CARRIER MILLS -- Vivid fall colors and rough vegetation line the trail behind a usually-locked gate on the western side of the Sahara Woods property north of Carrier Mills. The autumn palette blazes in contrast with the overcast sky on this particular Wednesday afternoon.
The rugged beauty of the landscape is exactly what Gov. Bruce Rauner highlights as he announces plans for the first state-owned off-highway vehicle park on a portion of the sprawling property that once was a mining operation.
"This is a great day for the people of southern Illinois. This is going to be a beautiful park," Rauner told about 60 people gathered at the site.
"It's all about growing jobs in southern Illinois," he said. "This is going to generate a lot of jobs, tourism investment, visitors coming from all over the Midwest. It's also going to enhance the quality of life for the people of southern Illinois."
Rauner, with 59th District state Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, and Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Wayne Rosenthal, said about 1,400 hundred acres of the 4,100-acre Sahara Wood property will be used to create the OHV park.
"Within that area, there's going to be around 26 miles of OHV trails and will initially have a capacity of 120 individuals," Fowler said.
Rosenthal said that tentatively, a beginner's track or loop could be located near where Wednesday's news conference was taking place, where there could be some supervision of riders.
A federal grant of $1.2 million, coupled with a contribution of $300,000 from IDNR, will fund the initial development of the OHV park, Rauner said.
Rauner said the property is ideal for developing off-road recreation.
"This is the perfect use for an old abandoned reclaimed coal mine site," he said.
Rauner, who said he enjoys using off-road vehicles himself, said he wants to be back at Sahara Woods when the site opens to the public. He and Rosenthal said the site is planned to open sometime in the spring of 2019. They said the number of jobs created by developing the OHV park has not been determined.
Following the announcement, Rauner was joined by Rosenthal and Fowler as Site Superintendent Eric McClusky drove a side-by-side OHV down a trail to showcase the planned off-road park. The governor was followed by media driven by IDNR employees in additional side-by-sides.
Acquired by IDNR in 1999 as a gift from Sahara Coal Co., the Sahara Woods property currently is used for fishing and some hunting.
Fowler said he and others continue to work to increase the number of visitors to the region, which he said will be beneficial to the local economy.
"This enhances the collective tourism initiative that we're instilling here in God's country in beautiful southern Illinois, showcasing all the amazing treasures we have to offer," Fowler said.