to drain Illinois started early and never stopped. While legal protectionsfor
wetlands are still weak, political support for these critical habitatsappears
to be gaining ground.
Is it too little, too late?
Photographs by Jason Lindsey
a spring morning in Johnson County, a chorus sings of the southern
Illinois that once was.
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
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, theyll 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
the first European settlers arrived in Illinois, bottomland forest
stretched for miles along the floodplains of the states 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.
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.
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 states wetlands was done, less than a million acres
remained, and there were only 6,000 acres of high quality undisturbed
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.
pay, too. A wetland, natures 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,
its 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 wouldnt prevent 100-year floods,
which happened even before wetlands were destroyed.
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.
thats what hes 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 Bonapartes gull, had returned to the area.
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
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
agencys ecosystems division.
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.
the Cache River, federal and state officials aim to preserve and
restore a total of 60,000 acres of the that wetland ecosystem.
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 thats 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.
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.
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 cant
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. Weve
got to act quickly to turn it around.
approved a law to close the loophole opened by the courts
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.
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. Bushs proposed
budget eliminated all new funding. Congress could move to restore
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 mornings 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.
Issues, July/August 2001
For information about how to subcribe to Illinois Issues go to:
Go to Illinois Issues blog at http://illinoisissuesblog.blogspot.com/
Write a letter to the editor
I would like to comment on this article
state month and author of article.)
Ask a staff member