By Abby Culloton
Hidden among the cornfields of central Illinois, at a location so unknown you need a set of coordinates to find it, lies an ecological paradise. Point Pleasant wetland in Penfield is a rich, diverse ecosystem teeming with wildlife and a hotspot for birdwatching in Illinois. I walked along the grassy path on a crisp spring morning, listening to the vibrant hum of life all around and breathing in the smoky smell of a freshly burned prairie. Joining me was Aerin Tedesco of Champaign, who holds the records for most birds spotted by a female birder in Illinois, and my friend Lily Reynolds, a student in Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois and aspiring ornithologist. I felt like a bit of an imposter walking between the two of them as they enthusiastically pointed their binoculars at a bird and immediately called out its name, while I was simply in awe of how many species lived here that I never knew existed.
Before it was an ecological haven, however, Point Pleasant was an environmental battleground between forces of degradation and restoration.
Wetlands like Point Pleasant provide food for wildlife, maintain water quality, and moderate climate conditions. There are four main types of wetlands — marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens — though they all look a bit different. In fact, they can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Certain marshes and swamps are present year-round, while others, such as vernal pools, appear only during certain seasons. Point Pleasant is a marsh, a rolling prairie with no trees but plentiful grasses and wide pools of water. It’s the perfect place for biodiversity to thrive year-round.
Regardless of size, type, or location, wetlands all provide crucial base functions for ecosystems. They are incredibly vibrant habitats, housing a variety of plants, birds, insects, mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and microbes. Wetlands are sometimes referred to as “biological supermarkets” because they contain a wide range of foods that attract all kinds of organisms. This was evident at Point Pleasant as we observed the lively buzz of cardinals, cranes, and hundreds of other species stopping in for a morning meal. Wetlands are important habitats for breeding and provide a safe resting place for birds and mammals during migration. Hiking through Point Pleasant, it was obvious why wetlands are valued among the most productive ecosystems on the planet, comparable to coral reefs and rainforests. Unfortunately, they are also among the most endangered.
Wetlands are being threatened nationwide and worldwide, and in Illinois, more than 85% of wetlands have been lost since the time of European settlement. The primary culprit of wetland loss in Illinois is artificial drainage — the technique used to make land suitable for crop production. From agriculture alone, 5 million acres of wetland have been drained in Illinois. That is enough to fill almost 2.5 million Olympic swimming pools. Wetlands are also drained to make room for other developments, such as housing, transportation, and landfills. Those that remain are threatened by degradation due to polluted runoff from agricultural and urban areas.
Point Pleasant’s Road to Restoration
The history of Point Pleasant illustrates the threats posed to wetlands by agricultural development. According to historian Elizabeth Hansen, there was a post office on the property from 1853 to 1862 (the Point Pleasant Post Office, after which the restoration team would come to name the wetland 150 years later). During the same period, there was a wagon way station on the property and a ford across the Middle Fork River, indicating that this was an important crossing point during the westward expansion period. By the early 1900s, the property was converted almost entirely into agricultural land and a channel was dug through the middle of the wetland to drain the area. Throughout the century, this channel would carry harmful nutrients from the farm fields straight into the Middle Fork River, as well as stripping away a key habitat for hundreds of native species.
In addition to being a rich ecosystem before agriculture took over the area, Point Pleasant is unique for a few other reasons. First, it is incredibly ecologically diverse. The area is not only home to wetlands and the Middle Fork River, but acres of rolling tallgrass prairie and wooded groves as well. It is also topographically interesting, containing historic mounds and basins known as kames and kettles. A kettle is formed by a large chunk of glacial ice that slowly melts over time to leave a depression in the soil, while kames are high elevation points formed by the sediments that washed away from the depression.
Additionally, scientists discovered a 25-foot-thick layer of peat under the kettle basin in 1997. The peat formed in wetlands worldwide comprises the largest terrestrial carbon sink and sequesters more carbon that all other vegetation types in the world combined. This means that the peatlands at Point Pleasant are an incredibly important carbon sink, and if they were to be disturbed for anthropogenic use, they would release even more CO2 into the atmosphere. For all these reasons, Point Pleasant was a clear target for restoration. The Champaign County Forest Preserve District (CCFPD) has worked to obtain the land in bits and pieces since the 1970s, and finally purchased the full property after receiving an Illinois Department of Natural Resources grant in 2010.
The restoration process began with lots and lots of seeds. According to Peter Goodspeed, Director of Natural Resources at the CCFPD, teams planted 80-100 species in each segment of the property. These were a mix of naturally collected seeds from the area and from local plant nurseries. The team also engaged in what is known as “broadcast frost seeding,” where seeds are spread on top of snow so that as it melts, the seeds have a better chance of getting into the soil and successfully germinating. Of course, the early stages of the project also required lots of manpower, from mowing to spot-treating areas to removing invasive species.
Another large problem the team faced was how to tackle the altered hydrology in the area. Because of the man-made channel running through the property and the number of agricultural tile drains in the area, it was next to impossible to restore the water levels to their natural state. So, the CCFPD engaged in some creative engineering. In 2020, it received funding from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to install an artificial water control structure. This consisted of a weir, which is a type of low dam used to regulate water levels; a riprap, which is a layer of stones along the edge of the wetland to prevent erosion; and a riser pipe that can be used to manually control water levels as needed. These elements function much like a beaver dam by allowing water levels in the wetland to remain stable, while also giving forest officials more control to drain water for restoration work or flood prevention. With the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the team was also able to retrofit the existing tile drains to make them non-perforated, meaning that the adjacent agricultural land can still be drained without also draining the wetland.
Reaping the Benefits
All these restoration efforts in recent years have resulted in clear environmental benefits. The wetland serves as a filter to keep harmful sediments and nutrients out of the Middle Fork River, and also helps to prevent flooding in the agricultural land nearby. Since the soil below the wetland stays saturated year-round, it also prevents the peat from decomposing and releasing excess CO2 into the atmosphere. Point Pleasant has also become a recreation hotspot.
As Goodspeed spoke about the area at a webinar for the Champaign County Audubon Society, his face lit up when he described the “explosion of color” and the “seemingly endless” views of the horizon. “Point Pleasant is one of those places where you can look off into the distance and get these sweeping vistas of the prairie,” he said. Thanks to Goodspeed and his team at the CCFPD, these beautiful views are preserved for everyone to enjoy. Hundreds of plant and animal species enjoy this area as well, with more than 28 dragonfly species alone recorded in the area. CCFPD staff have also sighted more than 80 birds in the area, with some of the most notable being sandhill cranes, great egrets, great blue herons, blue-winged teals, sora rails, and maybe even a king rail, though only a few lucky birders have ever spotted one.
Tedesco was one who reported hearing the king rail at Point Pleasant. In fact, she has seen 120 bird species there, which is the second most of any birder at this location. In 2020, she embarked on her first of two “big years,” which are year-long birdwatching challenges where birders try to record as many species as they can by sight or sound during the year. In 2021, she broke the Champaign County big year record, recording a total of 248 species.
Point Pleasant was a crucial location for Tedesco’s big year. Out of the 248 bird species she recorded in the county, more than 100 of them were at Point Pleasant. The wetland also holds a special significance to her because it is where she tied the record with the sighting of the yellow-breasted chat. Describing the moment when she heard the bird, Tedesco remarked, “We jumped around and high-fived and made a quick recording! Then we headed toward the bird. He was easy to spot, high up in a clump of trees, singing like he owned the place.”
The Future of Our Wetlands
On my trip out to Point Pleasant with Tedesco and Reynolds, I saw firsthand the sheer number of species that thrive on this land. I saw the way people could thrive, too — Tedesco would excitedly point out a bird and help us recognize it, while Reynolds and I would listen intently, learning from the best. Along the hiking trail, we saw a variety of birds deep in the woods, along the riverbanks, and high up in the trees. As we reached the main wetland, we gazed out at the vast open space, frantically taking note of every bird we saw swooping above the water or resting on the banks.
Suddenly, from a patch of trees just behind us, I saw something slowly walking toward the water. With my mediocre bird knowledge, I asked, “Is that a …. heron?” Tedesco immediately turned around and exclaimed, “That’s a sandhill crane!” Soon after, it called out and made a low rattling sound, almost as if announcing its presence. Seeing a sandhill crane in Champaign is a rare enough feat, as they tend to only migrate through the area for a brief period in the spring; but after we began taking photos and videos of the crane, we soon noticed a small, fuzzy, yellow creature bobbing behind it — a sandhill crane colt! As we would learn after consulting natural history specialist Geoff Williamson, this was the first time anyone has seen a sandhill crane breeding in Champaign in at least a decade, but possibly much longer. As I saw this historic little creature trailing behind its parent, I felt a sense of hope that if this place that was once damaged can become an ecological haven once more, we can restore other spaces as well.
While the restoration work at Point Pleasant is far from over, this sighting was a true testament to the success of the work that has been done so far. So how does this provide a model for other locations looking to restore wetlands? First, by combining ecological principles, sustainable engineering methods, and local context, the CCFPD team was able to restore the site in a holistic sense that benefitted the natural environment, surrounding communities, and users of the site. Additionally, though this isn’t one of the largest or most well-known ecological restoration projects to take place in recent years, it is very indicative of the impacts of small-scale work. Local agencies and communities can identify areas in need and set out to create their own restoration projects; these are the efforts that are going to matter most in the coming years.
When I asked what restored natural spaces meant to her, Tedesco replied simply: “They’re everything.” Throughout my time at Point Pleasant, it became clear to me how one small place can make a world of difference. While this may just be one small wetland restoration project, it has succeeded in bringing key species back to the area and serves as a living advertisement for the benefits of local activism. Ecological restoration is an important weapon in our fight against environmental decline; local, on-the-ground efforts like those that restored the natural beauties of Point Pleasant are small but important victories.
About the Author …
Abby Culloton is a senior from Bartlett, Ill., studying Civil & Environmental Engineering and a recipient of the Certificate in Environmental Writing. She is passionate about both engineering and environmental sciences and hopes to bridge these two fields to work in habitat restoration and stream ecology. Outside of classes, she is the secretary of the Society of Women Engineers on campus and interns with Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant.
This piece was written for ESE 498, the CEW capstone course, in Spring 2022.