Some say that the tree was planted by an early landowner, J.K. Wallace, before he went off to fight in the Civil War; others say that the tree was brought back by Wallace after the war. Ernest “Ernie” Ballard’s comment, as he stood beside the tree while being interviewed by a local reporter, was, “It is rare to find this type of tree in this area.” The tree was an American beech (Fagus grandifolia), the species often described as a stately, large tree growing as tall as 100 feet, with a trunk diameter of up to 4 feet, and a widely spreading crown. The tree, which could have been the model for that description, stood on property once owned by Ernie Ballard near Altamont, Illinois. 

Undoubtedly, the reader has noted the use of past tense in reference to the tree, and so it must be when we speak of Ernie Ballard. Perhaps we would also have said of him: “It is rare to find this type of man in this area.” The land upon which the tree once stood is now the Ballard Nature Center, Ballard’s generous gift to humanity.

A Rare Gift

During the fall of 1997, the Ernie Ballard family donated 210 acres of land to develop a nature center so that future generations can benefit from the conservation practices that Ballard had implemented during his lifetime. A nonprofit organization, with a governing board, was formed to receive the deed and oversee management of the property. Ballard also donated funds to construct a large visitors’ center.

Today, Ballard Nature Center, located near Altamont, Illinois, is a joyous place. Through the front door, children eagerly traipse in during Spring Frog Follies, Halloween Night Hike, summer nature studies, and family visits. As students disembark from school buses, they fall into line behind the center’s naturalist–educator and begin singing in a marching cadence, “We are scientists; yes, we are. We come from near and far.” Little hands touch fishing poles, crayons, scavenger-hunt sheets, puzzles, stuffed toy animals, and grasshoppers, caterpillars, and frogs! 

Large pavilions, miles of walking trails (and running trails for those more energetic), and a handicapped-accessible pier at the Kids’ Fishing Pond invite visitors to actively enjoy the outdoors. An exhibit room features interactive displays: some are professionally produced, such as the Southern Till Plain exhibit developed by scientists and artists at the Illinois Natural History Survey; others are ingenuous creations by staff members and volunteers. 

An imaginary troll lurks beneath a woodland trail bridge and requests a fee to ensure safe passage. An arching wooden footbridge spans Second Creek. Interpretive signs punctuate trailways. Wildflower gardens attract butterflies and hummingbirds to the front entrance of the log-cabin style visitors’ center. There in the garden in September, hidden, yet invariably munching the bush at the doorway, are the spicebush swallowtail larvae, which, with their green coloration and false eye spots, mimic the rough green snake. If a visitor cares to turn up the underside of a leaf and look, he or she may see one extending its osmeterial gland as if it were a snake sticking out its tongue.   

Last September, when fourth graders discovered baby goldfinches in a nest in an oak sapling on the center’s “savanna” area, little did they know that in the not-too-distant past, this area had been a farm field.

Preceding the Gift

The land originally purchased by Ernie Ballard was farmland: 100 acres of dry-mesic upland forest, much of which had been degraded by pasturing; 100 acres of agricultural lands (farmed using tillage and raising row crops, primarily corn and soybeans); and pasture acreage. Yet, as early as 1962, Ballard had begun implementing conservation practices on these acres. He sought advice and assistance from agencies, now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Effingham County Soil and Water Conservation District (ECSWCD), and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). He established erosion control and practices to improve timber stands.

Even before Ballard donated the land, he had allowed community members to visit his property and walk the woodland trails that he himself had created. He recognized the historic significance of the area, once commenting that early settlers had traveled through the area following a path that would later be named the Cumberland Trail.

In 1999, the Ballard Nature Center Foundation was formed, with Ballard serving as president. The center’s mission, decided upon by the board of directors, would emphasize education, natural community restoration, and wildlife management. The primary goal of restoration would be to rejuvenate natural communities, typically found in the Southern Till Plain Division of Illinois, and to establish additional habitat for common species, not the rare or declining. Little did they know that certain rarities would develop, along the path toward accomplishing this mission.

Restoration Begins

The enrollment of eligible agricultural land into the NRCS Con-servation Reserve Program allowed land to be used for restoration projects or for the creation of desirable natural communities. A 15-acre agricultural field was converted into a 9-acre shallow-water wetland, with a native-grass buffer. Two additional tracts of wetlands were soon constructed to imitate presettlement prairie potholes. Structures to control water levels, located within the wetlands’ berms, allowed the levels to be manipulated. Periodic drawdowns (dry conditions) would eliminate fish populations, which could negatively affect aquatic insects, reptiles, and amphibians. Other wetlands were constructed with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the NRCS Wetland Reserve Program. A biologist serving on the Ballard Nature Center’s board of directors recently stated, “The response by waterfowl, marsh birds, insects, reptiles, and amphibians to these newly constructed wetlands has been tremendous.” A particular birdwatcher would definitely agree about the marsh birds because he sighted a least bittern this fall, while walking near the rushes of the center’s largest wetland. This secretive, cryptically colored wading bird had previously eluded the amateur ornithologist’s efforts to add it to his life list.

Prairie and Savanna Restorations

Other acreages were earmarked for prairie and savanna restorations. During savanna restoration, acreage was first planted to native prairie grasses and wildflowers in late winter, a practice called “frost seeding,” and was treated with Plateau® herbicide in early spring to control annual weeds. In October of that year, fire-tolerant trees were planted.   

The center also enrolled in a quail buffer program, where acreage was planted using a prairie-seed mix containing grasses dominated by little bluestem and forbs, such as black-eyed Susan and Illinois bundleflower. Prescribed fire was used as a management practice to reduce the encroachment of less desirable woody species, such as sugar and silver maples and the invasive autumn olive.

In April of this year, a local junior high science class completed a community service project, getting their tennis shoes black in the process from sooty grass clumps. Their assignment was to disperse seed to increase the botanical diversity of a restored area. Later that same evening, a troop of Brownies also dirtied their shoes, the purpose being the augmentation of the prairie’s aesthetic value, proudly described by the little girls as “the planting of wildflowers for butterflies.”

Forest Restoration

Also this spring, a group of high school-age children, equipped with brown cotton gloves, pulled winged wahoo from a small area of the center’s upland forest community. Treading lightly upon wild ginger, spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, and dwarf larkspur, the volunteers gripped the winged wahoo stems; then, with a determined tug, they uprooted this invasive exotic species, which threatens the quality of the center’s forested natural communities. 

Scientifically designed forest restoration practices on the center’s grounds have included a prescribed fire regime, arranged on a rotational basis of approximately 20% of the forestland being burned annually. Prescribed fires promote the regeneration of several oak species and prevent the reduction of plant diversity caused by invasive species. Timber stand improvement specialists have implemented woodland thinning. The idea is that girdling or removing certain trees, which compete with the mast-bearing trees, will allow the center’s woodland to be a good source of food for wildlife.

A Restoration Project to Brag About

Having conducted much research and consulting publications such as Tom Biebighauser’s A Guide to Creating Vernal Ponds, Terry Esker, an IDNR natural heritage biologist, developed a management plan to create vernal ponds on the Ballard Nature Center’s lands. The hope was that these ephemeral pools of water would provide a secure breeding site for amphibians. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, the Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fund, the State Wildlife Grant Program, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program, and even the Lakeland Junior College’s Ecology Club assisted with funding for this unique undertaking. The shallow vernal ponds were constructed in prairie, woodland edge, and forest habitats. Nearly all of these “herp” ponds were quickly colonized when they filled with water. 

Perhaps a curious visitor, peering into the shallow water of one of these vernal ponds, will see tadpoles by the hundreds. Looking more closely, this venturer may discern smallmouth salamander larvae as well. If this spring day of exploration is a warm one, the visitor will likely observe a twelve-spotted skimmer, a conspicuously large, black, gray, and white dragonfly, which would probably be flying a brief patrol over the water and returning to a perch nearby.  If this individual is observant and skillful enough, he or she may discover a golden-winged skimmer, a dragonfly that Richard Day, a naturalist, discovered at Ballard Nature Center in June 2006. In fact, Day commented that its presence in this area is a rarity, a “state record,” the first documented sighting of this species in Illinois.

Homes for Ballard’s Residents

Near the concrete farm silo that still stands is a structure that re-sembles a chimney, made to attract chimney swifts. One hundred feet from the visitors’ center, at least 15 pairs of purple martins have built nests in the artificial gourds placed there for just that purpose. Some distance away from the Second Creek Trail, two snake hibernacula have been constructed. The hibernacula are assemblages of cinder blocks that extend underground just below the frost line. Another project, made possible by the Wildlife Preservation Fund, is evident in the 12 rocket-style bat houses, some of which are visible to the east of the handicapped-accessible wetland–prairie trail. West of the trail, a 1-acre island serves to attract shorebirds looking for nesting sites. Various nest boxes, many of which were built and erected by volunteers, are used by cavity-nesting wood ducks, east-ern bluebirds, house wrens, Carolina chickadees, and tree swallows.   

Monitoring Programs

Before restoration programs began at Ballard Nature Center, surveys of wildlife species, for which management practices have been implemented, had not been attempted. Now, thorough monitoring programs are being conducted. Odonate surveys have resulted in the documentation of 22 dragonfly species; lepidoptera surveys, 37 butterfly species and 13 skipper species; herpetology surveys, 5 turtle species, 6 frog species, and so forth.

While conducting the Upper Little Wabash Watershed Fauna Survey, entomologist Vern LaGesse has been finding certain rare insect species in Ballard Nature Center’s restored areas. Species such as the prairie cicada (Tibicen dorsata) and the ironweed borer (Papaipema limpida) serve as indicators of high-quality prairies, due to their dependence upon native plants in prairie remnants. These remnants are islands of presettlement-quality tallgrass prairie habitat, now surrounded by agricultural lands and urban developments in Illinois. LaGesse and his colleague, Jim Wiker, theorize that the insects are able to colonize restored prairies because the rights-of-way of highways and railroads are supporting populations of big blue-stem, prairie dock, and other such native grassland plants, and are thereby acting as corridors for insect movement. 

At Ballard Nature Center, scientists arrive early to listen to bobwhite quail calling; often, they walk miles of trail to peer into bluebird houses, or in the summer heat, set up lights to attract moths during insect surveys. A wintertime visitor to the center might notice Ron Westemeier, a retired wildlife ecologist and volunteer, walking cautiously across a frozen wetland to evaluate the condition of a wood-duck house. Naturalists are declaring the restoration program at Ballard Nature Center a success.

Ballard Cleared a Path for Many

Donations, which now support Ballard Nature Center, come in all shapes and sizes: dollar bills and silver coins, grants and endowments, books and craft supplies, a mounted Cooper’s hawk, a piece of artwork for the fund-raising banquet’s auction, and pennies deposited in the red-lipped Beggin’ Frog. Community members also work as volunteers beside the center’s personnel. They maintain trails, fix broken things, do landscaping chores, serve as board members, or act as hosts and hostesses on weekends. Volunteers have built boardwalks, painted picnic tables, and washed windows. Local historians have repaired gravestones in the small Wallace Cemetery on the center’s grounds. Ballard Nature Center serves as a model and resource for youth service-learning programs.

Ask one of Ballard Nature Center’s supporters this question: “Whatever possessed you to be so generous?” Ask a volunteer, “Why do you donate so much of your time?” They might comment that a person gets back what he or she gives, or that helping someone feel a little joy makes a person joyful. But those are not the significant sources of motivation. Such giving individuals are compelled by a unique sense of civic responsibility, are encouraged by a cause perceived as significant, or perhaps are simply possessed by a remarkable enthusiasm for life. 

Ernie Ballard’s gift, which brought Ballard Nature Center into existence, was remarkable. Yes, one could say of Ernie Ballard that it is rare to find this type of man. The Ballard Nature Center teaches us that to find rarity, we need only look.

Patty Gillespie is a naturalist–educator at Ballard Nature Center near Altamont, Illinois. The author would like to thank Terry Esker, natural heritage biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, who supplied much information about the center’s restoration practices and monitoring activities. Photos by Karen Greuel unless otherwise indicated.