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Archive2001-Present: Scroll Down or Use Search1975-2001: Click Here

Reclaiming Prairie Bayous: Efforts to drain Illinois started early and never stopped

Jason Lindsey

On a spring morning in Johnson County, a chorus sings of the southern Illinois that once was. 

As the rising sun sends shafts of light into the deep green of Heron Pond, songbirds twitter, barred owls hoot and pileated woodpeckers provide the percussion. Great blue herons squawk and stretch their wings on branches of bald cypress, looking for all the world like pterodactyls. 

A few miles down the Cache River, though, the bird calls fade. Here, sprawling cypress and tupelo swamps decades ago gave way to farm fields, many of which now lie fallow and grassy, dotted with standing pools and the occasional duck. On one such field, Mark Guetersloh directs a team of local volunteers: “Plant a tree, take four big long steps and plant another one.” Working in pairs, the eight volunteers scatter across the field with spades and handfuls of seedlings. By the end of the morning, they’ll have planted 1,000 trees, including four species of oak that originally grew here. On other Saturdays, volunteers will wade knee deep into water to plant cypress in the mud. 

If all goes well, in a few decades the area, which some call the Illinois bayou, will begin to resemble the swampy forest it had been for centuries.

Guetersloh is an ecologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and private groups to restore the Cache River wetlands — a stretch of southernmost Illinois that is home to cypress older than the Magna Carta, huge oaks and dozens of species of plants, birds, frogs and fish, some found nowhere else in the state. 

These wetlands are so important in sustaining migrating waterfowl that in 1996 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designated the area of global importance, placing it on par with the Everglades and the Okefenokee Swamp.

While the Cache River swamps are special, they illustrate the plight of wetlands throughout Illinois. Although they once covered 9.4 million acres, or 23 percent of the state, more than 90 percent of them had been destroyed by the early 1980s, most drained for agriculture, according to a 1995 state natural resources report. 

And this year, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Illinois General Assembly offered no help. Restoration projects like the one along the Cache River appear to be gaining political support, but legal protections for wetlands remain weak. As a result, they continue to lose ground in the Prairie State. 

When the first European settlers arrived in Illinois, bottomland forest stretched for miles along the floodplains of the state’s major rivers, including the Illinois, the Mississippi and the Wabash, where sycamores and tulip trees grew to seven or eight feet wide and as tall as a 10-story building. Much of east central Illinois was a vast, wet, treeless prairie that stretched for miles across the flat land. Northeastern Illinois was a soggy region filled with grassy marshes, fens and scattered peat bogs. The Grand Kankakee Marsh, which stretched from Kankakee County into Indiana, was two-thirds the size of the Everglades and harbored trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, timber wolves and bear. In the Cache, ancient bald cypress trees covered the swamps, and enormous pin oaks and sweet gums grew on the nearby floodplain.

Despite this richness of flora and fauna, early settlers regarded the marshes and swamps as useless wastelands that bred disease and made travel difficult and farming impossible. In the Cache area, one settler wrote that the land was “a great place for men and dogs, but powerful hard on women and oxen.” 

Efforts to drain Illinois started early and never stopped. Beginning in 1848, a series of federal laws called the Swampland Acts allowed the land to be sold cheaply, and early farmers set out to lay thousands of miles of drainage tile under their fields. In 1879, the state established the first of more than 1,000 drainage districts, obscure governmental bodies that use local taxes to dig and maintain ditches. By 1900, almost all of the prairie in east central Illinois was gone, and the black soil supported some of the best farmland in the world. By the early 1980s, when the only comprehensive assessment of the state’s wetlands was done, less than a million acres remained, and there were only 6,000 acres of high quality undisturbed wetlands left.

There is a price for such loss. Wetlands provide critical habitat for birds, including the great blue heron, the great egret and the black-crowned night heron, and for salamanders, frogs, snakes and fish. Of the 94 species of vertebrates that are threatened and endangered in Illinois, 60 rely strongly on wetlands, including such creatures as the swamp rabbit, the mink and the river otter. 

People pay, too. A wetland, nature’s sponge, soaks up water and releases it slowly during dry times, which lessens flood peaks and increases flow during dry summers. This is not a straightforward equation, it’s true. Hydrologist Donald Hey of Wetlands Research Inc. in Chicago calculates that increasing wetlands in the Mississippi basin by 3 percent, or 13 million acres, would have provided storage for all the water in the 1993 flood. But hydrologist Mike Demissie of the Illinois State Water Survey in Champaign disagrees. He says that while restoring wetlands would go a long way toward easing 5- and 10-year floods, it wouldn’t prevent 100-year floods, which happened even before wetlands were destroyed.

It’s less disputable that healthy wetlands cut pollution caused by nutrients and sediments. Since 1985, Hey and his colleagues have kept careful tabs on 550 acres of experimental wetlands they restored on previously farmed ground in the Des Plaines River watershed north of Chicago. By 1991, they determined that those restored wetlands remove an average of 84 percent of the nitrate-nitrogen, 85 percent of the total phosphorus and 92 percent of the suspended solids from the water that flows through them. They also calculated that restoring 400,000 acres of wetlands in flood-prone areas of the Illinois River watershed — just 10 percent of the original wetlands — could slash silting of backwater lakes and cut pollution from nitrate-nitrogen and phosphorus to levels not seen in 150 years. “If we go back and restore some of the wetlands, we will save future generations billions of dollars,” Hey says.

And that’s what he’s aiming to do. The Wetlands Initiative, affiliated with his research organization, recently bought the entire Hennepin Levee and Drainage District — five miles long and one and a half miles wide — north of Peoria on the Illinois River. In April, they allowed rain and groundwater to accumulate to restore two natural backwater lakes, Lake Hennepin and Lake Hopper, which were drained in the early 1900s. Within weeks, shorebirds and ducks, including the green-wing teal, the blue-wing teal and the Bonaparte’s gull, had returned to the area. 

Other such restoration projects are under way across the state. The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental group, is restoring two big tracts along the Illinois River: a 1,100-acre site called Spunky Bottoms in Brown County and a 7,000-acre site near Havana, which they purchased last year. When the larger site is restored, it will contain three of the original backwater lakes that were the site of hunting and fishing clubs in the early 1900s, but were drained in the 1920s to create farmland, says Doug Blodgett, who runs the conservancy’s program. 

Meanwhile, the Illinois natural resources department is teaming up with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Natural Land Institute, a regional conservation group, and the Grand Victoria riverboat casino to restore 688 acres of wetlands in the Rock River floodplain near Rockford, says Marvin Hubbell, who manages the state agency’s ecosystems division.

To the north, the Lake County Forest Preserve District, which encompasses more wetlands per capita than just about any other area of Illinois, enlists more than 1,000 volunteers each year to help restore thousands of acres of floodplain forest, wet prairies, and fens and bogs that harbor plants and animals found nowhere else in the state, says restoration ecologist Ken Klick. 

Along the Cache River, federal and state officials aim to preserve and restore a total of 60,000 acres of the that wetland ecosystem.

Despite these efforts, wetlands continue to be threatened. According to a report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the country lost an average of 58,500 acres of wetlands each year between 1986 and 1997 — a rate of loss 80 percent lower than two decades earlier, but a loss nonetheless. In Illinois, the only accurate tally of wetland acreage was completed by the federal government in the early 1980s, says Liane Suloway of the Illinois Natural History Survey. “We desperately need an update, and that’s not coming because there are no funds for it,” says Suloway, who is testing new ways to use satellite images to get that data cheaply. 

Some quality wetlands remain, certainly, but many are jeopardized by siltation from nearby land development, pollution and invasive plant species, says Allen Plocher, who runs a wetlands research group at the Natural History Survey.

What’s missing in most of Illinois are effective rules to prevent wetland destruction by private landowners. And a U.S. Supreme Court decision on an Illinois case removed even more protection, contends Jack Darin, executive director of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club. Developers and other landowners who want to drain or fill a natural wetland must get a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But the high court ruled in January that the corps can’t prevent the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County from building a landfill in an isolated wetland in Elgin, a finding that leaves hundreds of isolated marshes, prairie potholes, fens and bogs in northern Illinois and elsewhere without federal protection. “The prospects in the short term are bad,” Darin says. “We’ve got to act quickly to turn it around.” 

Wisconsin approved a law to close the loophole opened by the court’s ruling, and other states are debating the issue. But an effort to close the loophole went nowhere in the Illinois legislature this spring. It was opposed by developers and by representatives of the Illinois Farm Bureau, who argue it would restrict private property rights. Another unsuccessful measure, supported by developers but opposed by environmentalists, would have barred local governments, particularly in and near Chicago, from enforcing their own stricter regulations. Instead, it would have transferred responsibility to the state Environmental Protection Agency. Mark Harrison, executive vice president of the Homebuilders Association of Illinois, argues the proposal was needed to make wetlands rules uniform across the state. Although developers do recognize the need to protect quality wetlands, he says, “if I have a piece of land and I want to develop it, I should be able to.”

In fact, voluntary efforts by landowners do help protect thousands of acres of Illinois wetlands, though a major federal program that encourages farmers to protect wetlands is threatened, too. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the Wetlands Reserve Program, has bought long-term or permanent easements on 46,689 acres of wetlands in Illinois from farmers and other landowners in exchange for restoring and protecting wetlands. Anadditional 18,025 acres have been approved but are still awaiting funds. While the program is popular with farmers and environmentalists, President George W. Bush’s proposed budget eliminated all new funding. Congress could move to restore it.

There are some hopeful signs. Along the Cache, where the federal program was used to acquire and restore 6,600 acres of wetlands, the volunteers are finishing their planting. Guetersloh surveys the scene, pleased with the morning’s efforts. Although work days to restore this ecosystem occur each month, he says, some volunteers come just once. “The ones who stick it out understand the end product better,” he says. And such awareness is spreading. As high-quality wetlands disappear, says state naturalist Hubbell, “you realize what the value of the resource really is.” 

Dan Ferber, a correspondent for Science magazine, lives in Urbana.

Illinois Issues, July/August 2001

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