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Mar 03, 2009 10:13AM

Giant Goose Conservation Area: Rehabbed strip mine turned recreation destination

By Ann Ring
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Canada Geese at Giant Goose Conservation Area near Atkinson, Ill.
Talk about recycling. What once was a coal strip-mining area near Atkinson, Ill., is now a popular, volunteer-maintained conservation and recreation destination, and a refuge and feeding spot for giant Canada geese.

"After strip miners abandoned the area in the '40s or '50s, which they legally could do, the land was just sitting there," says Marsha Johnson, education director for the Giant Goose Conservation Education Workshop (its nonprofit designation), who witnessed its impressive change 45 years ago.

"Peabody Coal Company (now Peabody Energy, the world"s largest private-sector coal company) was trying to develop the land, and we came up with this idea: a refuge," says Johnson. Little did they know this refuge foreshadowed what was to come.

While public hunting already was allowed, when the Izaak Walton League purchased the land in 1965, soon hiking, camping and fishing became available, too. Around this time, the Izaak Walton League learned that the giant Canada goose, believed to be long extinct, had been rediscovered in Rochester, Minn., so they took action. A pair from Minnesota"s Fish and Wildlife Service found refuge, all right. Because of the League"s serious efforts, the goose population at this 263-acre conservation and educational landscape is flourishing. The geese usually stay spring through fall.

"The geese are doing well, yes," says Bob Walker, a former Bettendorf, Iowa, middle school teacher and current president of Giant Goose Conservation Education Workshop. While geese take flight when the area"s lakes freeze over, Walker says they come back strong every year. "The population"s become pretty stable now. Originally we kept them in a contained area, but of course there"s no need for that now."

The recreation spot, called the Giant Goose Conservation Area, is maintained by Black Hawk, Geneseo and Kewanee Isaak Walton League volunteers. Known for more than just its namesake, come May, its amenities draw outdoor lovers, too. There's camping (modern and primitive), fishing, boating, hiking, bird watching and raspberry picking, and the land houses a lodge and learning center and two shelters, as well. While there is a usage membership fee, any group can visit free.

"The main mission is conservation education," says Walker. "We provide an outdoor classroom to anyone of any age."

The volunteers take their responsibilities seriously. Walker has been an active member since the late '90s, when another teacher invited him to the site, and Johnson is a national Isaak Walton League executive board member with a master"s degree in environmental education.

Johnson, an educator at Giant Goose for three years, can"t be enthusiastic enough about what"s available to the public.

"We wanted it to be a refuge, but also for education. Group leaders can bring their own activities, or we offer a variety of hands-on curricula."

Both Johnson and Walker mention the conservation area"s layers of habitats and ecosystems for study: unmanaged forest, lakes, marsh, swamp, wetlands, lakes, meadows and prairie.

The largest event of the year at Giant Goose is the Annual Youth Day, always the first Saturday in June. (It's June 6 this year.)

"The day is free and we have a lot of activities," says Johnson. Last year 260 people attended, and Johnson is expecting at least that many this year.

Both Walker and Johnson praise the volunteers and the three area Isaak Walton Leagues for their efforts in maintaining the park. Johnson noted that its educational programs and workshops probably wouldn"t thrive without financial help from the Isaak Walton League"s endowment. "They give us a generous contribution every year for our programs," she says.

Giant Goose Conservation Area is located one mile east of Atkinson, Ill. Take U.S. Highway 6 toward Atkinson, Ill. Turn south on County Road 2350 East (watch for the sign). Immediately turn right again through the entrance gate of the Giant Goose Conservation Area. With questions about visits or membership, call Marsha Johnson at (309) 269-0799.

Ann Ring of Woodhull, Ill., is a regular Radish contributor.

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