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Ensuring Emiquon's future by restoring its past: an estimated 500 generations have inhabited this floodplain that was once rich with lakes, wetlands, forests, and prairies. Here's how it's changed--and is changing still.

Emiquon. To the Illinois/Miami tribes the word means squash or pumpkin. To environmentalists it recalls a pre-European landscape virtually unmatched in biological diversity and cultural importance. Now this once-ecologically diverse land along the Illinois River is one of the nation's largest floodplain restoration projects.

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The restoration work--planting bottomland and upland forest and improving existing forested areas--is being undertaken by The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, which owns the site, with support from AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf program and others. According to a 1992 study by the private nonprofit National Research Council, Emiquon is one of only three large floodplain river ecosystems deemed recoverable in the U.S.

Stripped of its many resources in the name of development, Emiquon is a microcosm of the Illinois River system, a steppingstone in the long process of improving the health and function of the river system, which began to decline about a hundred years ago.

To understand what makes Emiquon so special, you must look to its past. Spanning more than 7,000 acres, this preserve south of Peoria was virtually unmatched for its landscape of backwater lakes, bottomland and upland forests, tall-grass and wet prairies, and wetlands. Thousands of prairie flowers wound through the area, creating a peaceful atmosphere that those working at Emiquon enjoy to this day. Many species of fish and wildlife thrived there.

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The site is archaeologically rich as well, with evidence of habitation for 500 generations. More than 149 documented archaeological sites make Emiquon one of the country's richest places for discovered Native American sites. Anthropologists have spent decades studying its ancient cemeteries and burial mounds, some more than 3,000 years old.

The region's wide-ranging biodiversity changed for the worse in the early 1900s when development altered the landscape. The area was separated from the Illinois River; lakes and wetlands were drained and dams and levees constructed. This provided farmland for encroaching settlements but did little to help the natural ecosystem. Over time, the area suffered from pollution, excessive sediment, unnatural fluctuations of river levels, and invasive species.

Restoring the connection between Emiquon and the Illinois River will "allow passage of fish and other river life between the site's shallow lakes and wetland areas and the river," says Jason Beverlin, project director at the site.

Planting trees is an important aspect of that connection because trees filter water, remove air pollution, sequester carbon, and provide homes for wildlife. A mix of species once common to the area are being planted, species including green and white ash, pin oak, northern pecan, black walnut, American linden, sycamore, river birch, swamp white oak, Kentucky coffeetree, bitternut, and butternut. Besides their practical uses, these native trees add to the beautiful scenery and peaceful ambiance.

It will take many hands to restore Emiquon to its previous glory. TNC has enrolled the preserve in the federal Wetlands Reserve Program, which provides technical and financial support for wetland restoration efforts through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

After studying elevation contour maps, hydrologic models, and soil type characteristics, TNC decided to plant 600 acres of bottomland forest, 300 acres of upland forest, and to improve the existing forested areas. It applied for a Global ReLeaf grant to replant 56 acres of bottomland hardwoods, a total of 160,000 trees. Planting began in April and continued through June.

"The Global ReLeaf program is proud to support The Nature Conservancy's effort to replant the hardwood forests of the Emiquon Preserve as a model of floodplain and river restoration for the Upper Mississippi River Basin," AMERICAN FORESTS executive director Deborah Gangloff says.

"The Emiquon project brings the number of trees we've planted with TNC to more than 1.2 million in 14 projects nationwide," Gangloff adds.

In addition to AMERICAN FORESTS, TNC is working with the Illinois Natural History Survey, which monitors the state of water-sensitive aquatic insects and mussels. Other plants and animals are monitored to ensure their health and that of their ecosystems. These include river otter, raccoons, beavers, green frogs, and western ribbon snakes.

Away from the field, scientists create computer models that will tell them everything from how deep a waterway will be to how plants in particular areas will respond to changes. This information becomes very valuable when deciding how to manage the region.

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Last year, YSI Inc. donated sensor-based instruments that detect water quality to the Great Rivers Partnership and the Wetland Restoration Project, both of which support the Emiquon preserve. The instruments allow scientists to monitor water conditions in real time, enabling them to react instantaneously to changes and possible dangers to species health. Data from this equipment is sent to a webpage that provides feedback about the state of the river.

The University of Illinois plans to use information from this website to teach students about floodplain conservation and is building a nearby field station near Lewiston. Learning from a project that is currently underway will help students see problems and outcomes that arise from various conservation techniques, officials say.

All of the above monitoring activities will continue throughout the restoration process to document how the communities react to their environment.

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And Dickson Mounds Museum, an archeological museum that traces the history of American Indians in the Illinois River Valley, is developing plans to include a visitor center for the nature preserve.

The preserve is well on its way to recovery as more and more organizations join in to help--but helpers aren't limited to scientists. The Emiquon Corps of Discovery is a group of 45 volunteers composed of writers, artists, and photographers who are documenting the restoration to artistically present Emiquon to the rest of the world. The acres of reforested land as well as the blooming river ecosystem supply the artists with a multitude of inspiring landscapes ranging from birds nesting high atop trees to fish gliding gracefully through the water.

Last June, water gathering at the bottom of a dried-up lake attracted 46 great egrets, two sora rails, and pumped and spotted sand pipers. Just one month earlier an eaglet had been found in a cottonwood on the preserve, the first eaglet born there since TNC purchased Emiquon five years before.

The Nature Conservancy's website expresses the hope that eastern bluebirds, orioles, warblers, and sparrows will return and flourish now that several varieties of prairie grasses are being planted, including big bluestem, Indian grass, black-eyed Susan, and prairie coreopsis.

Long term The Nature Conservancy wants to use the preserve as a model for future large floodplain restoration projects, specifically for the Illinois River, a major tributary in the upper Mississippi River basin.

As work continues to bring back Emiquon's history diversity and beauty, signs of renewed life already are blossoming, a sure sign that people have the power to protect the environment if they choose to make the effort.

Marissa McCauley interned in AMERICAN FORESTS' publications department last summer; she is a student at Penn State.
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Author:McCauley, Marissa
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 22, 2007
Words:1165
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