I first visited the Emiquon Preserve in Illinois a few years ago – not long after The Nature Conservancy and its partners had begun restoring nearly 7,000 acres of wetlands here. As I drove to the site, I remember passing one farm field after another. Then, topping a hill, I suddenly caught a glimpse of the wetlands, alive with flocks of waterfowl below.
I was reminded of this moment by the recent designation of Emiquon as a Wetland of International Significance under the Ramsar Convention. The news is encouraging. Just a few years before my visit, much of these wetlands had all but disappeared. Decades ago, the land had been cut off from the Illinois River with levees and then drained to create farm fields – a common practice that contributed to the loss of more than half the wetlands in the United States.
As similar scenes played out along much of the Illinois River, wetlands disappeared along with many of the fish, birds and other wildlife that once thrived here. No longer was the Illinois River the nation’s most productive inland commercial fishery, as it had been near the turn of the century. Gone, too, were many of the waterfowl and other birds that once stopped here as they migrated up and down the Mississippi Flyway.
In 2000, the Conservancy completed an $18.6 million deal to purchase about 7,600 acres along the middle Illinois River. The project was funded by private donations as well as financial assistance from the Wetlands Reserve Program, a vital conservation program under the U.S. Farm Bill. Soon, the effort to restore the wetlands at the Emiquon Preserve was underway. By 2008, some 300,000 native trees had been replanted and 8,000 pounds of grassland seeds spread throughout the preserve. And, most importantly, the pumps that drained the land were turned off. When this happened, a natural lake returned to life as it filled with water.
The change was dramatic. Within just a few months, tens of thousands of ducks returned to the wetlands, along with rare migratory birds, like osprey, American avocets and yellow-headed blackbirds. Now scientific monitoring is proving what visitors can clearly see – the restoration here has been a success and serves as testament to nature’s resiliency.
What’s more, Emiquon demonstrates the multiple benefits that people reap from wetlands, from improved water quality to increased recreational opportunities and tourism revenues. Healthy wetlands act like a giant sponge, relieving pressure on levee systems downstream, lessening flood risk and filtering harmful agricultural runoff.
But Emiquon is just a drop in the bucket when considering our nation’s and the world’s freshwater resources. That’s why we are exporting the lessons we learn there to other important restoration projects around the world, through the Conservancy’s Great Rivers Partnership. One of those lessons — perhaps the most important one of all — is that Emiquon validates wise investments in nature – investments funded by private donations as well as our government. The Wetlands Reserve Program, for example — part of the U.S. Farm Bill, which Congress in now debating for reauthorization — saves money over the long run by reducing the impact of damaging floods and water pollution.
Protecting or restoring nature at places like Emiquon and Louisiana’s Mollicy Farms – where 25 square miles of wetlands have been reconnected to the Ouachita River – are smart investments that pay dividends for people now and for future generations. Such places provide proof of nature’s true value – a value that represents the inextricable link between a healthy environment, healthy communities and a healthy economy. Such testimony has the potential to change how we prioritize things here in the U.S. and across the globe.