to jail. Preserve employees under direction have damaged much of the west riverfront land along the Kishwaukee Trail with excessive mowing, making it lawn-like. It’s the forest preserve administrators and other county planners that should be held accountable for damage to the preserve because it’s they who made the decision to overdevelop Blackhawk Springs.

The human threats to Blackhawk Springs are large and many. Rapid depletion of dead wood, an important nutrition source for the soil, soil organisms and above-ground organisms, microscopic and larger, will continue thanks to too many people ignoring non-use and collection rules. Erosion and the spread of alien plants will greatly intensify thanks to human foot traffic disturbance. Native spring wildflowers that do bloom will be at the mercy of too many human hands in an impulse-picking mood. The presence of large numbers of people causes untold disruption to wildlife and their daily routines and yearly life cycles. This includes the catching and/or gathering of food, obtaining water, mating rituals, raising young, and personal territory establishment and the ability to keep it. Still another problem is the denuding of the river banks thanks to too many fishermen and picnickers at the river’s edge. And too many fishermen leads to overfishing and the disruption of fish life cycles.

With an overabundance of energetic, somewhat mischievous young people using the trail, the potential for reserve damage is great. How long will it take for visiting youths to tire of the trail and its near surroundings? Their next move will be to expand their range, exploring places off the beaten path, negatively impacting other natural habitats in the preserve.

For some who would not visit Blackhawk Springs without the path, the preserve will become an outdoor classroom. But for most of that group, the preserve will become a hangout, another consumptive commodity to be unwittingly and wittingly trashed. The remedy is to guard and protect the preserve with people of authority who know the rules and want the preserve unmolested. When public buildings and city parks are threatened, park district and city police arrive in good numbers to serve and protect. A forest preserve officer, on average, patrols a preserve momentarily about once every three hours. More money should be spent to protect Blackhawk Springs. By protecting, we preserve. Besides, who can put a price tag on a three-mile stretch of the Kishwaukee River? Protect the preserve or close the path.

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associate’s degree in science and a bachelor’s in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.

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