Ensuring Emiquon's Future by Restoring Its Past

By McCauley, Marissa | American Forests, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Ensuring Emiquon's Future by Restoring Its Past


McCauley, Marissa, American Forests


An estimated 500 generations have inhabited this floodplain that was once rich with lakes, wetlands, forests, and prairies. Here's how it's changed-and is changing still.-by Marissa McCauley

Emiquon. To the Illinois/Miami tribes the word means squash or pumpkin. To environmentalists it recalls a pre-European landscape virtually unmatched in biological diversity and cultural importance. Now this once-ecologically diverse land along the Illinois River is one of the nation's largest floodplain restoration projects.

The restoration work-planting bottomland and upland forest and improving existing forested areas-is being undertaken by The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, which owns the site, with support from AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf program and others. According to a 1992 study by the private nonprofit National Research Council, Emiquon is one of only three large floodplain river ecosystems deemed recoverable in the U.S.

Stripped of its many resources in the name of development, Emiquon is a microcosm of the Illinois River system, a steppingstone in the long process of improving the health and function of the river system, which began to decline about a hundred years ago.

To understand what makes Emiquon so special, you must look to its past. Spanning more than 7,000 acres, this preserve south of Peoria was virtually unmatched for its landscape of backwater lakes, bottomland and upland forests, tall-grass and wet prairies, and wetlands. Thousands of prairie flowers wound through the area, creating a peaceful atmosphere that those working at Emiquon enjoy to this day. Many species of fish and wildlife thrived there.

The site is archaeologically rich as well, with evidence of habitation for 500 generations. More than 149 documented archaeological sites make Emiquon one of the country's richest places for discovered Native American sites. Anthropologists have spent decades studying its ancient cemeteries and burial mounds, some more than 3,000 years old.

The region's wide-ranging biodiversity changed for the worse in the early 1900s when development altered the landscape. The area was separated from the Illinois River; lakes and wetlands were drained and dams and levees constructed. This provided farmland for encroaching settlements but did little to help the natural ecosystem. Over time, the area suffered from pollution, excessive sediment, unnatural fluctuations of river levels, and invasive species.

Restoring the connection between Emiquon and the Illinois River will "allow passage of fish and other river life between the site's shallow lakes and wetland areas and the river," says Jason Beverlin, project director at the site.

Planting trees is an important aspect of that connection because trees filter water, remove air pollution, sequester carbon, and provide homes for wildlife. A mix of species once common to the area are being planted, species including green and white ash, pin oak, northern pecan, black walnut, American linden, sycamore, river birch, swamp white oak, Kentucky coffeetree, bitternut, and butternut. Besides their practical uses, these native trees add to the beautiful scenery and peaceful ambiance.

It will take many hands to restore Emiquon to its previous glory. TNC has enrolled the preserve in the federal Wetlands Reserve Program, which provides technical and financial support for wetland restoration efforts through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

After studying elevation contour maps, hydrologie models, and soil type characteristics, TNC decided to plant 600 acres of bottomland forest, 300 acres of upland forest, and to improve the existing forested areas. It applied for a Global ReLeaf grant to replant 56 acres of bottomland hardwoods, a total of 160,000 trees. Planting began in April and continued through June.

"The Global ReLeaf program is proud to support The Nature Conservancy's effort to replant the hardwood forests of the Emiquon Preserve as a model of floodplain and river restoration for the Upper Mississippi River Basin," AMERICAN FORESTS executive director Deborah Gangloff says. …

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