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Illinois

Free Flowing

With a flash of dark green scales, a largemouth bass slips out of a fisherman's hands and returns to the cool waters of Thompson Lake, bordering the Illinois River. For more than 50 years, this land was drained and crops were planted, so neither fish nor fisherman would have been found. But that was before The Nature Conservancy and its partners began restoration efforts.

Now, the waters of Thompson Lake have returned along with robust populations of bass, minnows, sunfish and many other species that indicate the burgeoning health at the Emiquon Preserve. At times, 80 percent of all the waterfowl in the Illinois River Valley are at Emiquon. More than a dozen state-endangered species can also be seen, including black crowned night heron and American bittern. Because of the Conservancy's large-scale wetland restoration efforts, this was a banner year for both habitat quality and species diversity.

According to Doug Blodgett, director of river conservation for the Conservancy in Illinois, the success teaches an important lesson: If we build it, they will come.

"Restoration of floodplain wetlands works. This year, we saw absolute proof of that. When we restore natural processes, we recreate healthy natural habitats. Then the plants and animals find the natural habitats, and people do, too," says Blodgett. "Our efforts heralded the return of biodiversity and are helping to revitalize a local economy, thanks to the arrival of sportsmen, history buffs and ecotourists."

Along the Illinois River, miles of floodplains and backwaters once processed nutrients and helped control seasonal floods. But by the early 20th century, agricultural levees restricted the natural water flow and isolated the floodplains. For the last decade, the Conservancy has worked to return the Illinois River to its former vitality by restoring these wetlands and by planning their reconnection to the river's main stem.

The Conservancy in Illinois continued restoration of 8,700 acres adjacent to the Illinois River this year. The long-term plan is to encourage the return of more natural, historic patterns of flooding and drying, and also to recreate habitats where native plants and animals can flourish. Soon these floodplain wetlands will contribute more significantly to the ecological health of the entire river system, when future opportunities arise to reconnect them to the Illinois River, and on to the Mississippi River and the Gulf.

"Our restoration work is guided by an understanding that these projects are part of a larger system, and we are always thinking about connections to other waterways, such as the Mississippi," states Jason Beverlin, Illinois River Program director. "We also encourage restoration efforts by showing off our project and sharing what we've learned with people from around the world."

This year the Mississippi River Commission and Chinese scientists involved in the Conservancy's Great Rivers Partnership were among hundreds who came to learn about floodplain restoration and management techniques and to see the results.

These preserves are outstanding examples of how conservation can support nature and people — though the bass, the heron and perhaps even some human visitors might not realize how much science is swirling in the waters around them. The Nature Conservancy and its partners will build on their work on the Illinois River and continue to conserve vital ecosystems across the state and across the planet, so that all species will have a place to come. 

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