Big River State Forest in western Illinois’ Henderson County is 8 miles north of Oquawka on the Oquawka-Keithsburg blacktop. The forest is managed primarily to demonstrate sound forestry practices, with demonstrations and talks on these practices available to interested groups.
The 200-acre Oquawka Refuge, acquired by the state in 1925, contains the area’s oldest pine plantation. Established in 1928 and known as the Milroy Plantation, the 17-acre area contains red, white and jack pines that tower more than 50 feet high. Subsequent land purchases, beginning in 1941 and 1942, and a lease from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, have brought the forest to 2,900 acres.
Big River State Forest is a remnant of a vast prairie woodland border area that once covered much of Illinois. Among its vegetation are two endangered plants - penstemon, commonly known as bearded tongue, and Patterson’s bindweed, which N.H. Patterson documented in 1873, for the first time anywhere, in the forest.
Common plants found in the prairie are big and little bluestem, Indian grass, June grass, grama grass, flower-of-an-hour, cottonweed, prairie coneflower, pale prairie coneflower, prairie bush clover, purple prairie clover and blazing star. Also found are western sunflower, kittentail, lead plant, prickly pear cactus, flowering spurge, aromatic sumac, false dragonhead, Sullivan’s milkweed, horsemint, goat’s-rue and hoary puccoon.
Timber Stand Conversion
To demonstrate the feasibility of growing profitable pine forests on the type of sandy soil found in the area, much of the forest has been converted from scrub hardwood to pine. This "timber stand conversion" consists of removing scrub hardwood, salvaging the saleable material for pulpwood, controlling hardwood reproduction and planting rapidly growing white and red pines. Many area landowners have adopted these conversion practices and established hundreds of thriving pine plantations throughout the area.
A prominent landmark in the forest is its fire tower, located at the headquarters area. Fire fighting crews and equipment also stand ready to protect the forest during peak fire periods.
To separate the forest into manageable components, 60 miles of firebreaks interlace Big River State Forest. When fires aren’t a threat, hikers and horseback riders appreciate the diverse scenery the firebreak trails provide.