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In Illinois Farm Country, a Wetland’s Dynamic Return

Land in Fulton County, Ill., that was farmed for more than 80 years is being returned to its original wetland state – and the early results are promising for what is 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 environmental group the Nature Conservancy.

The land that now forms the preserve started as a few lakes connected to the Illinois River. In 1919, engineers built a levee, drained the land and opened the area for row crop farming.

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 now own more than 9,000 acres between them.

Farming ended after the harvest in 2006 and 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,” Blodgett said. “The water you see is what falls from the sky.”

Wildlife has returned, too. Conservation groups have documented about 260 bird species at Emiquon.

“We have people traveling from Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis [all] coming here to see the birds,” Blodgett said.

In addition, a variety of plant communities can be found at the preserve. Some seeds blew in on the wind and others were carried in by mammals and waterfowl. Blodgett said some seeds were in the earth, waiting for the wetland to return.

Wetlands, he says, are resilient.

“Every year, water quality is a little bit different,” Blodgett said. “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.”

The nature preserve, which is off Highway 78 near Lewistown, Ill., is open to the public. The site includes two miles of walking trails that have spotting scopes. More than 1,000 fishermen receive free permits each year from nearby Dickson Mounds Museum. In addition, waterfowl hunters have some access to the site. Blodgett estimated 20,000 visitors come to Emiquon each year.