Since The Nature Conservancy began restoring the Emiquon Preserve from farmland to functioning floodplain in 2007, many natives have returned. Historic backwater lakes and wetlands. Aquatic plants. Fish. Waterfowl, by the tens of thousands. And, beginning June 4th, new visitor facilities are expected to attract scores of people, too.
On June 4th at 11am, a ribbon-cutting ceremony will mark the official opening of Emiquon’s new visitor area. The Conservancy and its partners will then offer canoeing, kids activities and science demonstrations from 12 to 4pm; along with other opportunities to explore the Preserve’s new hiking and biking trails, boardwalk, and observation decks and tower.
The event not only celebrates Emiquon’s ongoing research and restoration efforts, but also highlights its impact on nature-based tourism.
“It’s exciting to think about the possibilities,” says Jason Beverlin, the Conservancy’s Illinois River project manager. “While our primary focus at the site is to restore the Illinois River and its floodplain, we’ve always seen Emiquon as a demonstration project. It’s living proof that restoration can benefit people and nature. The more folks that visit, the more we can share that message.”
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Interpretive signs address visitors along Emiquon’s new trails and observation points. They call attention to wildlife and explain the important relationship between the Illinois River and the surrounding area that makes up its floodplain. They also reveal the area’s rich cultural heritage, which is the focus of nearby Dickson Mounds Museum—now the official visitor center for the site.
According to Anaise Berry, director of the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway, this interpretive approach hits the spot for local tourism.
“Nature-lovers or eco-tourists, as some call them, are typically visitors interested in learning more. Not only do they seek out great places to birdwatch and kayak, but they want to know the context of the place, how it evolved and where it fits into the larger picture,” she says.
This “living museum” Berry describes is what makes a trip to central Illinois so compelling. As part of the Byway tourism effort, she promotes many of the region’s natural areas and has designated Emiquon as a waypoint, or focal destination, along Illinois River Road.
“Nature-based tourism is the fastest growing tourism segment,” she adds. “And the leverage it has is considerable. Tourists don’t travel here and only visit one place. They look for other recreational opportunities, stay in our hotels, shop in our stores and dine in our restaurants. The economic impact is huge.”
Research conducted by the Illinois Bureau of Tourism in 2008 shows that tourists visiting the region spend an average of $127 per day. Nature tourists tend to spend more than that, seeking out larger ticket items such as authentic souvenirs, outdoor gear and more upscale dining experiences.
Emiquon was once the jewel of the Illinois River, nurturing diverse native plants and wildlife. Hundreds of nearby archeological sites are testimony to the wealth of natural resources that supported more than 500 generations of civilization in this area.
The Conservancy is restoring and managing the Emiquon Preserve to conserve ecological processes and the plant and animal communities of the Illinois River ecosystem.
Emiquon is located in southeastern Fulton County, about 40 miles southwest of Peoria and 2 miles northwest of Havana. Dickson Mounds Museum serves as Emiquon visitor’s center and is located on its eastern edge.
In order to keep Emiquon as “green” as possible, building materials were carefully selected. The boardwalk that transports guests to the wetland viewing area, for instance, was constructed of recycled wood and plastic boards. Likewise, old concrete foundations and pads were broken up and reused as gravel to pave the extended roadway and parking areas.
“We wanted the architecture to be open and airy,” says Beverlin. “It had to invite visitors to connect with nature. I think we’ve achieved that, and have done so in a way that has minimal impact on the environment.”
The Lakeside Observatory boardwalk and Wetland Observatory viewing platform are equipped with spotting scopes that allow visitors to view much of the Preserve. These installments, as well as the signs and increased site access create educational opportunities for teachers, students, scientists, land managers and the general public.
This passage into large-scale visitor use at Emiquon builds upon a legacy of connecting people and nature.
The Nature Conservancy in Illinois has been committed to the preservation of the Illinois River for more than a decade. With the acquisition of Emiquon, it took a pivotal step towards regaining river-floodplain connectivity and created one of the largest floodplain restoration projects of its kind in the U.S. outside the Florida Everglades.
Throughout the years, Emiquon has hosted local hunters and fishers, as well as groups of graduate students conducting research in its field station and scientists visiting to compare data and practices.
To advance conservation of similar river floodplains around the world, the Conservancy’s Great Rivers Partnership (GRP)—located at Bradley University’s Peoria NEXT Innovation Center—designated the Emiquon Preserve as a proof-of-concept project where innovations in river floodplain restoration and management are developed and modeled.
“The work we’re doing here reaches far beyond our backyard,” says Doug Blodgett, the Conservancy’s river conservation director in Illinois and GRP advisor. “Through our science, outreach and advocacy, we strive to influence the effectiveness of others’ work so that we can collectively realize basin-scale improvements.”
The GRP will join Emiquon and the Conservancy in Illinois to host an exchange with Chinese scientists this summer. An intern from India will also visit to collect data on floodplain vegetation, which correlates to research conducted through the Indian Statistical Institute. iBi