Strong gusts of wind swept over the lake and fields on a recent Saturday as Dr. Michael Lemke guided a group tour near Thompson Lake in western Illinois. Though the shallow waters are just starting to gain the appearance of a lake, the land’s new look is a vast improvement from the previous decades of farmland.
The 7,425 acres of land located near the towns of Lewiston and Havana (about 45 miles northwest from Springfield on the Illinois River), is known as Emiquon, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy. Emiquon is now in the beginning stages of a transformation from farmland to its natural state as part of one of the largest restorations in the country.
A century ago, much of the Illinois River’s floodplain was converted to agricultural lands. The changes that occurred to the land eliminated or changed the important ecological processes of seasonal flooding that sustained the productivity and diversity of the Illinois River ecosystem.
But the past few years have brought about plans to restore this area of land, Lemke said. Now, UIS is currently working on the construction of the Emiquon Field Station, which will provide the opportunity for UIS students and researchers, and the general public, to learn more about the restoration and the natural state of the land.
Lemke, an associate professor of biology at UIS, is now serving as the director of Emiquon and the field station, which is slated to be finished in the next couple of months. The field station will train students in field biology techniques, help students and the public to learn more about the natural processes of the floodplain, freshwater ecology and the restoration, and teach them how to research effectively.
There are a variety of ways for students to become involved with Emiquon and the future field station, Lemke said. Current projects include students studying water quality, and there are other projects “on deck”, Lemke said, including matching up students and researchers to conduct studies and take on various projects in the area. And volunteerism is always a great method of involvement.
“My vision for field station is that it will be a very busy place. Students who would like to go out and get their hands dirty and help take out species that are invasive could volunteer in that way – some different plants and so forth,” he said. “Besides volunteers, classes are another way to get involved.”
Hybrid courses and online classes will give students the ability to learn about topics online and conduct field studies, Lemke said.
“And we’ll be having more and more fieldtrips once the field station is done, as well as workshops,” he added. “This past week we had about 40 students go out and explore biodiversity out there.”
Eventually, the Nature Conservancy has plans to open up the Illinois River so that the floodplain lake can connect, which will add a whole new level of complexity and ecological function to study, Lemke said. UIS is providing key services in recording what occurs during the restoration, which could offer ways to conduct more restorations up and down the Mississippi River, Lemke said.
“I think not to tell the story of the Emiquon Restoration would be a real disservice to society,” Lemke said. “There are real lessons here. To take on a restoration project of this size and learn from that, and then use that as a blueprint for other restorations has implications not only for habitat and wildlife, but also for water quality and just sound environmental management.”
“We’re here on the ground level and we’ll be able to follow it, which makes this a wonderful opportunity.”