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Really big conservation easement: Quail Forever takes over a 5,600-acre easement in southern Illinois

Quail Forever has taken over a 5,600-acre conservation easement on former mining land in Saline and Williamson counties in southern Illinois.

A food plot, made by the landowner, sits next to one of many test tree plots, part of a study made by Southern Illinois, in one of the conservation easements in former mining areas in Saline and Williamson counties. Credit: Dale Bowman
A food plot, made by the landowner, sits next to one of many test tree plots, part of a study made by Southern Illinois, in one of the conservation easements in former mining areas in Saline and Williamson counties.
Dale Bowman

SALINE COUNTY, Ill. — As we passed another cemetery, Les Sittig said, “In the coal business, if you come up on a cemetery, you have to go around it.”

I learned much about coal mining and restoration last week while Sittig gave a tour of a 5,600-acre conservation easement in southern Illinois just acquired by Quail Forever, a division of Pheasants Forever, from the Land Conservation Trust of Southern Illinois.

Wildlife in the easement, which is primarily in Saline County with parcels in Williamson County, is dominated by deer, turkey, squirrel and bobcat. Sittig told of seeing his first bobcat in the area years earlier, then seeing the kittens.

Some of the many deer spotted during a tour of the conservation easements in former mining areas in Saline and Williamson counties. Credit: Dale Bowman
Some of the many deer spotted during a tour of the conservation easements in former mining areas in Saline and Williamson counties.
Dale Bowman

“Eagles abound out here, too,” Sittig said.

We saw lots of turkeys, including two displaying toms with their harems, and lots of deer, including herds of six and seven and several fawns. We also saw wood ducks, Canada geese, blue herons and vultures.

The properties were dotted with many lakes and ponds. At one of them, Sittig showed where he once caught a 3-pound crappie. The waters made a guy like me think of largemouth bass challenging the 10-pound mark.

One of the many lakes on the conservation easements in former mining areas in Saline and Williamson counties. Credit: Dale Bowman
One of the many lakes on the conservation easements in former mining areas in Saline and Williamson counties.
Dale Bowman

A conservation easement is a set of restrictions voluntarily placed on a property by a landowner to protect conservation values. The restrictions are enforced (“held”) by a non-profit organization to ensure the environment flourishes indefinitely.

“When the properties were sold at an auction, the conservation easements were part of the sale and continue for perpetuity,” Sittig said. “If the properties are sold, they go with the property.”

Sittig was a long-time reclamation supervisor for the coal company, who had his hand in restorations across the parcels now part of the easement. He is now the conservation easement contractor for the QF. If landowners have questions on what they can or cannot do, they come to Sittig.

He gave some examples. Cell tower is a no, as is a center-point irrigation system. If a landowner wants to clear an area, Sittig will come and check the trees.

“With this contribution, the Land Conservation Trust of Southern Illinois has fulfilled its purpose,” stated John Rhine, the Trust’s attorney. “By assigning easements to Pheasants Forever, an important wildlife habitat will be preserved for generations. The Trust was created to accomplish this very mission and will dissolve now that Pheasants Forever is in control. It is truly is a dream outcome for southern Illinois and the quail and other wildlife which depend on the vitality of this remarkable habitat.”

“Landowners control all rights of ownership and access,” said Jordan L.K. Martincich, director of development for PF.. “If they were interested in public access, we would certainly welcome it. But public access is not part of it.”

That’s the formal side of the easements.

In the distance, a tom displays with a tail fan with his hens, some of the many turkeys spotted during a tour of the conservation easements in former mining areas in Saline and Williamson counties. Credit: Dale Bowman
In the distance, a tom displays with a tail fan with his hens, some of the many turkeys spotted during a tour of the conservation easements in former mining areas in Saline and Williamson counties.
Dale Bowman

The mostly reclaimed coal mines are now a mix of farmland, prairie and forest. Those familiar with Mazonia State Fish and Wildlife Area in Will County have an idea what some of the landscape looks like.

The conservation easements gave a chance to remake the future. The area is rated as “high response potential” by the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative for quail habitat and populations.

Jared Wiklund, public relations specialist for PF, said this gives them opportunities in the future to work well with other mining companies.

On a broader level, this project could be groundbreaking. Quail, with an 83 percent drop in population in the last 30 years range-wide, indicate the problems with grassland habitats, Martincich said.

“In the last decade, we saw conversion of 53 million acres of upland habitat,” he said.

That explains why PF and QF came up with the Call of the Uplands national strategy.

“The five-year strategy is to permanently protect 75,000 acres,” Jared Wiklund said. “So this 5,600 acres is a nice little chunk of that.”

A hen turkey scurries off during a tour of the conservation easements in former mining areas in Saline and Williamson counties. Credit: Dale Bowman
A hen turkey scurries off during a tour of the conservation easements in former mining areas in Saline and Williamson counties.
Dale Bowman