Gov. Quinn signs bill transferring Wildlife Prairie Park to private ownership

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Looking out over the prairie, it appeared that even the buffalo and deer and those noisy geese had come to watch what was a festive occasion Saturday at Wildlife Prairie Park.

Many of the animals were just below the deck where Gov. Pat Quinn signed the bill officially transferring ownership of the park back into private hands, to the Forest Park Foundation.

(Photo by Paul Gordon) Gov. Pat Quinn signs House Bill 1292, which transfers ownership of Wildlife Prairie Park from the state back to the Forest Park Foundation. He signed the bill during a ceremony at the park on Saturday.In bright sunshine and warm temperatures the governor joined several local dignitaries, including local lawmakers who helped get the bill through the Illinois General Assembly, for a ceremony they said was more than two years in the making.

"Bill Rutherford would have been very proud of this effort," the governor said, speaking about the founder of Wildlife Prairie Park, the 2,000-acre wildlife refuge just west of Peoria where animals native to Illinois are allowed to flourish in their native habitat.

"This has always been a very special place, a place where people get the unique opportunity to see wildlife and nature up close. Bill and Hazel Rutherford wanted it that way. Bill once told me one of his greatest pleasures was seeing other people enjoy nature," Quinn remarked.

He praised the efforts of people like Bill Cirone, president of the board of Friends of Wildlife Prairie Park, and Mark Miller, head of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, for their commitment to conversation without which the park probably would not have survived.

(Photo by Paul Gordon) Gov. Pat Quinn looks out at the buffalo and deer that had gathered near the deck where he signed the bill giving ownership of Wildlife Prairie Park back to the Forest Park Foundation.He also saluted the efforts of area legislators for working hard in Springfield with a non-partisan spirit to get the legislation passed. He cited State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, who could not attend the bill signing ceremony because of a funeral in her family; State Rep. Mike Unes, R-East Peoria, State Rep. David Leitch, R-Peoria, and State Senators David Koehler, D-Peoria and Darin LaHood, R-Peoria.

Cirone said that while the process took longer than he would have liked, "I have had the privilege these last two and a half years of watching government and the private sector working together. I am proud of our representation. This is a perfect example of true representation, when we can put personal feelings aside and work for the common good. Never for one minute did any of us feel we would not accomplish this."

Cirone noted that the park has 140,000 visitors a year and educates more than 50,000 children and young adults through its various programs. "We are committed to the long-term growth of Peoria and the region," he said.

Miller, who Quinn and Cirone praised for working closely with the Friends of Wildlife Prairie Park to make sure the Rutherfords' original goals were upheld, said the park has been great for conservation, recreation and education. "Connecting people to nature and their heritage," he said.

The state had control of the park since Rutherford deeded it to the state in 2000, believing the state could best preserve the land as a state park. However, the sate's fiscal woes caused it difficulty in that effort and for the past several years it was the work of the volunteers of Friends of Wildlife Prairie Park that kept it viable.

Miller said transferring ownership back into private hands would allow for the kind of fundraising necessary to operate the park that the state was unable to do. "We all love the education and family oriented programs at Wildlife Prairie Park and trust that those programs and fun activities will be around for many years to come thanks to the local support that has long been a hallmark of this facility," he said.

Several legislators spoke as well, all noting the bipartisan efforts and the importance of the park to their constituents.

"I feel right at home here," Koehler said, looking out at the buffalo and deer nearby and adding that he grew up in South Dakota, where there are still buffalo.

LaHood said this bill was "a prime example of what a bipartisan effort can accomplish."

Unes mentioned that he brought his four children to the bill signing ceremony because he wanted them to witness such an important occasion for their future.

Leitch said legislators recognized the importance of preserving Wildlife Prairie Park "and opening opportunities for generations to come."

Also on Saturday the governor's office announced it awarded 45 grants worth a total of $15.3 million for various land and park projects throughout the state. One of those grants was awarded to the Peoria Park District, $217,500 to develop the Tawny Oaks Nature Center on land adjacent to Singing Woods, an Illinois State Dedicated Nature Preserve.

Bonnie Noble, executive director of the Peoria Park District said the grant, which combines state, federal and local matching funds, will be used not only to develop a visitors center but also prairie area that can be used for conversation and education.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).