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A Converging Current of Conservation

Great Rivers Land Trust, Illinois

Great Rivers Land TrustMany streams and small tributaries feed into the Piasa Creek Watershed in western Illinois, and Alley Ringhausen, executive director of the Great Rivers Land Trust, has explored most of them. In work that originated as a sedimentation trading project, he has partnered with organizations as diverse as American Water Works, the National Parks Service, a Boy Scout camp and an Underground Railroad group. These relationships have taken him up and down the many tributaries and extensions of Piasa Creek, and in the process he has successfully united seemingly disparate goals among several organizations to form a cohesive base of support for land conservation and environmental stewardship.

A Partnership Is Born

When Ringhausen began the Piasa Creek Watershed project in 1993, his goal was to address sedimentation of regional waterways. At the time, this was a novel concept, as very few organizations were engaged in holistic efforts that required coordination of agricultural, forested and urban areas. Working with American Farmland Trust, he had developed a plan that would ultimately involve more than 78,000 acres within the Piasa Creek Watershed in Illinois.

This grand vision needed funding support, and Ringhausen opted to work with a somewhat non-traditional partner. The flood of ’93 had destroyed a 100-year-old plant owned by the American Water Works Company on the Mississippi River. The water company built a new plant on higher ground and was ready to go operational when they were informed by the EPA that, in order to receive their discharge permit, they would have to implement new and costly methods of sediment removal. American Water Works reached out to Great Rivers Land Trust with a proposal that the EPA approve their discharge permit for the current water plant and in exchange American Water Works would contribute financially to the implementation of the Piasa Creek Watershed Project. The innovative project would ultimately remove twice as much sediment as American Water Works deposited into the river, and the EPA agreed. Accordingly, the land trust began exploring which properties would be most suitable for the project.

Scout's Honor

At first, Ringhausen reached out to wary farmers with an offer to finance a portion of the cost for erosion control structures. After some time, Ringhausen worked his way up to a Boy Scout camp near the town of Godfrey. The area had been used by the Scouts for generations as their retreat for camping and outdoor recreation and was an integral part of the community. Many years before, they had constructed a lake in the middle of the property for swimming and fishing, and over time Godfrey had grown up around it. As the town grew, however, the development of subdivisions resulted in significant runoff that was slowly but surely filling in the Boy Scouts’ lake.

After several canoes had been beached in the middle of the shallow water and swimming badges were no longer attainable for lack of water to swim in, the Boy Scouts decided it was time to take action and agreed to work with Great Rivers Land Trust. Ringhausen used his contacts and resources to re-dig the lake, the land on which the camp stood was put into a conservation easement and a portion of the lake was restored as an enhanced wetland. Today, surrounding camp sites have been resurfaced with the salvaged sediment from the lake, and the Boy Scouts have enjoyed a three-fold increase in enrollment for their summer camp programs.

Uncovering History and Heritage

Looking for ways to create a natural buffer around the lake, Ringhausen reached out to neighboring landowners to see if they might be amenable to putting their land into an easement. During this campaign, he found himself knocking on the door of a mainly African American church surrounded by a predominantly white community. As it turned out, the church stood on a site that had formerly been used by the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves escaping from Missouri. Situated on the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis, the Piasa Creek Watershed was formerly a tributary called Rocky Fork that runaway slaves were told would serve as a safe haven. Many passed through the Rocky Fork Valley on their way to other safe communities farther north; however, some chose to stay there where they built homes and eventually became landowners. A small African American community surrounded by sympathetic white landowners developed over time in the Rocky Fork Valley.

Realizing that many objectives could be simultaneously reached by working to protect this area, Ringhausen began looking for additional partners who would help to conserve this important historical site. Great Rivers Land Trust received a grant to do an archeological survey in the Rocky Fork area, where they uncovered nearly 100 home sites, multiple cemeteries and wells that verified the existence of the historical African American community. With their partners, the organization submitted a proposal to the National Park Service and had Rocky Fork Creek designated as a “Network to Freedom” site as part of the Underground Railroad. In the intervening years, additional funding was received to build a kiosk to educate visitors about the site using the same stones that had originally been used in the houses that sheltered the newly-freed men and women.

A Waiting List

Ringhausen predicts that other projects will be finalized in the near future to protect more than two contiguous miles along Piasa Creek. Perhaps even more importantly, Ringhausen celebrates the success of having so many diverse people engaged in and excited about conservation. Initially encountering resistance among landowners who mistakenly believed that a conservation easement would result in significant reduction in their ability to farm, he now has a waiting list of people vying to participate in projects that encourage more environmentally friendly farming techniques and conservation easement programs. Additionally, corporations like American Water Works have teamed up with a local Boy Scout Troop and an archaeological program of the National Park Service to enhance critical wetland habitat and permanently protect sites of important national cultural heritage.

His advice to other land trusts? Ringhausen says, “Explore every opportunity.” Some will not work out, but you may miss some fantastic possibilities to achieve multiple successes if you are too narrow in your mission.

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Writer: Joan Campau
Editors: Sheila McGrory-Klyza and Christina Soto
Photo: Courtesy of Lewis & Clark Council

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