It’s been a key objective of this column to seek, recommend, encourage, and promote efforts that contribute to the area’s economic development and/or quality of life. Fortunately, there’s an abundance of groups, individuals, and institutions that contribute to those important goals. They give us our vibrancy and our uniqueness. All too often, we don’t fully recognize their contribution.

That may be the case with Wildlife Prairie State Park.

You know the park—those spectacular 2,000 acres outside of town with native Illinois animals in natural settings. And every time you go, you think of how unique the park is—how you’ve never heard of, let alone seen, anything like it.

The dream of Bill and Hazel Rutherford, Wildlife Prairie State Park has been in our backyard since 1978. Since then, the park has successfully achieved and expanded its goals of conserving resources, providing education about conservation and wildlife, and providing a place where this can be accomplished while having fun.

Bill recently gave the park to the state a few years ago but basically has been using his own money to keep it operating.

There’s a new group in town dedicated to preserving and promoting this jewel in our backyard. Called “Friends of Wildlife Prairie State Park,” the group set an objective to “continue Bill and Hazel’s vision and mission, etc. so future generations can share in the wonder of Illinois’ natural world.”

It’s easy to see how the park makes a contribution to our economy and our quality of life. Wildlife Prairie State Park can be a major attraction as we look to draw the growing number of tourists looking for destinations that provide contact with nature. These “eco-tourists” are a fast-growing segment of the industry. They search out nature-based, small-town attractions within a three- to four-hour drive from their home. That’s millions of potential visitors.

We sit in the middle of the Illinois River Scenic Byway (www.byways.org), which stretches 245 miles from Ottawa to Havana. The byway, called the Route of the Voyageurs, is one of five byways in Illinois. Wildlife Prairie Park and its April 22 Annual Bison Grounds Blessing is one of the featured stops on the byway. Scan through the list and you’ll get a good idea of the treasures at your doorstep.

• Rock Island Trail State Park.
• William H. Sommer Park.
• Peoria Riverfront.
• East Peoria Riverfront Greenway.
• Dirksen and McNaughton parks.
• Spring Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area.
• Banner Marsh Fish and Wildlife Area.
• Emiquon Preserve and National Wildlife Refuge.

Wildlife Prairie State Park can be a key element in the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau promotion of Illinois River Country. Its overnight accommodation choices of a log cabin, cottages, stables, and cabooses are unlike anything available.

It’s easy to get an idea of where all this could go when you consider the potential of the regional museum, the Caterpillar visitor center, and the zoo.

With our care and support—both physical and financial—Wildlife Prairie State Park and its neighboring attractions will be with us for generations. Have you visited lately? IBI