Lost wetlands are restored for a number of reasons. Sometimes, they replace a wetlands area lost because of construction or farming. Typically those projects are small in scope. Now a conservation group is looking to create an entire ecosystem in the Midwest through a massive wetland restoration program. The plan is garnering attention from scientists as a new model for how to return land to its natural state. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports:
Lost wetlands are restored for a number of reasons. Sometimes they replace a wetlands area lost somewhere else because of construction or agriculture. But typically these projects are small in scope. Now a conservation group is looking to create an entire ecosystem in the Midwest through a massive wetland restoration program. The plan is garnering attention from scientists as a new model for how to return land to its natural state. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports.
(Ambient sound – the farm)
Tractors are rolling across the Wilder farm in Central Illinois, tending to fields lined with rows of corn and soybeans. This plot of land is 76-hundrd acres, or nearly twelve square miles. It’s the biggest farm in the entire state. But it won’t be a farm for much longer. The Nature Conservancy has purchased the land, and hopes to make the area one of the biggest Midwest wetland restoration projects ever. The group hopes the Emiquon Wildlife Refuge will make improvements to the land ranging from creating a new stop for migrating birds, to improving the quality of the Illinois River that is the source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people. Joy Zedler is an Ecology Professor at the University of Wisconsin. She says the size of this project creates a unique opportunity to reintroduce extinct plants once native to the area.
“If you have a wetland the size of this table, and you want to restore an endangered species, very likely you wont be able to find the right conditions to support it. But if you have 7600 acres, somewhere in that site may well be the combination of conditions that can support that species.”
Zedler says bringing native plants back to the area can provide food and habitat for a variety of animals and insects that were once native to that region, and improve the health of the region’s ecosystem for miles in every. One major advantage Emiquon has is the entire farm is surrounded by a levy. That means one hole in the levy could allow the area to be a contained flood plain for the river. Rip Sparks is a professor at the University of Illinois. He says allowing that to happen has the potential to bring a wide variety of plants and animals back to the river area. That’s because it would create a seasonal flood plain.
“The spring flood lasts long enough that the organisms have adapted to utilize it for spawning and feeding areas. And the birds have used it as feeding areas as they make their migrations. So it seems very important that river be connected to the flood plain.”
But not everyone is excited about the plans to turn Emiquon into a wetland. Tom Edwards is an activist who has studied the Illinois River region for decades. He is one of several environmentalists that say all of the excitement about the project is mis-founded. Edwards says the waters of the nearby Illinois River are so polluted, that if one drop becomes part of the Emiquon site, all the talk of reintroducing native plant and animal species will become moot.
“Nothing on the Illinois River has any vegetation on it. It’s a toxic waste. The fish can hardly survive. If they let the river water in, it will create another mud hole. It’s not a way to cleanse the river, and we would lose a valuable asset for the future.”
Edwards says Emiquon can be a separate, stand alone lake that protects some wildlife and plants. But he says it will never be the grand experiment in wetland restoration that some claim it will be. Many scientists counter Edward’s argument by pointing out that wetlands can be excellent filters for pollutants, and improve the quality of nearby bodies of water. And the Nature Conservancy says it is aware of the challenges of creating a wetland so close to a less than healthy river. And that, says the Conservancy’s Michael Rueter, is what makes this site ideal. Because it’s enclosed by levies, whatever is done here can be reversed. If opening the site to the river causes problems, the levy can simply be closed up again, and something else can be tried.
“Any action that we take will be reversible. So we’re not taking down levies or lowering the heights of levies. Because we want to be able to reverse this and adapt as we learn more information.”
Rueter says one option would be to install a gate in the levy, so they could control the amount of water that comes into Emiquon. Scientists could than closely monitor the effect of adding River water to the site. Reuter says the Nature Conservancy hasn’t decided how it will approach restoring the site just yet. The group has time to think about it. Part of the purchase agreement gives the former owners the right to continue to farm the land for up to five more years. But when it does become a restoration project, it will likely have the attention of activists and researchers around all of the Midwest. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jonathan Ahl.