About the Cache
The half million acre Cache River Watershed, with its wooded hills and cypress swamps, looks more like Louisiana than Illinois. Its diversity of landforms and biota results from the intersection of four major physiographic regions in southern Illinois. Making up only 1.5 percent of the land area in Illinois, the Cache basin harbors 11.5 percent of the state’s high-quality floodplain forests, 23 percent of its remaining high-quality barrens habitat and 91 percent of its high-quality swamp/wetland communities. The area shelters 113 state threatened or endangered species and seven federally threatened or endangered species. The Cache River Wetlands include three National Natural Landmarks, are home to some of the oldest living trees east of the Mississippi River and have been designated a “Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.”
History of the Cache
The lands and waters of the Cache River Watershed are important parts of Illinois’ natural heritage. But, over the last 100 years, the basin has been affected by widespread hydrological alterations and land clearing. The Post Creek Cutoff, completed in 1916, was especially damaging to the wetlands because it diverted the upper segment of the Cache River directly into the Ohio River and isolated 40 miles of the Cache's shallow lower channel.
After World War II, forest habitat in southern Illinois began to disappear at an alarming rate. In the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of acres of floodplain forest were cleared, drained and converted to agriculture. By the 1980s, it became clear that the Cache River Wetlands were in critical condition. Natural and agricultural lands began to flood more often. Silt from cleared land and unstable stream channels choked springs and natural drainage paths, and sedimentation rates in the Lower Cache were as high as 24 inches per year. Natural ponds that had held water for as long as local residents could remember were going dry, resulting in large-scale fish kills. The thousands of migratory waterfowl that had always used the Cache wetlands as a rest stop were disappearing as their stopover sites were converted to dry fields. Everyone began to realize something was wrong with the Cache.
Local, citizen-based conservation efforts initiated in the 1970’s, most notably by the Citizen’s Committee to Save the Cache River, received a significant boost with the formation of the Joint Venture Partnership in 1991. This unique public-private partnership includes representatives from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Ducks Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy. The Joint Venture shares a goal of restoring the habitats and processes necessary to sustain the plants, animals and natural communities of the Cache River Watershed.
Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1990, covers 16,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, riparian habitat and cypress-tupelo swamps. It is eventually planned to expand to 35,500 acres. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Cache River State Natural Area protects another 14,489 acres. In addition, more than 45,000 acres held by private landowners are utilizing a variety of conservation programs offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Concerted efforts have been made to restore forest and wetland habitat, control erosion, reduce siltation, stabilize water levels and provide recreational opportunities to the public. In 2005, the Henry N. Barkhausen Cache River Wetlands Center opened its doors to the public, providing a variety of educational programs and special events.
Vision for the Future
The Cache River Wetlands Joint Venture Partnership strives to lead the effort to restore the Cache River Watershed by focusing on habitat restoration. To date, approximately 35,000 acres have been protected and are managed by the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge, Illinois Department of Natural Resources at Cache River State Natural Area and Horseshoe Lake Fish & Wildlife Area, and The Nature Conservancy at Grassy Slough Preserve.