More than a dozen federal, state and private conservation organizations gathered to celebrate Ducks Unlimited’s purchase of 195 acres of restored wetland habitat along the Big Muddy River in Jackson County, Illinois. Acquisition of the property, referred to as “Big Muddy Wetlands,” represents an important step towards a larger, collaborative goal of restoring and protecting the Middle Mississippi River ecosystem. “Big Muddy Wetlands” is a classic representation of Mississippi River floodplain wetland habitat. Its proximity to Oakwood Bottoms, LaRue-Pine Hills natural area, the Mississippi River and the Big Muddy River make the site a natural crossroads for wildlife. Waterfowl and shorebirds use “Big Muddy Wetlands” extensively during their spring migration. Several threatened and endangered species also are found in outlying areas and likely occur on the site as well.
Given the abundance and diversity of wetland plants and animals currently found on the property, it is hard to believe that only seven years ago “Big Muddy Wetlands” was being farmed. At that time, elevated water tables and the rolling “ridge and swale” topography characteristic of the site, made crop production difficult and not always profitable. However, these same features that hampered the property’s value as farmland also made it a prime candidate for wetland restoration.
Fortunately, during the late 1990s, the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) was in full swing throughout several Mississippi River counties, including Jackson. WRP, administered by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, pays farmers to permanently remove marginal farmland from agricultural production and to restore it to wetlands. In 1997, the previous landowner’s decision to enroll the entire 195-acre property into WRP became the first of a series of conservation actions taken to protect the “Big Muddy Wetlands” site.
The next chapter in this conservation story involves the strategic purchase of the property by the American Land Conservancy (ALC) in conjunction with its enrollment in WRP. The “Big Muddy Wetlands” tract was just one of several WRP properties that ALC purchased within the Middle Mississippi River ecosystem. ALC’s plan was to hold the properties until such time that the U.S. Forest Service was able to purchase them for inclusion in the Shawnee National Forest. This plan worked well until the Forest Service reached the limit of its authority to purchase new properties outside its traditional boundaries.
This set the stage for Ducks Unlimited’s (DU) purchase of “Big Muddy Wetlands” from ALC using the proceeds from a grant that DU received from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. Because Foundation funds were used to cover the costs of purchasing the property, DU is now in the position of donating the property to the Forest Service for long-term management and federal protection.
“Ducks Unlimited is very proud of the role that we have played in helping to bring this on-going conservation effort to a successful conclusion, ” said Dr. Robert Hoffman, Director of Operations for DU’s Great Lakes/Atlantic Regional Office. “None of this would have been possible without the generous support of the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and the hard work that was previously done by our Middle Mississippi River partners.”
Foundation Executive Director, James Mann also acknowledged the importance of conservation partnerships in preserving natural areas. “One of the important factors that the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation considered in awarding this grant was the coordinated effort among federal, state and private non-profit organizations to build a lasting conservation legacy for the Middle Mississippi River ecosystem,” said Mann. “We are excited to be part of this partnership through which natural habitat will be protected for all to enjoy.”
Shawnee National Forest Supervisor, Allen Nicholas echoed his support and appreciation of the collective work of Ducks Unlimited, Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and the other Middle Mississippi River partners. “The Forest Service is well aware of the conservation needs associated with the Middle Mississippi River ecosystem ,” said Nicholas. “We hope to continue to expand our involvement in protecting vital wetland and forest habitat in this region and we look forward to becoming the future public land steward of the ‘Big Muddy Wetlands’ property.”
The Middle Mississippi River ecosystem is a 200-mile long reach of the Mississippi River running from St. Louis, MO to Cairo, IL. The river and its associated floodplain provide habitat for numerous native fish and wildlife, and serves as a vital migration corridor for ducks and other waterfowl within the Mississippi Flyway. Fifteen federal, state and private non-profit organizations have joined together under a Memorandum of Understanding to form the Middle Mississippi River Partnership with the common goal of restoring and protecting the natural resources of this important ecosystem.