OTTAWA, Ill. — Just beyond the rim of Chicago's sprawl, table-flat farmland suddenly gives way to scenic bluffs, canyons and forests where the Illinois River wends its way past ancient sandstone formations.
It's home to Starved Rock State Park, one of Illinois' most unique and beloved public properties, which draws more than 2 million visitors a year to watch bald eagles, hike and canoe just 90 miles from the nation's third-largest city.
Now some fear the park is in peril.
A Missouri company has submitted a proposal to mine sand from more than 300 acres adjacent to Starved Rock's eastern border. It's looking to feed a growing demand for high-quality sand to use in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial method of extracting natural gas from deep underground by forcing cracks in shale.
Environmentalists and many residents say a mine would create noise, vibrations, traffic and dust that could disrupt habitat for migrating birds, startle wildlife and ruin the outdoor experience for park visitors.
County officials gave Mississippi Sand LLC a special-use permit for a mine Thursday. Now the matter is in the hands of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which faces a unique dilemma: It is in charge of both caretaking public land for the state and regulating the mining industry in an unbiased manner.
Mine opponents believe the state ignored its first responsibility. The DNR has not publicly commented on opponents' concerns or raised any of its own — even though Starved Rock is an immediate neighbor of the proposed mine and many visitors travel the same road where the company says sand-laden trucks would leave the mine at least 110 times a day.
"I am disappointed they are not supporting the interests of the public," said Starved Rock Audubon Society President John McKee. "But from the DNR there has been silence. Absolute silence."
DNR spokesman Chris McCloud said he didn't know if the agency ever has been in this position. But he said the agency is bound by law when it comes to issuing mining permits — whether or not the state is an adjacent land owner — and "a decision will be made without bias or influence."
He said the agency considered potential impacts to threatened and endangered species in the area, but found none. It did recommend that the company not dump wastewater into a marsh on the property the state has identified as a natural area.
"What we can do as a natural resources agency is work with them and cover any adverse impacts not addressed in the law," he said. The DNR understands people's concerns, but must balance those concerns with its role as a regulatory agency.
Mississippi Sand President Tony Giordano said the company chose the site after searching for land with St. Peter sandstone — which yields a particularly hard grain favored in fracking and plentiful in LaSalle County — that did not have too much soil on top of the sand and had few neighbors. The company has promised to build a landscaped berm along the road, limit truck traffic during special park events and avoid damaging bluffs on the southern portion of the property.
"We're exhaustively trying to do the right thing for the county," said Giordano, who says the mine would create 39 high-paying jobs and pump more than $9 million a year into the local economy. Starved Rock "is a treasure of the state and a wonderful park; we understand folks' concerns ... but we aren't doing anything on park property."
The 2,360-acre park, whose website proclaims it the most beautiful place in Illinois, was sold to the state 100 years ago, and has long been regarded as an oasis of rugged beauty in a state better known for agriculture and industry.
Cathy Ptak brought her 13-year-old son Aaron to Starved Rock on Wednesday to watch bald eagles near a dam, and worries blasting from the sand mine would disturb the birds "just when they're coming back" to Illinois.
"The problem in Illinois is there are not many parks like this, so where else do you go?" said Ptak, who lives near Dundee, northwest of Chicago. "Nature-wise what else is there in Illinois? I imagine there are other places they could put a mine."
That's just what McKee and many other LaSalle County residents are saying. Sand mining has been a part of the local economy for more than a century, and another new mine recently was approved farther away from the park.
But other residents, including dozens of union workers who crowded the county board meeting in support of the mine, say officials should not pass up the opportunity to create jobs in a county where unemployment was 10.8 percent in November.
Attorney Jonathan Brandt, who represents the farmer selling the land to the mine, said opponents' fears are unfounded.
"The facts do not substantiate their claims," said Brandt, who said some people who might get jobs at the site have not worked in two years.
Paul Martin, an Ottawa attorney who opposes the mine, said the county and DNR should consider tourism jobs that could be lost if Starved Rock loses visitors.
"The DNR should weigh in on this, but it doesn't surprise me that it hasn't," said Martin, who noted that the proposed mine property also contains Indian artifacts. "They're keeping their heads down."
Illinois Sierra Club officials have vowed to fight on, and said they hope to influence state and federal agencies that must weigh in on the project. The club helped deliver more than 6,000 signatures to county officials opposing the mine, and has called for more detailed groundwater studies.
"Starved Rock is one of those places so many people hold dear," said Tess Wendell, an organizer with the Sierra Club. "We're trying to get the point across that not just LaSalle County has an interest, but the whole state of Illinois. Starved Rock is the people's park."
Once the company submits an application, the DNR has 120 days to deny or issue a permit, but can do so in as few as 60 days unless LaSalle County officials request a public hearing, McCloud said. Even then, the only issue that could be discussed is the plan for what happens to the mine once it's closed, not whether a permit may be issued.
Don Goerne, vice president of the Starved Rock Audubon Society, said his group is passionate about the park and stopping the mine.
"The fact that anyone is even thinking of this is unbelievable," he said. "Why wouldn't you protect the crown jewel of Illinois parks?