Originally Posted Online: April 21, 2013, 9:17 pm
Last Updated: April 21, 2013, 11:51 pm

Conservation Club works to boost membership

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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

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Photo: Gary Krambeck
Courtney Randall, of Moline, left, catches Sophie Banik, 2, of Davenport, as she slides down the playground slide at the Rock Island County Conservation Club on Big Island during the club's open house on Sunday, April 21, 2013.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Jeff Stanley and his son, Jake Stanley, of Moline, listen to Craig Depauw, first vice president of the Rock Island County Conservation Club, talk about the club and all the membership benefits during an open house at the Rock Island County Conservation Club on Sunday, April 21, 2013.

MILAN -- The Rock Island Conservation Club had its annual open house Sunday afternoon, not only to help boost falling membership, but to spread the word about its concerns regarding a planned nearby Rock Island development.

The 400-member club, which in its heyday has exceeded 1,400, was founded 74 years ago Sunday as a way to preserve local natural resources. The club does fundraising and volunteer work for conservation-oriented organizations and is one of the five groups that comprise the Quad City Conservation Alliance, which owns and operates the QCCA Expo Center in Rock Island.

"A lot of people have never been out here before," RICC President Jay Pienta said of the club-owned, 110-acre property on Big Island, off Big Island Parkway and west of U.S. 67. Normally, about 80 acres of the club property is water, but recent flooding pushed that to about 100, Mr. Pienta said.

The club uses $2 of every member's annual dues -- $50 for a couple and $75 for a family -- to stock its lakes full of fish, he noted. Members get reduced clubhouse rental fees, a monthly newsletter and special prices in its clubhouse bar. Its scenic property offers opportunities for fishing, boating, picnicking, camping, hiking, cycling, bird watching and a playground. It also hosts many special events, including parties, an annual picnic, and instruction on bow hunting and gun hunter safety.

Every hour that club volunteers work at QCCA events brings the club $3 to help support its mission, Mr. Pienta said. Membership has dwindled in the past decade because of proliferation of so many sporting and other family activities, entertainment options and people's passion for electronic gadgets rather than the outdoors, he said.

The RICC land originally was a sand quarry owned by Moline Consumers Co., donated to the organization originally for a pheasant farm. About 90 acres of nearby land recently was purchased from River Stone Group by the city of Rock Island for $1 million and is eyed to complement Jumer's Casino & Hotel as potential development of an outlet mall, retail center, housing, a sporting goods store, gas station and restaurants.

The RICC and other organizations are upset the plan may jeopardize the 10.8-mile levee that protects more than 3,000 acres of land. Mr. Pienta said Sunday this past week's flooding, which covered a portion of 27th Street West, would have been even worse if such a development was built.

"You're taking 90 to 100 acres, turning it into blacktop, buildings and roofs, and all that water has to run off somewhere," he said. "There's a lot of water comes from absorption through the ground. How does that affect us?"

He distributed copies of a March letter to visitors Sunday that he recommended they send to the city of Rock Island and Big Island River Conservancy District. It notes the concerns of the planned development's impact on the levee, increased traffic, turning Big Island Parkway into a major road, as well as increased noise, air and light pollution imposed on area habitats and the club.

The letter says the quiet, natural amenities of the club are what attract members. "Our members have avoided approving any commercial enhancements to our club grounds because it is not the objective of our organization," the letter says. "The commercial development Rock Island envisions will negatively impact the club's amenities and our future conservation efforts."

Since the recent city election -- in which mayoral candidate David Levin, who opposed the Big Island plan, lost -- the area conservation groups haven't met with the city to discuss the plans, Mr. Pienta, of Rock Island, said.

The city's proposal to modify the levee needs approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, Milan's village board and the Big Island River Conservancy District.

As part of the investigation into how wildlife and habitats may be affected by the Rock Island plan, Mr. Pienta said he's excited about the River Bend Wildland Trust hosting a "BioBlitz," starting May 31, at the Milan Bottoms Nature Preserve. A BioBlitz combines experts, citizen scientists, photographers and volunteers during a 24-hour period in an attempt to document all the species living in a specific geographic area.

They will have survey groups identifying species throughout the bottomlands, and RICC will supply volunteers. The Milan Bottoms are located along the Mississippi River just west of Rock Island, below the confluence of the Rock and Mississippi rivers.

Mr. Pienta said he was happy with the turnout at Sunday's open house and hopes to reinvigorate the club with younger members, such as his college-age daughter, Anna, who formed a new environmental action committee in the past year. That group supplied recycling containers for the property, which have led to reducing trash by half, Mr. Pienta said. Anna is the club's youngest board member.

For more information about RICC, visit riccnews.com. The club will have a similar open house on May 19 from 1 to 4 p.m. For more information about the upcoming BioBlitz, which will include the Corps of Engineers and Illinois Department of Natural Resources, visit rbwt.org.