I saw no long V-formations across the sky. No one was in a hurry to leave.
* * *
Ed Britton has been District Manager for twenty-three years at the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge--Savanna District. Most wildlife managers move from place to place in their careers, and for a while so did Britton, but when he landed at the Mississippi Refuge, he settled in. “I love being on the river,” he says, and from his perch of longevity he’s been able to watch conservation projects be birthed, nurtured, and come to fruition. And he’s seen the river suffer environmental degradation as well.
The Upper Mississippi Refuge stretches 261 miles from Wabasha, Minnesota, to Rock Island, Illinois, covering 240,000 acres of backwaters and islands. It is divided into four districts, of which the Savanna (Illinois) District constitutes the southernmost 80 miles.
The Refuge was established in the early twentieth century amid counter-pressures to drain Mississippi backwaters for agriculture. Conservationist Will Dilg and the Izaak Walton League took the opposite approach, successfully lobbying Congress to establish the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in 1924. “When I see the river above and below the Refuge today, I’m delighted that our forefathers had the foresight to protect these waters,” says Britton.
The Refuge lives up to its name. The Savanna District typically sees tens of thousands each of canvasback, mallards, Canada Geese and other migrating waterfowl each fall and spring as they use the Mississippi River valley as an arterial flyway. The Refuge provides rest havens and sanctuaries as well. Duck and goose hunting is allowed on most of the river during specified seasons, but certain areas like the 3600-acre Spring Lake prohibit hunting year-round for migratory birds and are off limits to boaters during migration season.
In contrast to the upper three divisions, the Savanna Distract has a much wider flood plain and is not as hemmed in by river bluffs. Unlike the northern districts, it has levees, “not to keep the water out,” says Britton, “but to keep water in. The levee system is used to raise and lower backwater levels to best serve migratory waterfowl.” Backwater levels are lowered in the summer to encourage plant growth, and then raised in the fall and winter for migration seasons so that geese, ducks, and other waterfowl can have a swim-up-and-dine experience. The levee backwaters are likewise managed for fish, shore birds, and waterfowl. Hundreds of bald eagles over-winter on the Refuge.
The Savanna District is likewise unique in having 4,000 acres of upland sand prairies formed by ice dams during glacial melting periods. The resulting glacial lakes dropped prodigious amounts of sand on the lake bottoms, which remained on the uplands when the ice dams melted, the glacial lakes drained, and the Mississippi River assumed its modern valley. Some of the sand prairie includes the Lost Mound Unit, i.e., the former grounds of the Savanna Army Depot. Much of the Depot is now part of the Refuge, but largely off-limits to visitors due to soil contamination and potential unexploded ordnance from its Army legacy.
The sand prairie, largest in Illinois, continues south of the former Depot as well in uplands surrounding the Refuge Visitors Center. Three miles of the Great River Trail wind through the sand prairie, offering bicyclists and hikers eye-level views of big bluestem and prairie compass plants. Pull-out spots provide river overlooks, shoreline hiking, and informational kiosks explaining the eco-system of the prairie and its protection of rare species like the ornate box turtles that had already burrowed into the sand for the winter on this crisp October day.
Back at the Visitors Center, Britton expresses his pride in the Refuge’s collaboration with various management agencies and conservation organizations like state DNR’s, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Nature Conservancy. “It’s a big family looking out for the natural environment,” says Britton. He takes joy in having watched numerous habitat reconstructions take shape, often over a several-year period.
But the river faces serious, ongoing threats. Invasive fish, mollusk, and water plant species can monopolize habitat, having no natural predators in the area. Siltation has increased with upriver development, agriculture, and more numerous high-volume rains. “Areas that used to see ¼-inch of annual siltation may now see five inches,” says Britton.
Indeed, climate change and development have brought higher water levels. “The river is 7-8 feet higher than usual right now,” Britton says, pointing out the window, “and has been 4-5 feet higher all summer. This is the new normal” that’s prevailed over the last 4-5 years.
Any habitat restoration project on the river now takes into account the likelihood of more frequent high water, resulting in different tree species planted and different shoreline configurations.
The river’s health depends on informed and caring citizens, and both the Visitors Center and the Stewards of Upper Miss Refuge (Friends program) work to bring that about. The Visitors Center broadcasts from live web cams set up throughout the Refuge, trained on a bald eagle nest, Spring Lake waterfowl, and an island pelican view. The Stewards offer golf cart tours through the prairie during the summer. And a Junior Stewards program for kids and parents meets once a month year-long to get kids connected with the outdoors.
* * *
Although I had other tasks to attend to back home, I finished my day at the Refuge with a thirty-mile bike ride on the trail. The sky was a crisp blue devoid of summer’s haze, the day neither too warm nor cold. Ed Britton likes it here. The geese and ducks—for a while at least—were in no hurry to leave.
Why should I?
-- November 2018