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Environmental value of the pre-settlement landscapes

American Lotus One, watercolor and charcoal on paper, 22.5 x 30 inches, (Marianne A. Kinzer)

In the future, if we do not acknowledge the importance of wetlands, less and less fresh water will be available, due to pollution and sinking ground water levels.

Flooded barn at Hennepin, The Wetland Initiative

Article, Photographs and Paintings by Marianne A. KINZER



We have seen nothing like this river that we enter (the Illinois) as regards its fertility of soil, its prairies and woods, its kettle, elk, wildcats, bustards (Canada Goose), swans, ducks, parquets, and even beaver.  There are many small lakes and rivers [Jacque Marquette, quotes in Illinois, Prairie State: Impressions of Illinois 1673 -1967 by Travelers and Other Observers,” Paul Angle, Ed.]


A growing number of people are dedicated to restoring parts of the American landscape to pre-settlement conditions. This is not only a romantic whim.  Local restoration projects offer the basis for new scientific studies on the environment.  They help us understand changes in ecosystems and make it possible to envision a positive future for our planet.   

The story of the Illinois River and its wetland restoration projects illustrate some of the economic, aesthetic, and historical values of environmental restoration. This little known river is a good example of how things in nature are interrelated.

In 1673 Marquette and Joliet discovered, that the Illinois River is a shortcut from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi and to the Gulf of Mexico.  The waterway connection contributed to the growth of Chicago and sealed the fate of the river and its fertile river banks. 

The Illinois River once supported immeasurable riches of fish, shellfish, waterfowl and wildlife.  The river changed dramatically within a short period of time, as did the prairie landscape it traversed.  Systematic settlement only started after the Civil War when prairie land was given to former soldiers as farmland.

The story of the river, like others in 19th century America, is a story of reckless exploitation and shortsighted technical triumph over natural processes. The seemingly unlimited natural treasures of the American continent made Americans rich and powerful.  Only now do we understand that progress has a high price.

American Lotus blooms at Spunky Bottom, property of the Nature Conservancy


The Illinois River was once among the richest fresh water mussel streams in North America.  In 1912 fifteen button factories, located on the river, turned its shells into mother-of-pearl buttons.  From the great variety of mussels in the river, only a few survive in the today sediment-laden shipping channel that is still called the Illinois River.

The Illinois River and its large floodplain supported big numbers of waterfowl and offered food for millions of migrating ducks.  Huge amounts of waterfowl that was hunted over the river and its backwater lakes were shipped to fancy restaurants in New York.

In 1908 commercial fisherman caught twenty four million pounds of fish.  From the great variety of fish only few native species survived, threatened by a still dubious water quality and non-native species like the carp, which has spread considerably in Illinois waters.

In its natural condition the Illinois River flooded regularly like the Nile in Egypt. Retreating waters would not only leave fertile soil, but also shallow lakes.  These shallow backwater lakes were breeding and feeding grounds for fish, shellfish, waterfowl and small mammals, like mink, beaver, river otters and other species.

Most of these shallow lakes and ponds were dried out for agricultural purposes.  The river had to be deepened to allow transport of goods on the river.  To protect human structures and fields seasonal flooding had to be prevented.  Levees and dams were the answer.  The levees also changed the speed of the water flow, now carrying more and more sediment.  The river turned into an increasingly artificial and lifeless body of water.

The water quality reached a low when the direction of the Chicago River was reversed in 1871.  Waters from Lake Michigan flow now through the Sanitary and Ship Cannel into the Illinois.  Chicagoans sought to keep their drinking water reservoir, Lake Michigan, clean.  The reversal of the Chicago River freed the city from stinking, diseases carrying, polluted water, but worsened the water quality in downstate Illinois.  It also led to ever higher floods downstream in Southwest Illinois.  

The Illinois River is a good example of how things in nature are interrelated.  What seems to be a positive change upstream may cause disastrous effects downstream. Nitrogen, used to fertilize farmland in the Illinois river valley, for example, increases the growth of farm crops, but leads to poor water quality and ultimately to life threatening growth of algae in the Gulf of Mexico. 

In the face of such profound changes in the natural environment, it is a daring experiment to restore land to pre-settlement conditions alongside this working river.  Projects like this, however, are underway. 

View of Hennepin wetland restoration, property of The Wetland Initiative.

Non-native plants have been replaced by original vegetation.   A great variety of ducks, geese and even pelican came back on their own.

In Spunky Bottom and Emiquon, owned by the Nature Conservancy, and Hennepin, owned by The Wetland Initiative, former wheat and corn fields have been transformed by turning off the pumps so that the ground water can flow back in. The dominant carp was eliminated and the waters were restocked with native fish.  Non-native plants have been replaced by original vegetation.   A great variety of ducks, geese and even pelican came back on their own. 

The restoration projects on this little-known river are aimed at re-creating an environment for the development and survival of native fish, mussels, water fowl and water mammals.   Newly restored ponds and lakes teem with life. They offer the kind of environment needed for the survival of native wildlife.  For migrating birds these nature sanctuaries offer rest and food.  

Some of the wonders of the natural of America can be saved for generations to come. 

American Lotus Two, watercolor and ink on blotting paper, 23 x 36 inches,
(Marianne A. Kinzer)

Monoculture and urban structures is the backdrop for islands of environments, dedicated to nurture a great variety of native species.  This variety creates an intensity of life that feels different than a city park or farmland.  Nature preserves educate on what kind of plants and animals were originally found in Northern America and which were imported.   Some plants and species from Europe or Asia have spread in ways that are devastating for native species.

The aesthetic and educational value of nature preserves and nature restoration projects is great, but there are also economic benefits from such undertakings.

Wetlands can absorb and clean water.  When there are no functioning wetlands, they cannot absorb water and the damaging effect of storms, like recently hurricane Katrina, is much stronger.  Since wetlands hold water, the negative of effects of droughts are also less devastating.  Wetlands are even more vitally important for cleaning water.  They take some of the nitrogen out of the runoff from farmland, for instance.  In the future, if we do not acknowledge the importance of wetlands, less and less fresh water will be available, due to pollution and sinking ground water levels.

In Spunky Bottom, American Lotus seeds lay dormant under cornfields for eightyfive years.  The Lotus is back in large numbers.  Its flowers are stunningly beautiful, and seem to signify that nature is resilient and can recover fast.



Pondweed in Spunky Bottom, Nature Coservancy


Profile of Marianne A. KINZER>


Article, Photographs and Paintings by Marianne A. KINZER, Light Millennium, New York

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