Bluff Spring Fen: Rare collaboration awarded for gorgeous restoration

Brian Ethridge

July 15, 2014

BluffSpringFen1Eleven years ago Mike Vondra, owner and President of Bluff City Materials, Inc. and partners came together with one common goal in mind – the restoration of Bluff Spring Fen, a 100 acre Illinois Nature Preserve in Elgin.

When they committed to the restoration project, they knew it wouldn’t be a very quick or easy task.

“It wasn’t something we were really thinking about taking on,” Vondra told Aggregates Manager. “We’re the adjacent property owner and through meetings we determined there was a need to do this; a need to isolate the fen from the unhealthy conditions.”

Before the restoration project commenced, Bluff Spring Fen had been impacted negatively by mining activity that had taken place for around 100 years.

“The land needed to be recontoured to enable the Forest Preserves and the Friends of the Fen to restore land that had been badly degraded and subsequently invaded by woody, invasive trees”, John Nelson of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission said.


For years people illegally dumped trash (vehicles, landscape debri, ect) in the wetland. The site was nearly destroyed by off-road vehicles, invasive behavior and various species that didn’t belong.

The tide turned in 1980 when many volunteers got together to help clean up the area. They worked hard to haul away the trash and take care of the invasive behavior.

For the restoration project to work, Bluff City and Vulcan Materials were tasked with finding a way to protect the groundwater chemistry for the rare fen plants to survive. They worked together to install over 3,000 feet of bypass storm water pipe to protect the groundwater chemistry to reroute the storm water into Poplar Creek. This specific pipeline, constructed by Martam Construction, Inc, was designed to keep the pure groundwater separate from the surface water flowing out of Gifford Lake.

“Water that is harmful to the environment is harmful to the fen. We isolated the bad water from the fen,” Vondra said. “The water that comes into the fen is either filtered from the ground or is filtered in overtime instead of having a direct impact.”

Vulcan and Bluff City’s work didn’t stop there. They also had to fill an old gravel pit pond that was leaking warm water into the fen. Considering the fen needs cold water to survive, this was near the top of their list of priorities.


“Bluff Spring Fen is an important neighbor to our facility and a vital public treasure for the community and state of Illinois,” David Clement, Senior Vice President of Vulcan Materials said. “As a company we have a long history of developing and supporting wildlife habitats. This project is continued proof that industry and nature can thrive together when stakeholders work together for a common cause.”

Although they’re supposed to be competitors, Bluff City Materials enjoys working with Vulcan.

“It was a community effort with a lot of involvement from several companies and cities,” Vondra added. It wasn’t hard to convince Vulcan to do it. They were engaged at a very high level.”

“They think it is good business to be a good neighbor.”

The restoration project has thus far been a huge success. Mike Vondra and David Clement, along with Steven Byers and John Nelson of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, were honored with the Grassroots Conservation Leadership Award from the Audubon. The award recognizes their work on the extensive public-private conservation and development initiative.

“Everyone understood the reality of the world today. They never gave up,” Vondra said. “If we hadn’t had the support of Vulcan and the state agencies I don’t think the restoration project would have gotten done.”

Although their hard work in finally starting to get recognized, the restoration project, and the fen itself, is always changing.

“It’s going to be reactive,” Vondra stressed. “If it’s functioning too well there might not be enough water, if it’s not functioning well, there may be too much water.”

But Vondra doesn’t see any major problems on the horizon.

“I can’t imagine anything going wrong,” he said. “Everyone seems really satisfied. Its’ an unusual environment, there’s a huge difference in how the fen looks and acts depending on how much rain there has been. When there is a lot of water it looks and acts differently.”

Contrary to what some may think, Bluff Spring Fen is more than wetlands. Thanks to the hard work of Vulcan, Bluff City and many volunteers, it now features a myriad of habitats including prairies, savannas, wetlands and woodlands. The Fen is home to several rare and endangered species such as the Small White Lady’s Slipper Orchids, the Baltimore Checkerspot Butterflied and the Elfin Skimmer Dragonflies.

To date, over 450 plant species, 57 butterfly species, more than 20 dragonfly species and almost 100 bird species have been recorded.

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