Canoeing down the Middle Fork is the best way to understand how important this scenic river really is. Credit: Kickapoo Adventures

By Tori Ruzzier and Sydney Sadler


As the clock struck 10 a.m. one day in 1969, weathered shoes shuffled across Green Street in front of the Illini Union. With coffee steam billowing out of their styrofoam cups and ties tied tight, aeronautical engineering student Clark Bullard and geography student Bruce Hannon wandered down the street until they ran into another man, machinist and avid fisherman Bob Bales. Though the morning coffee meetings were meant to be between the grad students and their advisors, this day would prove to be much different — so much so that it would change the course of their lives and inaugurate one of the most famous environmental battles in Illinois history. Bullard, Bales, and Hannon didn’t know it at the time, but they would soon be leading the fight to protect the Middle Fork Vermilion River.

The Wabash River watershed with the Vermilion River highlighted. Credit: Kmusser via Wikimedia Commons

The Middle Fork is truly an ecological wonder worth protecting. Not only is it the single most biodiverse river in Illinois and the sole certified “National Scenic River” in the state, it’s a natural treasure to the people of Danville. It’s the place Bullard, Bales, and Hannon raised their children, spent days identifying the many bird species that call the Middle Fork home, and discovered bliss canoeing its rushing waters.

This past March, we had the pleasure of sitting down to talk with Bullard a half century after the battle between environmental advocates and dam-building companies over the Middle Fork first began. Bullard is just about the most right-brained engineer you’ll ever meet — though he’s incredibly humble about his poetic streak. As he spoke, we realized that his story included lessons that the young environmentalists of 2022 needed to hear.


The First Rumblings of a Fight

Bullard traced the origins of the dam fight at Middle Fork to a hearing in 1967, where Bales spoke to the environmental organization the Izaak Walton League. Bales informed locals that the Army Corps of Engineers had started creating a reservoir that would cause irrevocable damage to the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. By the time of the hearing, the Corps had already planned to dam up streams all over Illinois so that “almost every river was slated for a reservoir,” Bullard said.

“The Corps would wait for a drought and go to a community and say, ‘We’re going to cure your drought problems with a reservoir!’ ” Bullard said, chuckling at the hypocrisy. “And they wait for a flood, go to flooded communities, and say ‘A reservoir is the answer!’ ”

Following the Corps’ announcement, politicians joined the Corps in convincing Danville locals that a reservoir would help them. However, their reasoning was based on finding a solution to Danville’s “economic problem,” as former Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said in a 2011 documentary about the dam fight. He reminisced about how the reservoir plans promised to bring “tourism to Danville” and promote the idea of central Illinois as a place of “recreation.” What was not specified was that the “recreation” the reservoirs promised promoted the use of motorboats. “That’s what this reservoir is all about. It’s really about people who can afford a motorboat,” Bullard said. While canoeing is still a viable option in streams, motorboating requires the killing of the river’s flow so that a boat can better move against the current. When a river’s flow stops, it reduces its inhabitants and makes it nearly impossible to keep clean, subsequently killing its ecosystem.


The Vermilion River’s Ecosystem: A Diamond in the Rough

The Vermilion River is home to 97 species of fish, 46 species of mussels, 16 species of large crustaceans, and 540 species of aquatic macroinvertebrates (VRCOA Action Plan 2011). Some of these are considered “focal species” — the Iowa darter, the smooth softshell turtle, the wavy-rayed lampmussel, and the rainbow mussel. These earn the name of “focal species” because they act like the proverbial canaries in a coal mine. Because indicator species like the wavy-rayed lampmussel are so sensitive to pollution and habitat loss (which dams certainly cause), scientists can monitor the health of these streams by monitoring them.

What’s so important about this research is that it determines which streams need which type of care. According to the Streams Campaign, Illinois streams are measured by their “integrity” (the stream’s capability to support its ecosystem) and their “diversity” (the biodiversity of the stream’s ecosystem). For each measurement, the streams are graded from A-E, like a report card. The streams with higher grades are deemed “Biologically Significant Streams” (BSS). While most Illinois streams have C-E levels, the Middle Fork is almost entirely made up of Biologically Significant Streams with grades in the A-B range.

The smooth softshell turtle is one of many species that call the Vermilion River home. Credit: Kmusser via Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, just because a stream has BSS status does not mean that it stops being monitored and protected by the IWAP. The Streams Campaign and the Committee on the Middle Fork not only pay attention to Illinois streams when they are dying but try to protect them while they are still strong. Too often, we flock to environmental causes only when we feel guilty or face the imminent loss of a natural treasure. Treating the environment as something to protect and relish regardless of its health demands that we shed our savior complex. This is precisely why it was such a shock when a river as pristine as the Middle Fork came under threat and why it became so important for Bullard, Bales, and Hannon to start a movement.


A Committee is Born

Bales’ outspokenness in 1967 prompted single-issue groups to pop up everywhere to combat the widespread dam propaganda. This included the Committee on Allerton Park, formed to stop a similar dam project on the Sangamon River, which Hannon already headed at the time of the Green Street meeting in 1969. During that meeting, Hannon actually suggested to Bales to give up on the Middle Fork and join the Committee on Allerton Park instead since the single-issue groups had competition for volunteers. It was then that Bales turned to Bullard in the hopes of getting an engineer on the Middle Fork team. Bullard was hesitant at first. At the time, he was a student with no idea how his aeronautical engineering studies could contribute to the environmental movement. However, Bales convinced Bullard that his understanding of fluid mechanics and, therefore, the flow of water, made him the perfect person to debunk the dam-building companies’ engineering reports. After that conversation with Bales, it didn’t take much convincing for the nature-loving engineer to join the cause.

From that moment, Bullard and Bales formed the Committee on the Middle Fork Vermilion River. Eventually, Hannon would also join the committee while simultaneously fighting for Allerton Park. Their first order of business was to draw public attention to the threats made against the river with the reservoir proposal. Bales believed the best way to get the message out was to show the public what was at stake. Hoping to gain public support, Bales, his wife Sandy, Bullard, and his wife Irene would load up a canoe and shuttle down to the river bank with visitors who were willing to explore the natural wonderland in their Midwest backyard. Bales was known for saying, “I just let the river sell itself,” and through his journeys he opened the eyes of many supporters. The volunteers of the committee knew that if more people could just see the wonders that this river held, they, too, might just fall in love. Bullard mentioned how he and his wife “would take people down the river from 1970 to ’76, probably 80% of the Saturdays and Sundays from March to September.” While the team continued taking visitors down the rivers in canoes, they also turned their efforts toward a new strategy to gain more attention for their cause.

Before the days of social media and digital circulation, these environmental activists had to physically get out to spread the message as decision time for the reservoir fast approached. Bullard told us that on weekends, he and his fellow volunteers would pack up their cars and fan out across the state with petitions hoping to find anyone who would listen to their urgent message. Sandy Bales was an artist who played an essential role in crafting their message into one that would appeal to potential supporters. After Sandy asked, “What’s going to happen to all that land?” the team came up with the idea of “a river corridor park,” which would turn the Middle Fork into a more environmentally friendly recreational amenity for the public. The team members then produced a little map hand-drawn of what the park would look like and printed up lots of copies and passed them around everywhere they went in the state. Additionally, Bullard made use of a “35-millimeter slide projector and cassette tape recorder and got them coordinated on a boombox and played them” at each of the stopping points throughout the state. His improvised presentation explained the urgency of the situation — and the danger that the Army Corps plans posed.

At the end of each presentation, the Committee on the Middle Fork Vermilion River would ask for anyone willing to pledge their support through their petitions. Bullard mentioned that “by 1976, when the big vote came up, we had 10,000 letters on legislators’ desks, handwritten, you know, real letters” that were collected as support for the Middle Fork began to catch the wind in its sail. Covering miles across the plains and prairies of Illinois, the committee spared no effort to rally support for saving Illinois’s most biodiverse river.


Statewide Attention

The committee needed a legislative superpower to back its cause, which just happened to align with the agenda of then-gubernatorial candidate James R. Thompson, who would later become Illinois’ longest-serving governor. In 1976, while the fight to stop the reservoir was heating up, Bullard and Bales approached Thompson to brief him on the situation. He saw their careful, detailed research and decided to join the fight. Bales and Bullard knew the only way to allow Thompson to fully understand the gravity of the Middle Fork was to return to basics — to go down the river in a canoe.

The Vermilion River in Pontiac, Ill. Credit: Guyute82 via Wikimedia Commons

Days before Thompson was set to journey down the river in a canoe, Sandy went out early the morning before and removed the large rocks from the riverbed that would have stopped the canoe where the river went shallow — a seemingly trivial precaution but essential to enlist a “land-lubber” politician in their grassroots effort. When the day came, Thompson climbed into the canoe and was instantly spellbound by the Middle Fork. There were members of the press present to document this monumental moment. In his interview, Bullard smiled as he recalled that Thompson held the oar upside down, betraying just how out of his element he was in his fight for this beloved river.

Thompson’s commitment was significant politically because his declaration to oppose the reservoir meant he was publicly challenging the current governor at the time, Dan Walker, who had declared he was in favor of its construction. It turned out that winning this battle meant multiple successes: Thompson won the election for governor, and the Middle Fork gained another champion.


At the Heart of the Fight

In a 2011 documentary on the Middle Fork campaign, Bullard compared the experience of being immersed in the area to attending church “to reinforce a set of values.”

“To have an attachment to the land, to America, to Illinois, to East Central Illinois, you feel this attachment that is reinforced every time that you visit the place,” he said.

Mike Camp, a resident of the Middle Fork Valley whose farming family has lived in the area for almost 200 years, reinforced the belief in the land as a sanctuary in a newspaper clipping from the time of the dam fight: “I am neither an ecology buff nor a canoe enthusiast, but I know God has given us a natural beauty, and by some stroke of luck, it is one of the clean streams in Illinois.”

To Danville locals like Camp, the Middle Fork is more than just a playground, fishery, or place for environmental research — it’s a living piece of sacred history. “I would like to see this natural heritage preserved and passed onto future generations,” he said. When the dam-building companies started pressuring the locals to sell their houses in order to build the reservoir, they were threatening whole family legacies that could never have a price put on them. “They wanted to give us $11,000 and we said, ‘No way. You’ll see us in court first,’ ” resident Peggy Mosher said in the documentary.

Iowa Darters, which can be found in the Vermilion River. Credit: Jennifer Knutson via Wikimedia Commons

At the heart of the reservoir issue was not just the irreversible damage to a biodiverse river but the fact that the promises made to Danville residents about the economic benefits of a dam were hollow. Building a reservoir in the Middle Fork would only reinforce the all-too-narrow definition of “recreation” as something exclusively for the upper class while disturbing the natural flow of the river and destroying its biodiversity.

In the end, many people ended up forcibly removed from their homes in the dam fight scuffle before the reservoir funds had dissolved. “They lost everything, and they weren’t going to build the reservoir anyway,” said Camp, expressing the immeasurable loss that locals like him experienced. Though the Middle Fork Valley will “never go back to what it was,” locals find solace in the knowledge that initiatives like the Streams Campaign now protect the valley and that “everybody can enjoy” the park it has become.


History Repeats Itself

Though the battle against the Army Corps of Engineers was won, the war was far from over. After that initial dam project lost funding in 1976, a new threat immediately emerged with the same intentions: to dam up the Middle Fork. “General Motors wanted to build a plant … they were going to build a brand new car,” Bullard said, and they were going to need a reservoir for that plant. It was incredible how closely history repeated itself. Not only were the same environmental factors put at risk in this plan, but it turned out to be yet another story of corporate-class CEOs manipulating working-class residents. While the United Auto Workers organized to promote the building of the reservoir in Danville with the promise of creating more jobs, General Motors ended up moving their dam plans to the non-union state of Tennessee instead — specifically to avoid giving jobs to the auto workers of Danville.

After two grueling battles against dam-building companies, the Committee on the Middle Fork Vermilion River decided that it was time to take national legal action and apply for a National Scenic River designation for the Middle Fork. This designation would become the final nail in the coffin for the reservoir project, but it wasn’t granted until more than a decade after the General Motors battle. Until then, the committee worked with every prominent state and national politician — against the headwinds of Ronald Reagan’s anti-environment administration — to finally receive the 1989 designation from the generous hands of Gov. Thompson. “So, that’s how the dam died, finally,” Bullard said.


‘To thy happy children of the future, those of the past send greetings’

What’s amazing about this fight is that every single threat was defeated. Equally amazing is how unending the fight really is. Though the Middle Fork’s National Scenic River designation has kept it protected from any more dam projects, it hasn’t been able to protect the river from all environmental threats. In terms of public land per capita, Illinois is ranked 46th out of the 50 states, which makes rivers like the Middle Fork extremely vulnerable. As recently as 2021, the Prairie Rivers Network (which grew out of the Committee on Allerton Park) fought a years-long struggle to stop the energy company Dynegy from dumping coal ash into the Middle Fork and force it to clean up the pollution it had already caused. Unfortunately, building parks and taking legislative action aren’t enough to permanently protect the environment.

“The lesson here is simple: Laws and regulation alone do not protect rivers. People do,” Bullard wrote in an article for American Rivers. Threats of privatization surrounding the river will likely persist, but it is through the work of real, passionate people organizing together, like Bullard’s committee and the Prairie Rivers Network, that our natural wonders are preserved.

Today, the conventional wisdom of what environmental activism looks like is: 1. Environmental efforts are secondary and not connected to other social issues; 2. Take shorter showers and everything will be solved; or 3. Environmental issues are caused by corporations and individual people can do nothing about it. Never before were we so moved to think the opposite of all these so-called truisms than when we listened to Bullard’s story.

“It’s good to have young people involved in the fight. Because it’s going to be a long one,” he said. Environmental work takes organizing, volunteering, and many, many generations, but that doesn’t mean success is unachievable. The free-flowing Middle Fork of the Vermilion River is living proof of this.

If you ever visit the Middle Fork, remember that it would be nothing more than a large, stagnant pond if it weren’t for the Committee on the Middle Fork Vermilion River. Its sparkling waters testify to the decades-long commitment of a small group of Champaign activists to protect this unique waterway. One of the state’s proudest rivers still runs free because of these true believers who never gave up the fight for its preservation.

More about Bales and Bullard

Bob Bales passed away in 1988 but is survived by his wife Sandy and their children. Today, his memory lives on through the work he did to ensure this beautiful river would be enjoyed for generations to come. It was mentioned in his eulogy that had “lived his whole life within 50 miles of the river.” He grew up alongside the rushing waters, then as a fisherman and married man strolled along the river with Sandy and joined his children in their canoes. We’d like to think the Middle Fork, in its own winding way, will always fondly remember Bales.

Clark Bullard still carries on the legacy of the Committee on the Middle Fork Vermilion River. Bullard recently retired as a Mechanical Engineering Professor at the University of Illinois. He has served honorably in multiple important roles: as the Director of the Office of Conservation and Advanced Energy Systems Policy in the U.S. Department of Energy; Senior Analyst in the Office of Technology Assessment in the U.S. Congress; and a member of the Board of Directors at the National Wildlife Federation. He continues his ecological work on the Board of Directors of the Prairie Rivers Network. Bullard is a lifelong avid canoeist and enjoys birdwatching on the Middle Fork with his wife, Irene.

About the Authors …

Tori Ruzzier is from Libertyville, Ill. She graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in August 2022 with a degree in Communications, as well as the Certificate in Environmental Writing. She is moving to Minneapolis to pursue a career in writing. 



Sydney Sadler is a senior majoring in English and pursuing a certification in Secondary Education, an endorsement in Teaching English as a Second Language, and the Certificate in Environmental Writing. She hopes to teach high school English after graduation.


This piece was written for ESE 498, the CEW capstone course, in Spring 2022.