Restoring Wetlands: a path into the future

We never know what might act as a spark when it comes to the natural world. It could be some profound and magnetic encounter with a wild animal or a commonplace connection with our local surroundings. It might be a thrilling journey on foot through remote mountains or the evocative atmosphere of an old-growth forest. It could even be a mere fragment of nature that sets you on the way to a long and enriching relationship with the wild.

Restored lobelia meadows. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI

That’s what happened to Bill Glass, a U.S. Forest Service ecologist at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in northeast Illinois. I’d met Bill while he was walking the tallgrass in the early spring of 2016 after I’d set out for Midewin when writing a book about threatened places. Nearly everywhere else I explored while writing Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save our Wild Places was at risk because of development of some kind: beautiful, flourishing and important places under threat from the construction of airports, roads and luxury houses, or imperiled by extractive industries that would spell their imminent end. But the prairie–wetland landscape was different, because so much of this complex ecosystem was already long gone from the tapestry of the continent that nicknames like the Prairie State for Illinois are just fanciful reminders of all that’s been lost. With merely 0.01% of Illinois’ historic tallgrass prairie still in existence, it’s a state with just a memory of native grasses today. So, the question wasn’t so much about the protection of what remained but whether it was possible to bring any of the rest back.

Rare purple prairie clover at Midewin. Photo by TWI

Having long argued for an ambitious restoration of these once common landscapes, Bill had helped spearhead the work at Midewin. Although that April day we met was frozen through with bitter winds and occasional squalls of lancing snow, I could easily see the magnificence of a place that had, until 1996, been the Joliet Army Arsenal. Its ongoing transformation by the Wetlands Initiative in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service into an expansive mosaic of prairie and wetland habitats is nothing short of extraordinary. But it was a far smaller and less spectacular tract of land that had initially fired Bill’s fascination with the wild world.

“I did a BA in psychology with a minor in marketing,” he said when I asked him how he got involved with ecological restoration. “But really I wanted to be a dentist.” We broke into laughter at his unlikely vocational trajectory. “And for dentistry,” he continued, “I needed biology. So when a biology professor took us to a quarter-acre prairie I just thought this was the coolest, neatest thing I’d ever seen.”

Rattlesnake master plant and ambush bugs. Photo by Lindsay Appel, TWI

Ever since that illuminating experience, Bill’s life’s work has been devoted to the preservation and restoration of wild places, an unexpected consequence of his encounter with a small but dazzling fragment of tallgrass. One of those minuscule remnants still left after the ploughing under of most of the continent’s prairies. Talking to Bill in the midst of a magical landscape that was no longer a site for the development and storage of vast quantities of ordnance but rather a set of healthy and beautifully complex habitats reminded me how even seemingly humble fragments can seed big ideas. And how the natural world, whenever we’re in contact with it through a respectful sense of connection, can profoundly transform our lives.

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This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Wetlands Initiative. Our plans for celebrating this fantastic achievement haven’t unfolded as we’d intended due to the pandemic, but writing this piece at a time when COVID-19 has upturned our world isn’t entirely unconnected to TWI’s mission to preserve and restore wetlands either. Increasingly, it looks like the root cause of the pandemic was effectively the destruction of wild habitats, highlighting the critical need to protect ecosystems across the globe if humans are to flourish into the future alongside the wild species we share this planet with. This work has never been more urgent and necessary, because we’re witnessing, in a way that’s both terrible and tragic, just what the profound cost is of continuing to destroy the natural world.

Dixon Waterfowl Refuge in Illinois. Photo by TWI

Ensuring the vitality of the living world requires a two-pronged approach. Firstly, there’s preservation — the retention of irreplaceable sites for their biodiversity, natural abundance, cultural significance and wild character. That’s part of what I sought to explore in my book, spending time with ordinary people who were fighting to save what mattered for both human and wild communities. We all potentially have a role to play in securing our important places, especially in light of how much we’ve needed them during the pandemic, utilising them when safe to do so as places of rest, relaxation, wonder and solace. Our personal and communal attachments to green spaces can be profoundly protective in character, particularly when we make ourselves stronger through cohesion, creating coalitions of care and concern when a beloved place is threatened by development and destruction. Many of the imperiled places I wrote about in Irreplaceable were ultimately saved by precisely this type of united front, when local campaigners harnessed a shared love of the natural world, transforming deep attachment into effective action.

Seed harvesting for future restorations at Dixon Refuge. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI

Secondly, there’s restoration — the conscious enabling of historic ecological processes in order to revivify entire lands and waters in our surroundings once more. You could think of this as a kind of healing, which is what the name Midewin essentially translates to, referring to the community of healers of the Anishinaabeg people who once dwelled on those prairies. Such repair and renewal are at the core of TWI’s mission, which has meant the rehabilitation of places like the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin & Hopper Lakes in north-central Illinois. Drained to make way for cropland in the early 20th century, this restored mosaic of lakes, marshes, prairies, savannas and seeps is now so critical to wildlife that it’s been recognised as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.

Beyond its immediate worth for local flora and fauna, the restoration of the Dixon Refuge has far-reaching significance. For no wetland exists in isolation; they are all connected in some way to other places and lives. They join together varied human communities through the prevention of storm surges and floodwaters, the provision of irrigation and drinking water, and the amelioration of climate change’s disruptive effects. They provide a sequence of drinking holes for mammals on the move and a set of refuges for geographically limited wetland plants and flowers. And for migratory birds, such restored waters are critical lifelines.

Dixon Waterfowl Refuge. Photo by Rafi Wilkinson, TWI

I saw firsthand what such restorations can mean a few years ago when I tracked bird migration from southern Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco. My destination was a set of ancient salt pans and their wetlands by the Loukos River near the Moroccan town of Larache. Despite their antiquity, the salt pans had been abandoned several years earlier, which meant the pools and lagoons had swiftly disappeared beneath the searing North African sun.

“We used to have tens of thousands of birds stopping here at any one time on migration,” said Mohamed Dakki as we drove through fierce September heat towards the site. “There’s even a record of 15,000 glossy ibises in a single day, plus all the waterbirds that used to breed here.” Mohamed was one of the conservationists in charge of a project being funded to restore the salt pans for the benefit of both local livelihoods and the protection of birds. He put the place into context for me with stark simplicity. “There wasn’t anything for the birds to stop for anymore after the salt pans closed. The land was dry and empty of life.”

Loukas River and saltpans, Morocco. To the left of the river, salt pans being restored; to the right, abandoned salt pans

Because of Mohamed’s bleak description, I wasn’t prepared for the immense changes already underway with the restoration. After years of arid emptiness, we arrived to see hundreds and hundreds of avocets, godwits, and redshanks swirling over the glimmering waters. I watched black-winged stilts and great white egrets stalk the shallows while countless white storks courted the muddy edges as if on a parade. And out of the hot blue sky angled an osprey to snare a fish and lift away. Without the restored wetlands of the salt pans, all these birds would have faced the daunting prospect of migrating over the Sahara Desert with little in the way of replenishment. And their gathered clamour was all the more extraordinary because it had been completely silent only the year before.

Such transformations, whether in the Illinois River Valley or the arid zone north of the Sahara, are just some of the tangible and positive changes that wetland restoration can bring to lives both human and wild, helping connect communities to local opportunities while making safer the dangerous journeys of birds. They are havens of life in the broadest possible sense.

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I’ve often thought of the restored wetlands and prairies of Midewin during this pandemic. Journeying through memory seemed a safe counterweight to sheltering in place, and Midewin felt like the ideal destination to remember given the circumstances. For it’s a place that embodies the wide-ranging possibilities for recalibrating our relationships with the natural world. Not only does it help atone for the wrongs of the past by recognising through its name the indigenous ancestry of the place, it also establishes a path into the future in which respectful coexistence with nature is foregrounded as fundamental to our well-being. And amidst the Sixth Extinction of wild species, when three billion birds alone have been lost from North America in just the past 50 years, Midewin also reveals, in a profoundly moving way, what can be returned to the world when we devote our energies, attention, and care to it.

Restored wetlands at Midewin Tallgrass Prairie. Photo by Julian Hoffman

In the depths of the pandemic I remembered how Midewin’s cold April air rang with the songs of chorus frogs from the marshes. How migrating warblers threaded a stand of oaks with their southern colours and meadowlarks sang from the tall stalks of big bluestem still erect after a long winter. How the first green spears of rattlesnake master cracked the surface of the earth and turkey vultures circled slowly through falling snow, like they were tethered to carousels. I remembered how I could sense the summer to come amidst this movement, all the varied and vibrant tints that would soon spread across prairie, marsh and woods. It was difficult to believe that this had been ruined ground not so many years earlier.

Bison at Midewin Tallgrass Prairie. Photo by Julian Hoffman

And while the buoyant sense of spring renewal was in part due to the great seasonal shift slowly pushing northward across the land, it was also because the place’s underlying fortunes had been altered by a vision that it could be restored, so much so that bison, after such a long absence and their near-extinction from the entire continent, now roam Midewin’s prairies and wetlands once more. I remembered how Arthur Pearson, my guide that day, summed up the scene as we stood overlooking a herd of these majestic animals in a dell less than 50 miles from downtown Chicago: “We’ve destroyed so much, but can heal some of it as well.”

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I’d like to return to that quarter-acre fragment of prairie that Bill Glass visited as a biology student. It might not seem much in the larger scale of things, but that small patch was sufficient to fire the imagination of at least one young man, setting him off on a path that held wildness at its heart. Now just imagine if the vista of that prairie were larger, or grasslands more common in our experience; what further transformations might they then trigger? Imagine if wetlands were more abundant, freely flowing and thriving in our surroundings; what ripples might spill outward from their waters? While fragments of the wild retain a powerful potency to connect us to the natural world, our contact with them can be random and haphazard because of their relative size in the landscape of our lives. We can’t afford to leave these vital connections to chance.

Gray tree frog. Photo by TWI

This is one of the reasons why the work of the Wetlands Initiative is so important: the restoration of damaged and destroyed ecosystems enables a greater spectrum of acquaintance to hold sway. When those fragments are made larger through the hard work of restoration, or are woven together with other wild waters and lands through connective corridors and living bridges, we not only provide crucial lifelines for wild creatures but make space for transformative possibilities amongst ourselves. Whether it’s to urban, suburban or rural places that we feel an attachment, or a combination of all three, the presence of the wild nearby can expand the horizon of human potential.

Volunteers planting native species at Indian Ridge Marsh. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI

When I consider how TWI’s new restoration projects in the Calumet region are beginning to connect communities on Chicago’s Southeast Side and in northwest Indiana to transformed and vibrant habitats that had been lost to industrial and residential sprawl, I see how opportunities to benefit both wildlife and human societies aren’t mutually exclusive but rather sit paired at the very heart of restorative practices. Such projects offer us a glimpse of a possible future. With our landscapes more richly patterned with natural features through a combination of habitat protection and ecological restoration, we encourage affinity with the more-than-human world, greatly increasing the chances that its wild wonder and beauty will enlarge our lives in meaningful and enduring ways.

Migrating white pelicans at the Dixon Refuge. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI

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This essay was written for the 25th anniversary of the Wetlands Initiative and to celebrate their vital and ongoing efforts to protect and preserve wetlands throughout the American Midwest. If you would like to help those efforts, please see their website for volunteer and donation opportunities, or support a local conservation organisation near you. Wherever in the world they are found, wetlands are irreplaceable.

For our video on the importance of wetlands, please see below.

 

 

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