Winter 2022 Conservationist

Big Plans for Poplar Preserves

 

In 2019 the Forest Preserve District Board of Commissioners approved a plan that would guide developments over the next five years. The District inventoried its current holdings and compared them against similar agencies. It held meetings for the public, volunteers, staff, commissioners, and special-interest groups and conducted surveys. It gathered ideas from more than 6,500 people and looked at national, state, and regional trends. In the end, the Board of Commissioners approved 32 certified projects and 15 initiatives. Two of the certified projects are at Willowbrook Wildlife Center and Mayslake Peabody Estate, some of the District’s most popular sites.

Since 1956 the Forest Preserve District has been taking care of injured and orphaned native wildlife at its Willowbrook Wildlife Center. Over the decades the center has seen a dramatic increase in the number of patients it sees each year, from a few hundred at its onset to now over 10,000.

But the aging visitor center has been unable to keep up with the growing needs of 21st century visitors, patients, and programs. In fact, the visitor center has not reopened to the public since closing for the COVID-19 lockdown because every square inch has been converted into treatment areas.

In 2011 the District took the first step toward an updated Willowbrook Wildlife Center by adopting a plan to guide the center’s development over the next several years. As part of the first phase, between 2013 and 2021 the District expanded the parking lot, built a new animal rehabilitation building, and installed a 72.2-kilowatt solar array.

Now the District is ready to take on the next — and more involved — phase. Although research and public opinion helped develop initial plans, guidelines from the National Wildlife Rehabilitator Association and the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council on housing and exhibiting rehabilitating wildlife changed significantly in the ensuing years, requiring the District to reassess some of its goals. It presented its updated ideas to the public last fall and gathered opinions via three open houses, surveys, and online comments.

When completed, the re-envisioned Willowbrook Wildlife Center will feature a 32,000-square-foot clinic and visitor center with expanded indoor rehabilitation areas and exhibits that will give visitors behind-the-scenes looks at the treatment process. Outside, expanded naturalized areas will give recovering animals quiet, stress-free places to recuperate and offer visitors camouflaged observation windows where they can discreetly view the animals. A welcome plaza, an outdoor classroom, and activity spaces showing how to attract and live in harmony with wildlife will round off the improvements.

This will be by far one of the Forest Preserve District’s largest capital projects but one that adheres closely to the missions of both the District and the center. Construction is expected to start in 2022 and be completed by the end of 2024.

Mayslake Peabody Estate, another certified master-plan project, will receive a significant face-lift in 2022. Designed by renowned Chicago architect Benjamin H. Marshal, the Tudor Revival-style Mayslake Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the last remaining examples of the country estates that dotted DuPage County between 1880 and 1924. In 1926, the estate was sold to the Franciscan Province of the Sacred Heart, who operated the estate as a retreat house, adding a retreat wing and chapel to the west side of the mansion. The District, via a publicly approved referendum, purchased the estate from the Franciscans in 1993.

The mansion is nearly 100 years old, and many of the original materials used in its construction are in need of repair or replacement to ensure the building can remain a center for cultural and nature-based programs.

In 2020, the District hired an architectural consultant to identify structural issues and material deficiencies that were contributing to water damage and other threats. The assessment determined that addressing major issues with the exterior — the roof, wood and stucco façades, brick and limestone masonry, foundation, surrounding site drainage — would be necessary if the Forest Preserve District wanted to maintain the structural integrity of the historic house. The work should begin in spring 2022 and wrap up in early 2023. The hall will need to close to the public during some of this time, but updates will be posted on dupageforest.org.

To fund these and other approved master plan projects the Board of Commissioners approved the issuance of $40 million in bonds. Because the District is in strong financial shape with sufficient bonding capacity and an excellent credit rating it can issue the bonds without causing an increase in annual property taxes. The District will be able to not only complete these two major projects but also fund additional land acquisitions and smaller capital projects.

Big things are on the horizon for both Willowbrook Wildlife Center and Mayslake Peabody Estate, and we know old fans and new will be thrilled with the results!