By Zoe Huspen
Outdoor enthusiasts have enjoyed the Kickapoo State Recreation Area in Vermilion County, Illinois, for decades. It provides an opportunity to experience the scenic landscape that Illinois has to offer, with forest-covered hills, picturesque waterways, and miles of biking and hiking trails. Visitors hike, swim, kayak, and mountain bike through Kickapoo nearly year-round, from the breezy spring through the hot summer to the crisp autumn months.
Kickapoo is not solely enjoyed by humans, though. This area is also inhabited by bird species, plants, and soil in dire need of conservation. The popularity of Kickapoo’s biking trails represents a new struggle over the delicate balance of conservation and tourism revenue. Human overuse of natural areas such as Kickapoo threatens biodiversity because species may be pushed out of their typical habitats, a phenomenon of our increasingly urbanized world. The issue at stake, at Kickapoo and other popular natural sites around the globe, is how healthy recreation and nature conservation can coexist.
Mountain bikers currently enjoy 25 miles of trails in Kickapoo, which attract a wide range of cyclists throughout the Midwest. The state plans to expand these routes with another 15 miles, for a total of 40 miles by 2023, at the urging of the Kickapoo Mountain Bike Club. In 2021, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) approved construction of 10 miles of trails along the Middle Fork River as the initial stage of this larger plan. The Kickapoo Mountain Bike Club has pushed for the expansion due to the trails’ recreational appeal and ability to draw in tourism revenue.
But this new construction has triggered an environmental battle. Environmentalists are worried that the new trails will contribute to the existing erosion problem at Kickapoo State Recreation Area and could prompt a loss of biodiversity in pristine forested areas of the park, specifically for endangered species.
Mountain biking was notably not included in the initial list of recreational areas in the Kickapoo Master Management Plan when it was approved nearly 40 years ago, most likely due to a lack of interest at the time. The plan identifies the recreational, agricultural, and residential uses of the Kickapoo area and how the land can be maintained for future generations. In 1982, the available outdoor recreation programs in Kickapoo and Middle Fork outlined in the plan were day-use, camping, fishing, canoeing, hiking, hunting, winter sports, scuba diving, administrative facilities, and horseback riding — but no mountain biking. Local environmentalists believe that the construction of bike trails contradicts the goals of the Kickapoo Park Master Management program, which monitors land use and development in this area. The plan includes descriptions of the natural resources found there and the properties they contain.
Soil makes up a significant portion of the topography, and the plan acknowledges the limits that places on recreational use: “At Kickapoo and Middle Fork, limiting factors of steep slopes, erosion hazard, seasonal wetness, and flooding are likely to affect recreational program selection and location, increase design and construction costs, and increase the level of facility management.” The plan has not been updated in the 40-plus years since its creation. As the topography of the area faces new development demands and environmental degradation, environmentalists argue that it is necessary to consider how these changes over time could affect the Kickapoo Park Master Management plan currently in place.
The first bike trails were created in the 1990s, after the formation of the Kickapoo Mountain Bike Club in 1993. Ten trails currently run through Kickapoo State Recreation Area, varying in difficulty and terrain. Since 1993, volunteers have built bike trails on about 1,000 acres of land throughout the recreation area, and motorized vehicles are not allowed. The club’s volunteers are responsible for maintaining the trails for local mountain bikers. The Kickapoo Mountain Bike Club claims on its website that it “works closely with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, as well as the Kickapoo State Park Superintendent, to ensure that there is as little impact on the environment as possible.” But the construction of 3 more miles of bike trails in Spring 2019 raised questions about the club’s commitment to minimize the environmental impact.
Environmental activists from the Prairie Rivers Network found that the methods used to construct those trails are not up to expected environmental standards. Moreover, one of the new trails approved in 2021 is being built on the previous location of Dynegy Energy Co. The tract housed a coal mine for decades before Dynegy shut it down, leaving behind economic and environmental destruction. The area is already prone to leakages and contaminated by improper closure of the site, when surface ponds built to hold coal ash leaked toxic byproducts into the soil. Activists fear that the bike trails will worsen these environmental hazards.
DNR approved the construction of the trail with a permit specifically stating that “This proposed 5-mile extension would be constructed similar to the other 17 miles of single-track trails in the park using hand tools to clear vegetation and grade a 2-foot-wide earth surface trail.” Despite these parameters, heavy machinery — not hand tools — are being used to build the mountain bike trail, clearly violating the standards of the permit. The Kickapoo Mountain Bike Club lacks the necessary compliance to construct these trails — and the machinery may cause unnecessary damage to the natural landscape.
Prairie Rivers Network activists worry that the design of the new mountain bike trails will affect the durability of the natural ecosystem. The construction of the trails will eventually lead to erosion caused by bikes packing down the soil, making it extra slippery and possibly causing habitat displacement for species living there. If water is no longer able to pass through the trails, it will flow downstream and cause erosion over decades of weathering. This issue can affect soil quality and create permanent damage to the ecosystem.
In June 2021, a group of botanists from the University of Illinois submitted a report to DNR that raised alarms about one of the new bike trails. “A Report of the Botanical Resources and Species of Conservation Concern Associated with a Proposed Mountain Bike Path in the Kickapoo State Park Dynegy Tract, Vermilion County” outlined how the trail — an addition connecting the existing mountain bike trails to Kennekuk County Park — will affect the current vegetation of Kickapoo. They conducted a vegetation survey by noting any species living within 10 feet of either side of the proposed addition, known as mountain bike trail 11. Their results showed that at least nine species already demand conservation efforts on the proposed trail: the broad-winged hawk, eastern whip-poor-will, yellow-billed cuckoo, Acadian flycatcher, wood thrush, Kentucky warbler, yellow-breasted chat, field sparrow, and eastern towhee. The authors said constructing mountain bike trail 11 will result in forest fragmentation that will disrupt the current habitats of these birds and threaten their ability to increase population size to preserve the species. They concluded that mountain bike trail 11 as currently proposed “… cannot be constructed without resulting in extensive damage to the site’s biodiversity, ecological integrity, and sustainability.”
Prairie Rivers Network found violations affecting the surrounding plants and soil in Kickapoo. Generally mountain bikers are encouraged not to ride the trails when they are too slick, and no trees less than three inches in diameter are to be cut down for the construction of new trails. Despite these regulations, tire tracks are evident on muddy trails, and trees have been cut that are smaller in diameter than what is listed. The lack of accountability for compliance violations is worrisome to environmental organizations working to minimize damage to the park’s natural resources. The lasting impacts of this harm fall on both the environment and taxpayers. The mountain bike club likely will not have to pay for the costs of these future damages; there is no binding contract that would require it to. As a result, local taxpayers would have to bear the additional costs of attempting to restore the area.
The use of the Kickapoo State Recreation Area for mountain biking also may conflict with the needs of current recreational users. Approximately 100 mountain bikers pass through Kickapoo State Recreation Area every day, generating noise that can disrupt the serene environment that hikers seek to enjoy. The noise can threaten the biodiversity of the wildlife surrounding the trails and the habitats that they call home by scaring them off. The expansion of mountain bike trails also brings additional wear and tear, requiring volunteer work to minimize erosion. That in turn can restrict recreational use if sections of the trails are temporarily closed to avoid overuse or to repair damage to hiking trails. Hunting season already conflicts with mountain biking, as the trails are closed for one month during prime deer-hunting season. The construction of new mountain bike trails could also strain the existing relationship with hunters to balance recreational land use.
Conservation and tourism are competing concepts in our profit-driven society. The larger question at play here is how governments attempt to preserve parks while simultaneously drawing in as much tourism revenue as they can. The difficulty is that each person views the best way to strike this balance differently.
Prairie Rivers Network and other environmentalists would like to see three main requests implemented by DNR: Update the 40-year-old Kickapoo Master Management Plan; implement the park’s 30-year-old Corridor Management Plan; and analyze alternative siting for trails to minimize environmental damage. Updating the master plan would allow for a nuanced understanding of the topography of the state park. Uses of the park have changed over time as the natural environment shifted due to factors such as erosion and climate change. Environmentalists believe it is necessary for the park plans to reflect these changes and maintain current species biodiversity. Implementing the 30-year-old Corridor Management Plan would improve on the existing regulatory measures in Kickapoo State Recreation Area. It calls for a feasibility study for the park’s hiking trails, which has never been conducted. The plan also would help ensure that any future projects similar to the installation of new mountain bike trails follow the necessary steps to maintain the biodiversity of the ecosystem as much as possible in the construction process.
The ability of tourists to appreciate nature through various recreational hobbies is the hope of both the mountain bikers and environmentalists. If DNR were to analyze alternative siting, it would provide an opportunity to reap the benefits of increased tourism revenue without as much long-term environmental degradation. Specifically, environmental activists are advocating for no construction of new mountain bike trails in the Dynegy tract. Instead, they suggest that alternatives such as former strip-mined lands be seriously considered for new biking trails.
Environmental organizations and government officials have communicated their concerns about the proper maintenance of Kickapoo State Recreation Area to DNR. The late state Sen. Scott Bennett, who represented Illinois’ 52nd District, reached out to the department in March 2020 requesting that the Citizens Advisory Committee included in the original master plan for Kickapoo be reinstated. The original plan was approved in 1992, and he argued that the Advisory Committee needs to become operational. The current condition of the river bank near the Dynegy coal ash impoundments is already fragile given the improper closure of the site decades ago, and the Advisory Committee would ensure a better future for the area.
Prairie Rivers Network also has taken steps to express its opposition to additional mountain bike trails. The organization requested on May 13, 2021, that DNR immediately cease construction of the approved 10 miles of new bike trails on land along the Middle Fork River next to Kickapoo State Recreation Area. The letter states that Project #2109335, as that segment is known, would cause permanent damage to the ecosystem and deny access to other recreational users who enjoy the space. Prairie Rivers believes that public input is necessary before construction continues, to ensure that Kickapoo State Recreation Area can meet the needs of current generations while maintaining biodiversity and enjoyment for generations to come.
The letter goes on to acknowledge the work that DNR has done for the Middle Fork, Illinois’ only officially designated National Scenic River, and recognizes how funding limitations have prevented full implementation of the Corridor Management Plan (CMP). The letter describes specific concerns, such as difficulty in accessing information about the project, inadequate protection from the Comprehensive Environmental Review Process (CERP), significant erosion on existing bike trails, piecemeal planning, insufficient consideration of alternatives, and a lack of accountability and enforcement. These efforts from environmental activists acknowledge the recreational and economic benefits of the mountain bike trails while still prioritizing compliance with the Kickapoo Master Management Plan and conservation of the ecosystem.
Similarly, the Sierra Club has expressed concerns that the plan for that segment does not sufficiently consider the ecological worth of the area. In an April 2021 letter, the organization asked that construction cease until those concerns are addressed. The organization has four main concerns: finding alternate locations for additional bike trails; providing adequate resources to monitor the new trails; maintaining the Upland Forest area for non-intensive uses; and protecting the ecological integrity of areas that are currently undisturbed natural habitats.
Why should the average person care about what is happening to the Kickapoo State Recreation Area? Even if you have no connections to this particular location, the larger picture is extremely relevant. As long as humans continue to breathe in air and spend time outdoors, these developments affect everyone. Mountain biking and other forms of ecotourism are sure to grow, but as our climate changes and natural spaces come under increasing pressure it is important to figure out how to balance the recreational use of these spaces with the very real need for conservation and biodiversity. As important as it is to preserve access for the current generation to the wilds of Kickapoo, it is imperative we preserve that same privilege for future generations and species.
About the Author …
Zoe Huspen is a senior from Downers Grove, Ill., majoring in Environmental Sustainability, minoring in Political Science, and earned the Certificate in Environmental Writing. She is Vice President of Students for Environmental Concerns and also works as the Greener Campus Programs / Campus Sustainability Intern at iSEE. She hopes to become a sustainability coordinator upon graduating.
This article was written for ESE/ENGL 498, the CEW capstone course.