It’s safe to say Doug Blodgett knows and loves the Illinois River.
He spent his youthful days around, on and in the river. As an adult, he’s traveled the entire length of the river many times, researching its environs and inhabitants. And, he has spent nearly 300 hours underwater crawling along the river’s bottom sampling mussels.
Doug Blodgett is The Nature Conservancy in Illinois’ director of river conservation, and he came to the Conservancy 13 years ago with the promise of influencing change. He brought with him his life-long relationship with the Illinois River, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Western Illinois University and 16 years professional experience with the Illinois Natural History Survey as a research biologist.
“I know the river pretty intimately,” he said. “But, as a state scientist, it was difficult to advocate for needed changes in our river management. I was lured to the Conservancy by a promise that we would effect change– and we well have.”
Doug leads a team of scientists and conservation staff at the Emiquon Preserve, about an hour southwest of Peoria along the Illinois River. He and his team work to restore this rich landscape to a functional floodplain, which also helps reduce the incidence and severity of floods, stormwater runoff and water pollution.
While growing up, Doug heard “the old timers” accounts of Thompson Lake─ a part of the Emiquon Preserve─ being the “inland fishing capital of the world” with waterfowl so abundant they blotted out the sun. But, throughout most of the 20th century, Thompson Lake was drained and used for farming, so this was difficult for Doug to imagine. That is, until 2007.
After seven years of research and planning, in 2007 Doug’s team turned off the pumps that had drained this land and water returned to Emiquon, recreating Thompson Lake much as it was in “the old timers” accounts.
“With solid support from our members and donors, it has been especially gratifying, both professionally and personally, to be on the team restoring historic Thompson Lake for nature and people,” Doug said. “Last year I was fortunate to be one of more than 3,000 people who again fished Thompson Lake. And, in March, it literally brought a tear to my eye as I witnessed 150,000 waterfowl rising up off the lake and completely blotting out the sun.”
Though much has been accomplished at Emiquon, Doug has big plans for the preserve’s future.
Improving the health of the Illinois River is the ultimate goal of the work at Emiquon. To do this, restoring the natural connection between the river and Emiquon is a top priority. Doug and his team are working to complete the design and construction of managed structures that make this reconnection.
Other goals for Emiquon include: implementing a science-based approach for the long-term operation of the preserve; ensuring easily available documentation of recent history at Emiquon that can influence proper restoration and management of other sites and rivers; and using lessons learned to initiate a “working lands” project model, meaning how to manage lands for monetary value.
In this case, the project model would guide future floodplain management and take advantage of evolving markets for services such as carbon sequestration, biomass for energy, flood damage abatement and recreation. It could also provide income for landowners and a host of sustainable benefits for nature and people.
Under Doug’s leadership, Emiquon has once again become the “jewel of the Illinois River.” And, with Doug’s involvement in the Conservancy’s Great Rivers Partnership, the conservation lessons learned here will influence river management throughout the world.