Volunteers work to preserve Boneyard Creek, local waterways

It was the fall of 1832 and a large host of Pottawatomie Indians set up camp near Urbana. Among them was their leader, Shemaugua, who on many such occasions told the settlers stories of this area, his ancestral home.

He told the settlers a story of a “deep snow” years ago that had many of the region’s animals move to the nearest source of running water — what is known now as Boneyard Creek. It is here, the leader said, that many animals perished of hunger, leaving their bones scattered throughout the banks of the creek.

And that, according to a book published around the turn of the 19th century, “The History of Champaign County” by J.O Cunningham, is how the creek garnered such an ominous name. 

But these days, what ends up in the Boneyard’s waters isn’t bones — it’s litter. Anything from plastic bags to shopping carts, the storm waters that end up in the creek carry with it much of the area’s waste.

With that in mind, more than 400 volunteers took to the Boneyard Creek, its tributaries and areas across the community on Saturday to clean it up as part of the Boneyard Creek Community Day.

“How do you get people to care about a little creek with a funny name? The way our organizing partners think is that you ask people to come out and volunteer,” said Eliana Brown, coordinator of the event. “They may not care about it any more than how they started out, but at least they’ll be thinking about it.”

Brad Bennett, assistant city engineer for Urbana Public Works, said that most of Urbana’s storm water ends up in the creek.

“It takes the bulk of Champaign’s storm water, the bulk of the University and almost all of Urbana drains into the Boneyard Creek,” he said. 

“One of the reasons for the day is for people to make that connection — what we do on the land impacts the creek,” Brown added.

This was the event’s ninth year and it was a record breaker in terms of the amount of volunteers and organizers, Brown said.

“When it’s such a nice day, everybody sort of comes out of the woodwork,” said Sarah Scott, an event organizer and administrative assistant for Prairie Rivers Network.


Saline Branch

The largest group that came “out of the woodwork” were University students, Brown said. This included a group of veterinary medicine students who trudged through ankle- to knee-high waters looking for trash in the Saline Branch, which Boneyard Creek feeds into.

Shannon Darcy, a second year veterinary medicine student, said the most common thing her group found in the Saline Branch, which cuts through a golf course, were plastic bags.

“A lot of the golfers here are better than I expected,” she said with a chuckle.

She said students from her department came out for conservation reasons, and as a sort of preemptive strike to their busy season at the Wildlife Medical Clinic.

“If we try and improve the habitat, we can help the lives of our wildlife,” Darcy said. “It’s going to be our busy season here soon, and we don’t want to have more animals coming in than necessary due to litter.”


Weeding-out invasive species

A little south from where the veterinary students were, another group of volunteers were hard at work cutting down invasive brush along the Saline Branch’s banks. The team included a few University students, a group of conservationists called the Master Naturalists and community members.

Derek Liebert, superintendent of Planning and Operations at Urbana Park District, spoke to the team before they went into action.   

“One of the challenges is that its banks are covered with an invasive brush, Honeysuckle, so we’re going along and slowly removing it,” he said, pointing to a clearing made during the last Boneyard Creek Community Day. “We’re opening up these views to the Saline. We think it is a resource that should be celebrated and enjoyed, rather than be hidden by (the brush).”

Honeysuckle originally hails from Europe. It blooms in May and gives off a sweet scent leading many to appreciate the plant, but not Gerry Russell, a master naturalist and site steward at Meadowbrook Park.

“They essentially don’t have any controls — any predators that could eat them or anything else. They just take over,” he said.

Honeysuckle changes the chemistry of the soil so that most native species can’t grow, and they also get so dense in some parts that they block out the sun, keeping sunlight from reaching anything else.

“The ground will be bare, except maybe for some other invasives,” Russell added.

Kristi Krumtinger, senior in FAA, came out with a few classmates. She did as she was instructed by Liebert and Russell and cut the brush to a height of four inches. A few days later, Urbana Park District employees would dribble herbicide in the stumps. 

“The Honeysuckle completely destroys everything in its path. It’s important to help out,” she said.


Boneyard Improvements

The Saline Branch component was just one of six other areas involved in the cleanup. The event went from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., but, at noon, volunteers from every region met up at Scott Park for lunch and music.

Scott Park itself uses Boneyard Creek as a water feature and is part of a drainage improvement to Boneyard that was built over the past few years. 

Another improvement is currently under construction at the other end of the creek in downtown Urbana. 

“This project doesn’t provide any flood control benefit like Champaign’s did over at Second Street,” said Brad Bennett, assistant engineer for Urbana Public Works. “What it does is provide green space.”

The approximately $7 million project is in its first of five phases and is about 65 percent finished. It aims at increasing the use of the Boneyard Creek, which Bennett described as a “hidden treasure.”

“You know right now, if you look upstream of it, you’ve got chain-link fence with barbed wire on top of it to keep people away from it,” he said. “This’ll give people an opportunity to get down there.”

Brown said the event shared the same goal and aimed at framing the creek as a natural treasure.

“I want people to come and have a good memory of the cleanup day that will go throughout the rest of their life to remember to put trash in its place,” she said.

Austin can be reached at akkeati2@dailyillini.com or @austinkeating3.

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