Raccoon Creek Restoration

The baby shoes dangling from my van mirror, greened by small Green Bay Packer emblems, were no match for the trees greenly budded along Route 2. I was on my way to rural Rockton for my first visit to the Nygren Wetland Preserve.

The Nygren Wetland Preserve is a 721-acre natural area purchased and set aside by the Natural Land Institute of Rockford. The purchase was made possible mostly from a gift given by Carl and Myrna Nygren. The Nygren Preserve is located where the meandering Pecatonica River meets the broad Rock River.

I was heading to a specific area of the preserve, a section of Raccoon Creek. Raccoon Creek originates in Wisconsin and ends in the Pecatonica River. The Raccoon used to meander around close to Pec, but in the 1990s, farmers straightened the creek to make surrounding land dryer and save chunks of their land from changing hands when the creek changed course.

Shortly after arriving, I was given a tour by Andy Bacon, site supervisor of the Raccoon Creek Restoration Project. The RCR Project is an effort to unstraighten Raccoon Creek on the Nygren Preserve. Since the 1970s, you could say that it was possible to “hang out” at the “corner” of Raccoon and Pecatonica. But it won’t be long before a curving Raccoon runs into a curving Pec.

The project is made possible thanks to grants and donations. While some people involved are paid, many are dedicated volunteers. And I met a few volunteers who were sporting hard-earned sunburns.

At the beginning of the descent into the realm of the restoration, the vestiges of last year’s prairie plants drummed in a southern wind. Bluebirds and tree swallows used the wind to inspect bird houses that were held above the grassland canopy with metal rods. Though the prairie itself was a restoration and dominated by only a handful of species, there’s no doubt it would teem with vertebrates and invertebrates in a couple months.

When we reached the realm with overflow ponds on both sides of us, Andy and I began to name off the species. “Mallard, coot, pied billed grebe, chorus frog,” we piped, and the list sang on. Restoration had raised one pond by a foot and a half; maybe a foot and a half more would entice yellow-headed blackbirds to nest there.

The water level was rising outside of the straightened Raccoon Creek because earthen dam-like areas were being made at eight key areas on the straightened creek. These were areas where the meandering Raccoon had changed directions countless years ago, but farmers dredged a deep, straight line through this wetland, and the dredged straight channel filled with the flow of the Raccoon. Cut off from the water, the empty ribbon-like creek beds filled with trees, and some were filled by the farmers.

The newly constructed blockages are pushing water into the old ribbons, and the isolated ribbons, called oxbows. The old ribbon-like meandering creek bed needed cleaning. This was done in most part by machinery and workers of Landscape Resources, Inc., from Montgomery, Ill. Many of the high turns on the old, reborn creek channels were seeded and held with a netting material. The seeds consisted of 30 native plant species known to have been growing on the site well before the straightening. George Fell’s father documented the area’s plant species. He found the uplands were dominated by June grass, and the lowlands were dominated by prairie cord grass.

A vigorous, invasive reed canary grass planted by farmers dominates areas on the restoration. The restoration is vigorously fighting the reed canary grass through burning and other methods, including the seeding and planting of native plant species, according to Andy Bacon.

Thus far, restoration personnel have cut hundreds and hundreds of trees that grew in and on the banks of the old creek. Green ash and silver maples were most abundant.

Raccoon Creek is an important component of an important wildlife corridor in an area under extreme pressure from developers. The whole Nygren Preserve left a fine impression on me; it was like being in Wisconsin. Hey, I can fantasize! This is America, right? I have the right to live in the great state of Illinois and yet have a pair of Green Bay Packers baby shoes dangling from my van mirror.

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