Land in Fulton County that was farmed for more than 80 years is being returned to its original wetland state – and the early results are promising for what’s now the Emiquon Nature Preserve.
“People give us credit for the way this looks now but it’s really Mother Nature that makes it look the way it does,” said Doug Blodgett, Director of River Conservation for The Nature Conservancy.
A couple lakes that were connected to the Illinois River were located at the site until 1919. Then a levee was built, the land was drained, and row crop farming began.
The Nature Conservancy, which is an international organization, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began buying up the land in the 1990s. They have more than 9,000 acres between them.
Farming ended after the harvest in 2006. About half of the site is now underwater. Blodgett said there was no need to pump water back into the site – the basin refilled naturally.
“The water that you’re seeing out here is primarily from direct precipitation. The water you see is what falls from the sky,” Blodgett said.
Conservation groups have documented about 260 bird species at Emiquon. “We have people traveling from Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis coming here to see the birds.”
A variety of plant communities can be found at Emiquon. Some seeds blew in on the wind and others were carried in by mammals and water fowl. Blodgett said some seeds were in the earth, waiting for the wetland to return. He said wetlands are amazingly resilient.
“Every year, water quality is a little bit different. The fishery is a little bit different. The species of plants, their distribution, seem to be a little bit different every year. So it’s been very dynamic,” said Blodgett.
Blodgett said wetlands benefit from a diversity of weather conditions – including droughts.
“When you think of a wetland, you think of water. And you certainly you do need water to have a wetland,” said Blodgett.
“But if these wetlands stay wet all the time – for decades and decades at a time – they kind of get waterlogged. And it changes the diversity of plants. If we can have droughts once in a while to dry out some of these areas, to condition the sediments, let some of those early successional stages get re-established again, then we get the diversity that we’re after.”
Emiquon, which is off Highway 78 near Lewistown, is open to the public. Blodgett estimated 20,000 visitors come to Emiquon each year. The site includes two miles of walking trails that have spotting scopes. 1,300 to 1,400 fishermen receive free permits each year from nearby Dickson Mounds Museum. In addition, waterfowl hunters have some access to the site.
Blodgett gets around Emiquon in an airboat, which works well in the heavily vegetated waters found at the restored wetland. “We’re really interested in very shallow water habitat because that’s when we get the most diverse plant communities. That’s when we get really high production.”