Flood-prone field changing into wetlands

ST. JOSEPH – A former corn and beans field on the west edge of St. Joseph is being turned into a restored wetlands area that may some day attract marsh-loving creatures like blue-winged teal and great blue herons.

Bruce Stikkers, a resource conservationist at the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District, has been leading workers in the transformation that he predicts will become a natural attraction and living laboratory for local students.

The land, just beyond the western village limits on about 40 acres directly north of U.S. 150, is better known to many in the area as "that low field that used to flood every year."

Brad Marsh, the farmer who sold the land to the conservation district a couple of years ago, laughed a little at that description. Even so, Marsh said he and his father got a money-making crop out of that field every harvest for about 50 years.

"It always looked worse than what it was," Marsh said. "It was good soil. I made good money down there."

The conservation district started planning the project about 10 years ago.

"Something is finally starting to happen after a lot of fits and starts," Stikkers said.

He and workers from his office, the Illinois Natural History Survey office in Champaign and a few volunteers worked on their hands and knees several days in May, digging small holes in the wet ground and plugging them, by hand, with 2-inch-square starter plants.

Marsh said the conservation district initiated the offer to buy his land several years ago. When they had it appraised and won some grant money from the Department of Natural Resources' Conservation 2000 program, it seemed like the right time to let the property go.

One thing Marsh won't miss is figuring out ways to keep the field dry. He said the natural slope of the adjacent land dumps rainwater there, and it took large underground drainage tiles to get to where floods would drain in a few days.

"It was a constant battle, you know, trying to keep water off of it," Marsh said.

Stikkers figured it was time for the property to stop fighting nature and time to start showcasing it.

The drainage tiles have been dug up and broken open. Two low areas were scraped into the field and are filling up as ponds. In some places, the very plants Marsh tried to keep out of his crops are being reseeded.

Stikkers expects it will be another two or three years before the new wetland area starts to look like anything other than a field of weeds. Even if it won't take on its mature wetlands look for a few years, Allen Plocher, the wetlands group coordinator for the Illinois Natural History Survey, said the changes already have taken effect.

"It's been out of ag for over a year now, and it's already got frogs in it, and it's got good waterfowl use," Plocher said. So far geese, ducks, cardinals, blue jays, finches, frogs and turtles have been spotted in the young wetlands. Plocher hopes for birds like blue-winged teal, great blue herons, purple martins and others.

A species that has not come out in force yet are mosquitoes. But the neighbors across the Salt Fork branch of the Vermilion River, which borders the property on the north and east, think that is only a matter of time.

"We are apprehensive about it because it looks like a bunch of weeds and a mosquito harbor," Penny Bates said. She lives on North Elm Street, on the east side of the wetlands.

Jim Capel, regional manager of parks and recreation for the Department of Natural Resources, said a controlled wetland like the one they are building actually would reduce the amount of mosquitoes in the area because it would also attract species to prey on mosquitoes. Capel said bats and purple martins work well, and he expects the conservation district would build houses for the martins on the property.

Betty Routh, a homeowner on West Grand Avenue across the creek on the north side, hopes Capel is right. She said it's been a while, though, since purple martins populated that area. Routh is also a volunteer at the Homer Lake Forest Preserve, monitoring bluebird houses there.

"I'm more curious than anyone else to see what's going to happen to it, because I look out on it every day," she said. "I really hope that whatever ends up there, it beautifies the place."

Routh said she enjoyed the up-close look she had at farm crops and liked watching how they changed throughout the season, and she thinks she would enjoy a wetlands area, too, if it would ever get going. Her neighbor around the corner agreed.

"We didn't see any action for a long time," Penny Bates said, "so we just hope they get something positive going with it instead of a weed patch."

Stikkers' first priority is to finish planting on the northern property. Then the conservation district would apply for a grant to design almost 30 acres on the south side of U.S. 150.

After that design work, and once more attractive plant life starts coming up on the north side, a parking lot big enough for a few school buses and an observation area will go in near where a tall sign now stands.

Kenneth Kesler, who sits on the conservation district's board of directors, has high hopes for the observation area. Once the plants take off, he envisions people coming out in the evening for picnics to watch the birds. He expects St. Joseph-Ogden High School biology classes will be out regularly, learning from the natural environment.

Trail access through the prairie and wetlands, however, likely will be limited to help preserve the property.

Marsh said he hopes the plan succeeds, and he'd like to see his old property used for "educational purposes and all that. I just hope they keep it looking nice."

Betty Routh said Marsh always kept the property in good order when he had it, and she hopes it will stay that way in whatever form it takes.

"He farmed it beautifully. It was just beautifully kept," Routh said. "It isn't beautiful right now by any stretch of the imagination, but maybe it will be in time."

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