Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge
|An attentive black crowned night heron. (Refuge Reporter)|
Anytime is the right time to protect critical wildlife habitat. But different times call for different strategies. Two southern Illinois National Wildlife Refuges are case studies in creative solutions worked out at different periods in nearby places.
Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge was born in 1947. The U.S. was fresh out of World War II and the Great Depression was a recent memory. Congress was happy to protect the upland forest habitat, provided the munitions plantsand the jobs that went with themon the site remained in operation. So along with more than 20,000 acres of wildlife sanctuary, the refuge encompassed some heavy duty industrial operations. The 40's was also an era when America was in love with dams and the resulting "artificial impoundments." Hello water skiing and power-boating! Canoeing was considered quaint. Kayaking happened in the Arcticnot the midwest.
Fifty years later, the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge is still going strong. Manufacturing on the premises seems to be on the way out. Four-thousand acres of the refuge is designated wilderness, a land category that didn't exist in 1947. And while hundreds of thousands of people flock to the developed recreation facilities of the refuge, 20,000 acres are closed to visitors and function purely as a wildlife sanctuary. And while you'll still find booming boats and waterskiers on the huge 7,000-acre Crab Orchard Lake, the two smaller lakes offer respite for smaller craft and a more intimate communing with nature. Nature trails give up-close access to the plentiful wildlife that take advantage of the refuge, including nesting bald eagles, more than 200 species of birds, more than 115 species of trees, and many interesting animals.
Fast forward to 1990. The Cache River wetlands, an important meeting point of four different ecosystems, has been vanishing for years and a decade of determined campaigning is finally paying off. Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge is created. But Cypress Creek represents a new breed of federally protected land. The much smaller size of the refuge13,650 acres as opposed to Crab Orchard's 43,000is typical of the current era of smaller new refuges. The federal government now looms a little less large than it did right after World War II and the New Deal of the Great Depression.
If big government has been cut down to size, citizens groups have taken up the slack. A maturing environmental movement is finding ways to build support and creative partnerships. Cypress Hill was made possible by a team effort of wildlife groups, local government, and private property owners. The operative word is partnership: a sharing, not a dictate.
The result is an enlightened network of protected land that extends far beyond the refuge's boundaries. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, and Ducks Unlimited all owned land that was seen as part of the broader effort to preserve the Cache River wetlands. (Ducks Unlimited later sold its holdings to the refuge.) Out of an educational outreach effort, private property owners and farmers are managing their land with an eye toward wildlife. This is environmentalism that works because it's cooperative.
Recreation at Cypress Creek tends toward low-impact and human-powered. Ten-horsepower motors are allowed in the refuge and along the Cache River, but most people prefer a canoe. The refuge offers three launches. Hikers will find 2 miles of trails, and more than 18 miles on state lands immediately adjacent to the refuge. Hickory Bottom Outdoor Classroom, a 1.2-mile nature trail within the refuge, is known far and wide as a birder's hot spot. Bicyclists will want to check in with the refuge for a map detailing bike-worthy local county roads, and check on the progress of a new rail-trail that will eventually extend 60 miles. Wildlife viewing is stunning and visitors can't go without seeing bald cypress trees that can be as old as 1,000 years.
Crab Orchard's large holding, and Cypress Hill's smaller one: Both are essential in preserving the environmental fabric of southern Illinois. And both are convincing examples of why there's no time like now to work on saving our wild places. Question: What will tomorrow bring?
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication