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Giant tree was a surprise to forest preserve staff

When the Byron Forest Preserve acquired a 160 acre plot of land, little did they know of a hidden treasure soon to be discovered. 

From what was part of what was a 1,420 acre cattle and ranching operation sold by parcels, the forest preserve managed to snag a portion called Bald Hill.

Located in a hard-to-find locale between Leaf River and Mt. Morris, Bald Hill appealed to the forest preserve because of the topographical features, native prairie plants, two endangered raptor species, and a rare woolly milkweed.

At 925 feet above sea level, it is also the second-highest point in Ogle county with a dramatic sloping of land and some of the finest views found anywhere around. 

It has gravel and sand deposits from the last ice age.

Even with its $652,000 price tag, of which $434,000 was paid for with a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Foundation, it was a prized addition to other properties managed by the forest preserve.

What really set this piece of land apart from all others, though, was the accidental discovery of what turned out to be the largest tree in Illinois. 

With the rolling topography, the tree isn’t noticeable until a person crosses over to a ravine and looks down upon the behemoth of an eastern Cottonwood.

“When we first saw it, there was all kinds of brush around it,” forest preserve Executive Director Todd Tucker said. “We cleared the brush and said ‘Oh my gosh, this is a big tree.’ Then I started measuring it with my arms outstretched and it took six lengths to get all the way around it. It had to be close to 30 feet in diameter.”

Make that exactly 28.5 feet. It is also 122 feet tall, but sitting at the base of the ravine at 750 feet of elevation doesn’t even reach the highest point of Bald Hill. That’s why it can’t be fully seen without getting up close.

It is also a major factor in the long life the tree has sustained, estimated at 200 years.

“The hills protect it from lightning and at the low elevation, it gets plenty of water,” Tucker said.

Since news of the cottonwood dethroning a bald cypress in southern Illinois as the Big Tree Champion, Tucker has been busy fielding media interviews.

“The Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times have contacted us, along with the Rockford TV stations,” he said, as the BFP staff prepared for an open house on April 28, which drew 800 people from all over northern Illinois. 

“NPR did a piece on it and it went to the national feed. I think this will do a lot for tourism,” Tucker said.

In an area already rich in protected lands, it will also give locals and visitors alike one more piece of nature to enjoy.

“Bald Hill will be open to the public year round,” said BFP Education Superintendent Mark Herman. “We will put trails in. From the parking lot to the tree it is almost a half mile. There are also other sites on the property to hike to.”

According the plat maps, Bald Hill has had many owners since 1838. Ford Ferguson, a commodities broker from Chicago with a passion for cattle ranching, was the most recent owner.

Last year, a decision was made by his descendants to sell Bald Hill and all the other parcels surrounding it, most commonly referred to as the Leaf River Ranch. 

At first, a private individual, Peter McDaid, outbid the BFP for Bald Hill. 

Told by Tucker that the BFP was interested in it, McDaid became willing to sell it to the Natural Land Institute, who then sold it to the forest preserve.

It was all part of a pre-arranged plan and the marriage of private-public partnership working together for the public interest.

Bob Piros, of Chana, a long-time advocate for prairie lands and retired Stillman Valley educator, was one of many people checking out Bald Hill as it was being prepped for the open house.

“The Byron Forest Preserve has a multitude of properties that they’ve put a great amount of work in bringing prairies back,” he said. “Places like this, which looks like southwest Wisconsin when you get on top of Bald Hill and Nachusa Grasslands bring people in. That’s what a big tree and buffalo will do.”

Piros has one regret and that is that Doug and Dot Wade, of Oregon, are no longer alive to see the fruits of their labor and the excitement created by the Bald Hill acquisition.

“So much of the Byron Forest Preserve and Nachusa came from them,” Piros said. “They started prairie preservation in Ogle County. Doug created a lot of enthusiasts.”

To be considered the Big Tree Champion, measurements must be sent to the Illinois State Forester. It then scores a tree based upon circumference, total height, and part of the tree’s crown width.

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