Home Nature preserves Forest Park Nature Center sold to Peoria Park District

Forest Park Nature Center sold to Peoria Park District


Mike Miller, supervisor of environmental and interpretive services for the Peoria Park District, stops at the start of the Wilderness Trail at the Forest Park Nature Center and says the property will remain accessible to the public after its purchase by the Peoria Park District. (PHOTO BY DAVID ZALAZNIK)

One of central Illinois’ most beloved parks was owned for almost 70 years by the private Forest Park Foundation under the leadership of three generations of the Rutherford family.

As the foundation began to shut down, it began working to ensure Forest Park remained open to the public by hosting a sale to the Peoria Park District. The park district was able to complete the purchase of the Forest Park Nature Center at the end of September.

Environmentalists and environmentalists are thrilled.

First purchased by the Forest Park Foundation in the early 1950s, the land was designated a nature reserve in 1964, one of twelve nature reserves in the state at that time.

While the nature reserve designation meant that the park, now over 500 acres, was protected from development, it did not guarantee public access. The land could have been sold to a person or organization and it would still have to be a nature reserve in perpetuity, but it could have been legally closed to public access.

Lawyer Jim Tomlin, legal advisor to the Forest Park Foundation, oversaw the transfer of ownership following a model used by second-generation head of household William Rutherford Sr.. With this model, the foundation agreed to sell the Forest Park Nature Center to the park district for $ 1 million and urged the park district to apply for a grant from the Open Lands program, and the foundation agreed to match that funding. .

With the grant of $ 500,000 and $ 500,000 from other funds, the park district purchased the property. The foundation then gave $ 500,000 to the Park District Legacy Fund dedicated to the maintenance of the parks.

“As we approach the end of Forest Park Foundation’s life, it was very important that this transaction be structured this way. The Forest Park Foundation as a whole will not last forever, ”said Tomlin.

He is pleased that the foundation’s goals are being met and cited the Forest Park Nature Center, Wildlife Prairie Park, Peoria Heights Beautification, Springdale Cemetery Donations, and countless other parks and areas that the foundation has. supported over the past 70 years.

Mike Miller, Supervisor of Environmental and Interpretive Services for the Peoria Park District, sees the transfer of ownership as an important and lasting legacy for the Peoria area.

“It will now be a public park in perpetuity. It’s important for the whole community, ”Miller said.

While the Chicago area has land trusts, conservation districts, forest reserves, and nature reserves, it was the Forest Park Foundation that brought all of these benefits to the Peoria area, he said.

“The foundation operated like a land trust even before the term was coined. “

Over the years, the Park District has had to carefully monitor spending on building and park trails because they do not own the property. The purchase now means that the Nature Center has a permanent endowment. The museum has already been renovated and upgraded with new exhibits and an 18-foot model of a Chinquapin oak, considered a characteristic tree of the central cliffs of the Illinois River.

Curb cuts, sidewalks and other improvements will provide greater accessibility.

Hydrology in the park is closely linked to development in the watershed area. The park receives runoff from roads, homes and commercial development.

“Maintaining a healthy watershed is complicated,” Miller said. “You have to manage what comes from upstream.

Maintaining the health of the forest is an essential part of the health of the watershed. Sustainable sanitation does not come from a stream or a piece of property, but must involve solutions across the watershed, he said, noting that in an ideal world, development would only happen. when the streams and streams are maintained and considered to be an integral part of the good of the municipalities.

Today, the Peoria Park District has approximately 1,600 acres of nature reserve and 9,000 acres of park district property.

“This transfer of ownership should be a transparent transition for the public, but it means that this property remains a nature reserve with public access in the future. This has never been guaranteed before, ”Miller said.

“So many people told me during the pandemic that without the trails and nature they might not have come to the other side. Parks get us out of the woods. Getting through the pandemic has strengthened our sense of responsibility and stewardship. “

He reflected that each generation goes through times of turmoil and inner reflection.

“My generation is aging, and it is important to tell the story and pass on the lessons learned from the foundation and from leaders like George Fell (founder of the Natural Land Institute) and Bill Rutherford.”


Photojournalist Matt Dayhoff takes regular walks with his daughter Jillian who has severe and profound autism. She’s nonverbal and emotionally unpredictable, but Matt observes the calm Jillian often finds while walking in nature. Both love the Forest Park Nature Center in Peoria Heights. She also enjoys the trail and walk above Cooper Park along the Illinois River in East Peoria. The parks and trails of the Peoria area are a beautiful, invaluable resource for the Dayhoff family. Nature can help with the challenges and complications of raising a child with special needs. (PHOTO BY DAVID ZALAZNIK)