The Illinois Ozarks, which stretch along the banks of the Mississippi River in Southern Illinois, represent one of the most-extensive forested regions in the state. Glaciers stopped their southward movement here, leaving behind rugged hills that extend through Missouri and Arkansas.
Because the Illinois Ozarks border several ecoregions, it is especially rich and ecologically diverse. It is the only place in the state where one can find shortleaf pine, azaleas, plains scorpion and scarlet snake.
Many rare and endangered species thrive here, including the eastern woodrat, golden mouse, blue-head shiner, spotted sunfish, Indiana bat and banded pygmy sunfish, as well as a stunning variety of snakes - venomous copperheads, timber rattlesnakes and the rare green water snake.
Alexander, Jackson and Union counties
Illinois Ozarks is a large forest that provides a variety of habitats for plants and trees to thrive. The region's relatively rich soils support a rich assemblage of tree species, including cucumber tree, blackgum, butternut, black walnut and bitternut hickory.
The land's rocky contour determines where plant life can thrive. Black and white oak and hickory trees, for example, dominate dry ridge tops. Beech and yellow popular are common in the valleys.
A large forest system, like this one, means plants can survive in sufficient numbers to prevent them from become rare or threatened. It's what the Conservancy calls a landscape-scale project. Large, protected landscapes can support the animals and plants needed to create a healthy ecosystem.
It is estimated that the Illinois Ozarks harbor more than 1 million breeding songbirds, including Acadian flycatchers, scarlet tanagers and red-eyed vireos, and is an important resting point for migratory songbirds as they journey between their breeding and wintering grounds.
This region also has the greatest diversity of snakes in the state, and several cave systems nestled into the hills support globally significant cave fauna.
In all, the Illinois Ozarks boast about 500 wildlife species, including 48 mammals, 237 birds, 52 reptiles, 57 amphibians and 109 fish.
Why the Conservancy Selected This Site
Although the extensive forests of the Illinois Ozarks suggest a healthy, well-functioning system, all is not well here. Once widespread and frequent, fire helped maintain this region's historically dominant oaks and hickories. Now, after more than 70 years of altering fire's role, the forest slowly is converting to beech and maple.
There also are fingers of cleared land that cut deep into the forest. This fragmentation reduces habitat quality and reproductive success for many forest-nesting birds.
Fortunately, much of this region's land remains intact, so acquisitions of small, strategically located non-forested properties can help create large blocks of contiguous forest. An analysis by scientists at the University of Illinois indicates that the preservation or improved land management of only a few thousand acres would consolidate 60,000 acres of forest in the region.
What the Conservancy Has Done/Is Doing
The Conservancy is working with partners to encourage appropriate management of the area, protect the area's most biologically significant sites and acquire critical land in the region.
The Conservancy partnered with the Illinois Clean Energy Fund to help with the purchase of one of several sites. The sites, totaling nearly 400 acres, are significant because they consolidate land owned by the U.S. Forest Service. By acquiring these properties and restoring them to forest, the Conservancy can help significantly reduce fragmentation within the region.
In addition, the Conservancy's Illinois program worked with staff from four other Conservancy state programs and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to develop an Illinois Ozarks conservation area plan that will guide the Conservancy's work in the region for years to come.