CHARLESTON -- For about the last six years, the Grand Prairie Friends organization has worked toward preserving the natural areas of a vast tract of land south of Charleston.
But with all the land acquisition, preservation work, trail projects and more, Sarah Livesay, the organization's director, says she's "most proud" of a smaller example of the effort.
Among the more recent work at what's now Warbler Ridge Conservation Area is the installation of poles with artificial tree bark for roosting bats.
Livesay said that's a cutting edge approach to the study of bats and efforts to help their habitat.
"It's something you just don't see in nature preserves and conservation areas in the United States," she said.
Livesay said she feels that's one way the group's efforts exemplified "innovative" practices. It's part of the "total resource management" approach that help led to a recent recognition.
The Grand Prairie Friends and its efforts at Warbler Ridge led to its selection by the Coles County Soil and Water Conservation District as that organization's Conservationist of the Year.
The district recognizes a conservation effort each year, alternating between farmers who use conservation practices in their operations and people or groups that work to preserve natural areas.
"The organization’s property holdings include good representations of several ecologically sensitive habitats," said Lauren Spaniol, resource conservationist with the Soil and Water Conservation District. "Additionally, they are creating and revitalizing habitat through restoration efforts."
The Urbana-based Grand Prairie Friends first purchased a woodlands near Fox Ridge State Park in 2012. It's continued to acquire and add property since then to develop a 1,000-acre preserve stretching from near Fox Ridge to Lake Charleston.
Last year, the Grand Prairie Friends began working with the Illinois Natural History Survey to study the bat population and improve bat habitat at the site.
Livesay said the effort incorporates the best science practices, as some bats are "finicky" and ensuring the proper habitat can help with the rarer species' populations.
"We listen to the research," she said.
The group's work at Warbler Ridge has also included reforestation, constructing wetlands, controlling non-native plant species and more, noted Jeff Peyton, Grand Prairie Friends' natural areas manager.
He said it's part of a "holistic approach" to try to manage all aspects of an ecosystem.
Peyton added that hiking trails and public events along with educational programs at the site are also important parts of the work.
"Engaging the public is important," he said. "These spaces are the natural spaces for the community."