Learn More About Chinquapin Bluffs

Landscape and Stewardship

The Chinquapin Bluffs Land and Water Reserve harbors 12 different natural communities from dry hill prairie and sand prairie to mesic (moist) seeps, marsh, and woodland floodplain. Several state-threatened or sensitive species have been recorded here such as Hill’s thistle and yellow lady’s slipper orchid.

The preserve earns its name from two of its many distinct features: chinquapin oaks and morainal bluffs. A chinquapin oak savanna lies near the remnant glacial drift hill prairie of the north section. As opposed to the white, bur, and black oak species that dominate many Illinois woodlands, chinquapin oaks (also known as yellow chestnut oak) are typically scattered across dry, wooded hillsides and limestone outcrops. It is rare to find a concentration of chinquapin oaks in the Midwest, such as in this savanna. The bluffs are that of the Eureka Moraine, an end moraine formed during the middle Wisconsinan glaciation (15 - 20,000 years ago).

A study of this site by Illinois State University biologist and past ParkLands president Roger Anderson provides a glimpse into its pre-settlement past. Land surveys from the 1820s describe ground that was mostly “broken, not fit for cultivation” dominated by prairie (55.5%) and savanna (35.3%). Woodlands were restricted to the waterways and ravines. Generously spaced white oak, black oak, and hickory accounted for 89% of all trees in the woodlands and barrens, kept that way by occasional wildfire.

However, by the time The Nature Conservancy acquired the property in 1997, its ecological health was being challenged. Former prairies were now monocultured pastures of cool-season grasses or grain crops. Its uplands were being invaded by black locust and autumn olive while non-native sugar maple, ash, and honey locust clogged the savannas.

Thus, many conservation efforts since have focused on restoring the landscape to its original, open state. Over 100 acres of prairie have been restored to native big bluestem and Indian grasses on either side of the river, for which prescribed burns have become a crucial management technique. Volunteers have spent countless hours sawing their way through crowded underbrush, harvesting nuts, and planting seeds to encourage native growth. Initial grants from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources were used to jumpstart invasive species removal from the north bluff and rehab riparian areas with native trees.

Perhaps the best example of restored prairie lies in the south section’s river basin. Follow the trail as it branches north from the trailhead and pinches through a woodland corridor before opening into an overlook of the prairie basin. The western edge of this basin also leads past one of two restored wetlands on the main preserve; the other lying due west across the river.


Overall, 18 species identified as being in greatest need of conservation by the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan (IWAP) have been found at Chinquapin Bluffs, including 15 birds and 3 mussels. Several Illinois state-threatened species have been observed here, including loggerhead shrike, black-billed cuckoo, and the spike mussel, while other sensitive species like Henslow’s sparrow, redheaded woodpecker, and the ellipse mussel have also been recorded.


Some ParkLands preserves, such as Frances Woodrum’s unexpected gift of 50 acres just south of Chinquapin Bluffs, gratefully seem to fall almost effortlessly into place. The story of the Chinquapin preserve itself, however, is one of grit, persistency, and networks of generous conservationists.

It started simply enough. Mrs. Woodrum’s gift in 1989 was about three miles south of 40 acres donated by Mildred Hazle in 1987 and made ParkLands’ fourth holding in the area. Though less than 60 acres each, ParkLands knew these parcels carried potential to be key inroads towards creating a contiguous area of ecological protection in Woodford County.

Around the time of these donations, ParkLands representatives caught wind that heirs to the Bateman Estate, a 976-acre gem straddling the Mackinaw River between the Woodrum and Hazle preserves, was for sale. This property was well-known among local naturalists, described by ParkLands Director Jim Bouas as the “the finest conservation piece” he had ever seen. Biologists who had seen the property were exhilarated at the ecological potential. Negotiations ensued, but the asking price proved too much for ParkLands to cover.

Fortunately, ParkLands was not the only conservation organization focused on the Mackinaw River. By the early 1990s, the Chicago-based Illinois chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) had formalized their “Mackinaw River Project” aimed at protecting what was one of only 24 streams across the state ranked as “excellent” quality for its diversity of fish, mussels, and crayfish. A formal watershed plan was in the works.

ParkLands and TNC had partnered on several recent projects, including the acquisition of Ridgetop Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, the creation of a wetland at Merwin Preserve, and the release of 25 river otters in McLean County. Guy Fraker, one of ParkLands’ founding visionaries and a leader of growing influence within TNC, drew the Conservancy’s interest towards the Bateman Estate. TNC had the resources, but expansion into the Mackinaw River valley was still fresh, and the idea of investing in nearly 1,000 acres was leading to some internal angst.

Yet, on December 7, 1997, The Nature Conservancy purchased most of the Bateman parcels (720 acres) at auction with the goal of “restoring permanent vegetation to the floodplain and planting trees to protect the river and reduce flooding and sediment loads”. The purchase was made possible by major donations from educators Paul and Gladys Larson, businessman William Boyd, and author Paula Hardin – each Chicago-area residents with a passion for conservation and an understanding of what was at stake 120 miles to their southwest. Stone monuments recognize Boyd and Hardin near the south entrance and the Larsons on the north bluff. ParkLands remained heavily involved in the newly named Chinquapin Bluffs Natural Area, offering a volunteer network and stewardship expertise to begin restoring the property to its native state.

By the late 2000s, just as ParkLands continued expansion into southeastern Woodford County with the acquisition of Letcher Basin Preserve, The Nature Conservancy began to reassess their priorities across the state. They recognized ParkLands’ proven leadership in the Mackinaw River valley and eventually determined that land holdings in the watershed were best aligned with ParkLands’ mission. Thus, in 2008, TNC transferred ownership of the entire Chinquapin Bluffs Natural Area and the 60-acre Henline Creek Natural Area (southeast of Lexington) to ParkLands. This gift was significant in both scale and in restoration resources invested over the previous decade. ParkLands carried the Chinquapin Bluffs name forward, combined it with the adjoining 40-acre Hazle Preserve, and registered it as an Illinois Land and Water Reserve, making it just the third ParkLands preserve to carry this protection. The partnership between ParkLands and the Nature Conservancy continues to this day as TNC manages the Franklin Research and Demonstration Farm on a ParkLands-owned easement bordering the Lexington Preserve.

The Bateman Estate purchased by TNC in 1997 was that of White Oak Grove settler, landowner, farmer, and stock raiser, William Newton Bateman (1828 - 1902). He owned most of what would become Chinquapin’s southern sections by 1893. The north bluff was owned at that time by Daniel Gingerich, another major landowner who also held much of what would become Letcher Basin Preserve and operated a distillery and mill in the former town of Bowling Green (near the entrance to Kenyon-Baller Woods Preserve today). A generation before, the south preserve was owned by the Carlock family for whom the nearby town is named and extensive records have been left. Long before European settlers arrived, though, White Oak Grove served as a Native American gathering site as trails connecting the Illinois River valley to present-day McLean County intersected in these bluffs.

Tracing the history of Chinquapin Bluffs from a Native American stronghold to rehabilitation by modern conservationists beautifully illustrates the mantra:

The land we own is not ours, it is just our turn.