Environmental Almanac

50th Anniversary of Prairie Rivers Network a cause for celebration

The group that saved Allerton Park fifty years ago continues to thrive and grow.

Members of the Committee on Allerton Park delivering a petition in Washington, D.C. Prairie Rivers Network

I discovered Allerton Park near Monticello when I came to Illinois as a graduate student in the Department of English more than thirty years ago. Immersed as we were in reading and writing and teaching, my friends and I prized the opportunity to clear our heads there by walking the trails in the natural areas and wandering among the formal gardens.

Later, as one of those friends and I became closer, we pursued our mutual interest in learning about the flora and fauna of our adoptive home state at Allerton. There, we came to appreciate the woodland wildflower show that takes place in spring, and we shared first sightings of some spectacular birds, barred owls and pileated woodpeckers among them. I suppose it’s no wonder Allerton was also the setting for some of our most enjoyable outings with our children as they grew up.

Over the years, I’ve also cultivated relationships among other communities at Allerton. I’ve run the annual fall trail race hosted by the Second Wind Running Club. I’ve worked with the Allerton Allies to pull garlic mustard to promote the health of the woodlands, which I have also helped to burn for the same reason. I’ve been to Allerton for a “naked tree walk” with natural areas manager Nate Beccue, where more than 100 other people also turned out on a frigid January morning. (Relax—we were there to learn to distinguish among trees without their leaves on.) 

From the perspective of 2017, it’s easy to take Allerton for granted—who could not love such a place? But the fact is, we are able to enjoy it only because a group of activists came together in 1967 to save it. They did so by taking on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had developed a plan to dam the Sangamon downriver, creating an impoundment that would have inundated hundreds of acres of floodplain in the Park. 

The work of that group, which called itself the Committee on Allerton Park (COAP), was sparked by Patricia Hannon, whose outrage at learning of the Corps’ plan moved her to start a petition drive that delivered the signatures of 20,000 people who opposed the dam to Washington within months. (And that in a time when gathering 20,000 signatures meant supporters of the effort made direct contact with 20,000 people!) In those early days Patricia’s husband, Bruce Hannon, took on the leadership of the committee, which was also driven by the efforts of Jack Paxton and John Marlin.

It’s not my purpose here to tell the story of how the complex, 18-year fight to save Allerton was ultimately won. (If you’re interested to know that, though, let me recommend an excellent article by Urbana writer Amy Hassinger in the current issue of Sierra Magazine, “The Dam That Wasn’t.”) Rather, I want to call attention to the fact that fifty years on, the committee still thrives; in fact, over the years it has grown into one of the most effective forces for conservation in Illinois, although you might recognize it better by its current name, Prairie Rivers Network

I see my own volunteer involvement with Prairie Rivers as service on a life-long debt for the preservation of Allerton and the many other subsequent victories the organization has won on behalf of people and wildlife. I also take comfort in the knowledge that, despite the many challenges we now face, organized, active citizens can make the world a better place.

You can get to know Prairie Rivers Network better or catch up with old friends at a celebration of the group’s 50th anniversary to be held on Sunday, May 21, at Allerton Park. Activities will take place from noon to 4:00 p.m. and be based at the Music Barn. Among those will be a theatrical performance, displays of art and photography, samplings of locally produced bread and honey, and nature walks, including one led by yours truly. If you’re so inclined, bring along some food and make a picnic of it.

A related note

On Saturday, the Land Conservation Foundation, a not-for-profit organization founded in 2003, will celebrate the completion of the 2.3 mile Bruce Hannon Levee Trail on property it owns not far upstream of Allerton. For details on that event check them out on the web http://www.landconservationfoundation.org or find them on facebook. And check back here soon for a column about the group, its accomplishments, and long-term goals.