Updated: Mar 17, 2021
Illinois is not well known for its publicly available hunting, fishing and outdoor recreational land. While western states have millions of acres set aside for such activities, here in the Midwest the private value of acreage prevented such areas from becoming available to the masses. Despite this, us Illinoisans do have a few such places to enjoy. JEPC just so happens to be one that is a stone's throw from where I live, and a host to many great memories for myself and my family.
"Settled and farmed by the mid-1800s, the contiguous farmsteads that composed Jim Edgar Panther Creek SFWA were purchased from 1968-1974 by Commonwealth Edison for development of a coal-fired, electric-power generating plant and a 5,000-acre cooling lake. The company named the 16,550-acre tract "Site M" for nearby Menard County, where coal to fuel the power plant was to be mined.
Commonwealth Edison leased about half of the acreage for cropland, and through a cooperative agreement with the IDNR also provided limited upland and forest game hunting. Through the years, hunters applying for permits to the area became well-acquainted with the Site M name.
Commonwealth Edison abandoned its plans to build a power plant at Site M in the 1980s. By virtue of its size and location, Site M became an unparalleled opportunity for the IDNR to address critical conservation needs and meet outdoor recreation demands. With funds
specifically designated for conservation purposes, the State of Illinois added the acreage to the public trust in June 1993, making Site M the largest tract ever acquired by the IDNR at that time.
Effective January 1, 2001, Panther Creek Conservation Area was absorbed into JEPC in an effort to avoid confusion and simplify site regulations. This brings the total acres of JEPC to 16,550. Panther Creek CA is now known as the West Open Unit."
(Illinois Department of Natural Resources Website)
Governor Jim Edgar, George Fleischli and Brent Manning talk about the Site M acquisition and development on site.
JEPC offers great opportunities for hunting on nearly all its acreage. Deer and pheasant are the big draw on the property and once November rolls around you will find the vehicles of optimistic hunters in most of the designated parking areas. The whitetail genetics and age structures are amazing in the area, and the habitat is as pretty as a Mark Drury farm. I, myself, harvested my first mature buck on the property in 2008 and
still find myself venturing back there most years to see if I can run into one of those hunter-eluding public land giants that have made the property famous. While nonresident license plates are found all over the park chasing deer, locals dominate the "open unit" in search of pheasants. IDNR has established a pheasant release program with daily hunter quotas. Year-round you can find pheasants in the areas surrounding JEPC, proving that the mix of habitat and the state's release program has spurred a successful wild population that has become increasingly rare in the state. September dove hunters find great success in the six sunflower fields spread across the park as well, with nearly 1,500 doves being taken in 2019. Let's not forget small game hunters who find quail, woodcock, squirrels and rabbits all over the area with nearly 6,000 acres of timber. It truly is a public land hunter's paradise.
Are you more into fishing, horseback riding, camping, hiking and mountain biking? No worries, those resources are incredible as well. With three stocked lakes and multiple ponds scattered throughout the property the fishing is fantastic. The main hub of the property, Prairie Lake, sees many visitors with its fishing opportunities, rv camp sites and nearby primitive camping areas. It's also one of the only places in west central Illinois that you can find muskies. Another rv campsite at the north end of the park connects to the 26 miles of horse trails. The terrain is very diverse, hilly and perfect for hikers as well. Speaking of hikers, the park includes an additional 24 miles of mountain biking and hiking trails and three miles of paved biking/jogging trail.
IDNR's conservation efforts here are truly awesome. Since acquisition they have established two man made wetland areas, 1,200 acres of native grass, 820 acres of cool season grass, 180 acres of habitat strips, and 105 acres of trees that was once agriculture fields or pasture. There is also 175 acres of original loess hill prairie and 670 acres set aside to move towards natural forestation.
Every time I go to "Site M" I leave recharged. The vastness of natural habitat in a state so chock full of flat dirt and agriculture is a welcome sight. It truly is a nature lover's dream. I can admit that it leaves a guy wishing he could own a piece of such a place for himself. However, the greater good in having such a place available to the public is a gift to us all. For public land, I am grateful.