Scientists, others discuss Cache wetlands' value

Friday, August 11, 2006

CARTERVILLE, Ill. -- Some things in the world can't be measured only in dollars. The internationally recognized Cache River wetlands in Southern Illinois is one of those, said Michael Jeffords, a senior scientist with the Illinois Natural History Survey. Jeffords, who returned recently from a trip to the diverse cloud forests of Ecuador, said the Cache River watershed matches anything he saw on that trip.

"At any season, this place is the equivalent to any place on Earth," Jeffords said.

At the lower end of the Cache River are the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge and the Cache River State Natural Area. The 35,000 acres, purchased with help from the Nature Conservancy, are listed among the world's most important wetlands under an international treaty signed in 1971 in Ramsar, Iran. Other U.S. areas listed with the Ramsar organization along with the Cache River include the Everglades and the Okeefenokee Swamp.

Jeffords spoke to more than 100 scientists, environmentalists and others gathered Thursday at John A. Logan Community College for the first day of a three-day symposium on the Cache River.

He spoke of a hierarchy of human values -- economic, amenity and moral -- that constitute anything's worth. "If we view life only as a commodity value, our vision is too narrow," he said.

Amenity values recognize the beauty around us. And moral values are the highest values, leading people to recognize their "moral responsibility to life on earth and our own back yard," Jeffords said.

The symposium continues today with additional lectures and concludes Saturday with tours of efforts to protect and restore the river and its associated wetlands. Lectures will include reports on the economic impact of tourism on the river, how preserving the river enhances life in the region and how the swamp reveals the diversity and fragility of life.

The Cache River drains most of four counties in Southern Illinois -- Alexander, Union, Johnson and Pulsar. The swamps are the northernmost cypress wetlands in the Mississippi River delta region, and numerous plants, insects and animals are found only in those swamps.

Efforts to preserve the Cache River from development took root in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a coalition was formed to prevent the draining of the swamps.

The Cache River is a rare location because it drains one of the few areas in Illinois that was not covered with glaciers during the last ice age. The Shawnee Hills, the Ozark Plateau, the Mississippi Delta and the Central U.S. Plains meet along the Cache drainage area.

Two economists, Steven Kraft from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and James Caudill of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, discussed the economic value of preserving the Cache River.

Kraft talked about the impact of decisions by private landowners to preserve rather than drain the swamps. He told the assemblage they should always keep the needs and opinions of the people directly involved in mind. "Remember, there are people on the landscape," he said. "They are the ones making the decisions."

Caudill is almost finished with a study of the direct economic impact of the public wildlife refuges and nature areas. He found that visitors and employees provide $3.6 million in direct economic impact, creating 86 permanent jobs.

The study, he said, didn't look at how the existence of the public areas affects neighboring, related areas such as Horseshoe Lake or the wetlands still in private hands. The entire Southern Illinois region is a major attraction for hunters in the fall and birdwatchers throughout the year.

In addition to scientists, environmentalists and others, the symposium drew the attention of area politicians, including U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, who promised support for continuing efforts to enhance the Cache River system. Flows through the river are interrupted by highways, levees and cutoffs that advocacy groups such as the Cache River Wetlands Joint Venture Partnership and the Nature Conservancy want to modify.

The international reputation of the Cache River hit home, Costello said, while he was on a tour of the Everglades in Florida. Visitors from as far away as China and Japan, touring the restoration project at the Everglades, became intensely interested when he said the Cache River was in his district, Costello said.

The symposium will also include presentation of new scientific studies of the Cache River system. Today Steve Gough, a scientist who studies how land changes over time, will present a new theory of how some sections of the Cache were formed.

Many of the cypress trees in the swamps are about 1,000 years old. And in some places, the Cache is far deeper than would otherwise be expected in a slow-moving, swampy river system.

Part of the Cache flows through an old channel of the Ohio River, which changed course several times as the last ice age was ending, Gough said in an interview. But that still doesn't explain the depth of some areas, he said. The most likely explanation, he said, is that a large section under the Cache sank during a major earthquake about 900 A.D. The New Madrid Fault runs under the region.

The section Gough studied runs from near Karnak, Ill., to around Ullin, Ill.

"It just didn't fit in with the rest," Gough said. "It is like a big pothole in the road. It should have filled in."

335-6611, extension 126

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