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follow up on potential VRO project

Posted by Quinn Connolly on July 20, 2023

Dear Madhu,

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me and here is a follow up email to our zoom conversation. The committee on natural areas at UIUC oversees research on roughly a dozen university-owned properties that include about 1,000 acres of natural lands spanning east-central Illinois. The largest of these, the Vermilion River Observatory, located about 45 miles by road east of campus, was acquired by the Dept of ECE in the 1960s to construct a radio telescope. The ~495 acre property is now managed by the CNA for various environmental research projects and there are ~105 acres of agricultural land that are leased to a tenant farmer by ECE for cash revenue that at its peak generated ~20k/year but the value of the crop has been declining recently. Due to being in the drainage of the Vermilion river, the soils of the VRO are somewhat marginal in their production value and I think there is some chance the tenant farmer will decide to leave the lease. Or it may be possible given a suitable research project to take over the lease and use the lands for research.

The project I am interested in pursuing is a long-term, large-scale ecological and agricultural experiment evaluating trajectories of agricultural lands following agricultural abandonment. Considering the scale of the agricultural lands on the VRO, I think it could be possible to have large and well-replicated experimental treatments that include comparisons among passive revegetation, bioenergy production, and active reforestation. Potential study outcomes could include carbon sequestration/flow, biodiversity conservation, and economic and energy cost/benefit analyses comparing the costs of these different experimental treatments versus the returns on investment. By east-central Illinois standards, I think the productivity of the agricultural lands on the VRO could be considered marginal, but based on my read of the literature and our conversation, I get the impression that these marginal lands are more likely to experience agricultural abandonment in the coming years.

Assuming ECE would be open to a change in the management strategy for the agricultural lands on the VRO, which I would be happy to discuss with ECE and the OVCRI if we decide to proceed, the CNA could provide some logistical support for a large-scale research project on the VRO, including through the use of some of our farm equipment and out buildings on the property. We also have two full-time research/management staff whose time can be budgeted into proposals. And I am eager to undertake more long-term experiments on the CNA properties using former agricultural lands, since I see this as one of the most unique and important values of these properties that can be applied to a pressing environmental challenge.

This is something I would be excited to pursue through the support of iSEE and I would love it if it gave us a chance to collaborate, Madhu. Attached please find an aerial photo of the VRO and an older site description map. Please let me know if you think this could dovetail with other opportunities currently being pursued by iSEE and CABBI and let me know what I can do to help!




This is the land that Brian Allan had mentioned to me