The largest reclamation area in the United States outside the Everglades can be found an hour south of Peoria.
Geologic fact: The Illinois River used to be the Mississippi River.
The glaciers of 10,000 or so years ago rerouted the Mississippi to its current riverbed and formed the Illinois River as we know it now. Like its much larger geological descendant, the Illinois is one of the great treasures of the Midwest.
Today, the Illinois starts fairly close to Chicago, flows west and then diagonals southwest across the state to join the Mississippi just above St. Louis at Alton, Illinois. As a result of one of those ideas that seemed right to some people at the time, the Illinois is linked via the Des Plaines River to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Chicago River (finished about 1900).
This system connects Lake Michigan to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. Note the word “sanitary” in the name of the canal. The canal also lets Chicago’s sewage effluent flow away from Lake Michigan. The Chicago River actually flows backwards, thanks to the canal’s locks and dams.
As it flows across the state, the Illinois glides through deep prairie soils that, when drained and protected by levies, help promote corn and soybean farming. With the exception of Peoria and cities in the St. Louis metropolitan area, land along the Illinois is relatively unpopulated and devoted largely to agriculture.
The Natural Resources Council has listed the Illinois as an ideal candidate for wetland reclamation. Why? Agriculture did not alter the landscape enough to damage its potential for becoming a wetland again.
There’s some irony here, too. The development of canals, channeling rivers for transportation, cutting forests, and draining wetlands for development around the turn of the twentieth century were also called reclamation by those who wanted to see the environment managed for human economic needs.
Parts of the Illinois River are now undergoing re-reclamation with cooperation from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and other state agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy, and other organizations. The results are stunning.
For example, Emiquon, a site of about 6,900 acres about an hour south of Peoria, is one of several Illinois River wetland treasures that are springing back to life. The project, started in 2005 by the Nature Conservancy, is the largest reclamation area in the United States outside of the Everglades. One of the best (and worst) features of Emiquon is the routing of Illinois 78/97 through the preserve. As the wetlands have returned, the changing views along the highway have been both subtle and amazing.
“The wonderful thing about this site is that it’s changing,” according to Margaret Ovitt, a member of the Emiquon Corps of Discovery, which has recorded the return of the area from farming to a more natural state.
The corps, started by Michael Jeffords and Susan Post, biologists at the Illinois Natural History Survey, has documented Emiquon since 2005 using nature photography, drawing, and creative writing. The original group had 45 members, including Ovitt and Nancy Jones, both of Macomb, Illinois, who are artists and naturalists. The program allows participants to see and record parts of the reserve that are not yet open to the public, while receiving training in the natural aspects of re-emerging wetlands. Corps members usually worked from “aesthetic points” in the reserve to document the landscape over time.
Recording Emiquon’s recovery through the eyes of artists has offered a highly unusual perspective on a demanding subject. “As an artist, it’s very challenging because all you see is water and sky. It’s a real challenge to be able to convey that,” Ovitt, who works in pastels, said.
“You only see light,” Jones, who paints with watercolors, added. “People can look back and they might not think of these as very valuable artistic pieces in themselves. They will see them as a record of change.”
The Nature Conservancy considers Emiquon to be at the core of river wetland restoration in Illinois and elsewhere. It is a pilot project that is being carefully managed after decades of intensive land use for agriculture.
Management means that Emiquon is not directly connected to the Illinois. Locks and dams, as well as other development, alter the river’s seasonal flows and flood surges, which would damage efforts to recreate wetlands. So, the levy along the river remains in place, and pumps are used to maintain seasonal water levels in the preserve, where the Nature Conservancy has planted prairies, trees, and other wetland flora to assist the reclamation.
“We can’t go back,” Ovitt said, noting that the Conservancy is “making it a healthier system than it is now.”
Once upon a time, the Illinois River and Emiquon were among the richest cradles of life in the Midwest, full of fish and mussels. For most of 500 generations, humans lived off this land, and the changes were mostly minor. Humans managed the land, but they did not overpower it.
Recent history has been different. Intensive human activities over the past 150 years – perhaps six or seven generations – abused ancient ecosystems while enhancing agriculture, transportation, and commerce that express the economic and political lifeblood of the country.
The Nature Conservancy’s re-reclamation of the Emiquon area, even if it requires intensive human management, is a reparation payment for the wrongs that misguided development that were inflicted on the land and the water. At least we now recognize that this is land that never should have been farmed in the first place.
Because of its unusual human history, the natural treasures along the Illinois River have been damaged, but can be repaired to some extent. Sadly, this is not the case in many places.
But Emiquon, small as it is, offers us the saving grace of nature being restored and enduring. Even after 80 years, native seeds sprouted from the soil to complement the caring work of human hands dedicated to restoring a richly diverse landscape.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.