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Reading: Nature in a Sorry State

Illinois' new guide to natural resources too often favors resources over nature, but it's nonetheless a fascinating compendium of valuable information.

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Listen, things could be worse. You could be a coot. Coot, reports Patti Malmborg of the Illinois Natural History Survey, usually feed in the same waters as ducks. Unlike ducks, they are unpalatable and so are not considered good sport by hunters, but often coot do offer the advantage of lying within convenient gunshot range. Coot, writes Malmborg, "commonly . . . have been used as practice targets." And because they're seldom retrieved, a curious public has no way of knowing how many coot die in Illinois each year in the cause of good marksmanship.

That is one of the few facts that cannot be found in The Natural Resources of Illinois, an "introduction and guide" published by the state's Natural History Survey. Natural Resources is itself a considerable resource, a catalog crammed with more than 200 maps, tables, and charts. Its text describes the weather and geology, the agriculture, the water and mineral resources, and the fish, birds, and mammals of Illinois. It is a Baedeker to a different Illinois, one in which most of us will always be tourists, whose realms are familiar only to specialists, usually those who work for the state's natural resources bureaucracy--the Department of Conservation; the state's Water, Geological, and Natural History surveys; state and federal agriculture departments; etc. Some 50 of these experts contributed articles to this collection, and many others supplied research information. (Natural Resources is one of the few books to call attention to the George Hubert Jrs. of the world--he "graciously allowed the use of his furbearer data.")

If citizenship were subject to a test of local knowledge, most of us could qualify only as honorary Illinoisans. We know that Illinois is big, humid, and not very hilly. But few appreciate how big, how humid, or how unhilly. Natural Resources tells us, for example, that:

Illinois' greatest natural resource is space. Downstaters are forever being astonished by Chicagoans who, after motoring down Interstate 55 toward Springfield for 200 numbing miles, imagine themselves to be in "southern" Illinois. There is as much Illinois to the south of Springfield as there is to the north of it--385 miles total north-south distance--with the result that Carbondale has not only a different congressman from Chicago's but a different climate.

Illinois is all wet. Rain is why Illinois doesn't look like Kansas: thousands of years of erosion have carved the state's once-flat postglacial terrain into its current distinctive rolling shape. A billion gallons of water is estimated to fall on Illinois during an average day, roughly 200 times the amount Chicago withdraws daily from Lake Michigan.

Illinois is pretty flat. The highest point in most counties is not more than 200 feet above the lowest point. Counties like Cook (which is situated on an ancient lake bed) are even less distinguished, topographically speaking. The bed of the Illinois River slopes a scant one inch per mile from its headwaters southwest of Chicago to its mouth at the Mississippi, which means that the river is going downhill a lot slower than most things in the state.

A thousand facts in Natural Resources will enlarge your understanding of the state, not to mention your fund of party trivia. No one will be surprised to read that Chicago historically has led Illinois cities in the number of heavy (six inches or more) snowfalls. The city also is less foggy than the rest of the state, gets relatively fewer heavy rains and relatively more tornadoes, few thunderstorms and little hail. (Chicago's eccentric weather is ascribed to various factors, from its northern locale to its proximity to Lake Michigan to the "urban effect": big cities generate heat and dust and alter local winds and thus create their own weather.) And wonder of wonders, Chicago is windier than much of Illinois, although not by very much; wind speeds higher than eight miles per hour have been recorded here at least 60 percent of the time, which may explain why Cubs hitters seem much less imposing when they play away from home.

I was amazed to learn how ignorant I am about certain important things. The typical Chicagoan probably goes for days without thinking about fluorspar, even though it is Illinois' official state mineral. But urban life would be impossible without it. It is used to make steel, which fortifies your security door; to fluoridate drinking water, which makes your smile gleam convincingly; to manufacture aluminum, gasoline, toothpaste, and even eyeglass lenses. It is used to make refrigerants (warm white wine--ugh!), stain repellants (no more finger food at parties!), and space guidance systems (no satellites, no cable TV) and to harden concrete (soft sidewalks?). And Illinois has led the United States in the mining of the stuff since 1942.

So if you overhear someone at a party asking for bets on which state leads a grateful nation in the production of canning pumpkins, or how many ducks are killed in Illinois each year, or which county is the leading producer of turnip greens, keep your money in your pocket, because the guy's obviously read this book. (The answers are Illinois; between 300,000 and 460,000; and Cook.)

I know of no other single reference work that explains how Illinois coal got so much sulfur in it, or which county has the most laying hens, or where you are most likely to die in a tornado. (Readers may want to try their own correlations of such disparate data, perhaps to find out where a laying hen is most at risk from tornadoes, or how much sulfur there is in Illinois eggs.) Nor have I ever before run across John Todd, the first appointed executive of the then county of Illinois. He arrived in 1778 from Kentucky but left Illinois after only three months, complaining of unwholesome air, the rudeness of life in general, and the fact that everyone in Kaskaskia spoke French--the first Illinoisan on record as wishing he lived somewhere else.

Make no mistake. Natural Resources is not casual reading. Often the prose is reminiscent of a grade school geography, a litany of tonnages and distances and gross receipts.

More troubling is the notion this book shares with those old textbooks, which saw nature solely as an exploitable resource. Paul Risser, who until recently was the chief of the Natural History Survey, sounds that note in his introduction, when he describes the value of natural resources in terms of "fashioning a life-style." In places, the book seems a script for a conservationist's nightmare: "Together the land and its residents have made the state first in the production of soybeans, second in the production of corn and hogs, third in commercial bank assets, and fifth in the production of coal." You can almost hear Cecil B. De Mille doing the voice-over.

Illinoisans have been taking a crass view of nature for some 300 years. White men first laid eyes on it while looking for a new route for commerce, after all, and our local heroes are people like John Deere, famous for having perfected a plow capable of destroying the tallgrass prairie. The research mandate of the state's three scientific surveys, founded in the 19th century, has always been as much economic as ecological--mapping minable coal reserves, for example, or studying crop diseases.

It seems inevitable in retrospect that such agencies would eventually have to devote themselves to preserving or restoring the state's natural resources as well as cataloging them. The environmental calamities that have attended the heedless exploitation of Illinois' once-rich land, minerals, and game today make up a sizable portion of the research agenda of its resource scientists.

The Illinois State Water Survey, for example, now studies groundwater contamination as well as rain making and reservoir management. As an institution the Water Survey shows perhaps the most evolved environmental consciousness of the three surveys, probably because pollution problems, going back to the days of typhoid, have tended to manifest themselves in water first. The habitat destruction that has imperiled huntable and fishable wildlife has pushed the Natural History Survey in the same direction, as have such potential hazards to cash crops as acid rain. The Geological Survey has been perhaps the last to admit ecological consequence as a research consideration, but even it has had to hotfoot it into the late 20th century now that its agenda includes landfill siting and mined-land reclamation.

The state's natural resources bureaucracy is an odd animal. The Department of Conservation is notorious in Springfield as a bureaucratic Beirut, whose factions are ultimately answerable to rich guys who have dead things hanging on their walls. The scientific, surveys have historically been affiliated with the University of Illinois, on whose Urbana campus each is still housed, but they are administered as part of the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources. Other branches of the bureaucracy include the Department of Transportation, which pays for plant studies; the Cooperative Extension Service, which studies lakes; and the state EPA, which is rumored to have something to do with air, water, and soil.

A creature so equipped will not find it easy to cope with resource problems. Like the natural systems from which they're derived, such problems stray across the boundaries separating the animal, the mineral, and the vegetable. Each agency operates with its own research protocol, budget, and priorities, and each responds to its own politically connected constituency. Science occasionally transcends such barriers; acid rain has brought the Water and Natural History surveys into the same lab, for example, just as groundwater pollution has required the mutual attention of Water and Geological survey staffs. But the bureaucracy remains essentially brontosaurian, a beast with different brains to govern different parts of its body.

The exploitation of Illinois' natural resources may be economic in its impulse, but it has seldom been economical. Consider the Illinois River. It is widely known that pollution practically killed the Illinois River as a fishery after the Sanitary and Ship Canal provided "a hydraulically efficient means of pouring Chicago-area wastes downstream," in the words of contributor Thomas Butts of the Water Survey. From 1905 to 1915, the river and its chain of backwater lakes yielded commercial fish harvests of about 25 million pounds a year; by 1931, the take had dropped to 6.8 million pounds. Consider what that drop means today in lost jobs and retail sales, especially given the booming demand for fresh fish in Chicago (partly because of the new Asian population). The sewage has been largely cleaned up, but after World War II the Illinois River system suffered further insults. Erosion from farm fields silted up the channel, and backwater lakes were drained for farming.

But even if the physical damage to the river system could be repairedand Butts thinks that it will never again be the mecca for fish it used to be--the attitudes that destroyed it persist. Of late the mussels that survive in the Illinois have been harvested for sale to the Japanese cultured-pearl industry at rates of roughly 1,000 tons per year; biologists are worried whether the river can sustain such losses, and regulations have been proposed to compel a more rational exploitation of this limited economic resource.

While they still can, mussel harvesters might want to ponder the lessons learned by commercial fishermen on Lake Michigan. As we learn in Natural Resources, fishing techniques used by early-19th-century whites mimicked the Indians, who took fish mainly from shallow bays of the lakes tributaries. Overfishing depleted these inshore waters and shrank catches; pollution from waterfront enterprises such as sawmills sped the declines, since these near-shore waters were also spawning grounds. To find fish, fishermen had to venture farther onto the lake, fishing from boats and using new and stronger nets and eventually new and stronger machines to lift them. These new technologies enabled successive generations of fishermen to survive the heedlessness of their predecessors by taking fish from deeper and deeper water.

The fish proved not so adaptable. By 1900, lake sturgeon had all but disappeared from Lake Michigan; by the 1930s, the lake whitefish was gone, followed by the lake trout and herring. The opening of navigation canals allowed the migration into the lake of exotic species such as lamprey eels and the alewife, which fed upon either the native species themselves or their food supplies. In spite of the fact that regulation of the catch began as early as World War I, today there is little industry left to regulate, and the number of commercial fishermen licensed to take fish from the lake has shriveled to a handful.

Natural Resources was not intended as an environmentalist's tract, but it is a sobering chronicle of the risks of human intervention in natural systems. In the 1820s 40 percent of Illinois was forest; today only 1 percent is woods. Illinois once boasted more than nine million acres of wetlands; today we count fewer than 500,000 acres. The prairie has been destroyed as an ecosystem (although it survives here and there as an artifact), and even such "substitute prairie" as hay fields and pastureland has disappeared as farming has changed. Half the lakes in the state are so muddy that light can't penetrate farther than two feet; most of the natural lakes in Illinois six acres or larger have been drained; and most of the man-made ones--three-fourths of the more than 2,900--are filling up with soil eroded mainly from farms.

Several species of nongame fish have been extirpated in Illinois primarily because of siltation from eroding farm fields; another 21 are threatened. The number of mallard ducks that sojourn along the Mississippi and Illinois flyways has declined to record lows because of habitat degradation; populations of lesser scaups also are down. Sightings of ring-necked pheasants have become rare. A few species, such as wood duck and prairie chickens, have thrived, usually as a result of intensive, species-specific habitat management. But approximately 50 plant and animal species indigenous to the state are known to have been extirpated; the number of nonvertebrate species that have vanished will never be known.

Commerce per se is not the villain but commerce organized on an industrial scale and using industrial methods is. R. Dan Neely of the Natural History Survey writes, "Natural conditions in Illinois favor profitable farming." But Neely does not point out that Illinois farming is profitable--when it is profitable--mainly because the environmental costs of farm operations are being paid by others. It would have been more accurate for Neely to say that natural conditions here favor a certain kind of industrial farming.

There is an unintended irony in the choice of a photograph for the book's cover. By Larry Kanfer, it shows newly sprouted corn bright green against the rich brown soil, both arrayed against a backdrop of blue sky dotted with cumulus clouds. To most city dwellers, the scene oozes "nature." But these are hybridized corn plants in a field very likely artificially drained, sustained by artificial fertilizers and chemically protected from pests.

The most recognized symbol of industrialization in Illinois may be a south-side steel mill, but modern factory-style agriculture has affected hundreds of thousands more acres. In Natural Resources we learn that:

The fall plowing of harvested cornfields by farmers eager to get a head start on spring planting has, decreased the amount of waste grain available in central Illinois to migrating mallards.

The modern farm is so barren of cover and food in the spring that hatchery-raised pheasant chicks released as part of game-stocking programs typically survive only a few days or weeks.

Because pastureland and hedgerows have been plowed up, the number of cottontail rabbits has declined since 1960 by more than 70 percent statewide, and by more than 90 percent in the more intensely farmed parts of the state.

In two surveys by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, of 56 lakes tested, 51 in one survey and 52 in the other were eutrophic, so loaded with dissolved nutrients (mainly the result of fertilizer runoff from farms) that they suffered potentially ruinous growths of oxygen-consuming algae.

The compilers of Natural Resources are circumspect about linking the cause with the effect when reciting such ills. The villain is always "modern agriculture," never Illinois farmers. Such objectivity makes for good science, and even better politics, but it may confuse some readers who do not share the contributors' understanding of the way the state's economy relates to environmental pollution.

The interconnectedness of things is a truth that was recognized early on in the history of Illinois' public science: the first chief of the Natural History Survey, entomologist Dr. Stephen Forbes, is often identified as the "father of ecology." But this collection of articles reflects the administrative preoccupations of the bureaucracy, not nature. And those preoccupations in turn reflect the interests of the bureaucracy's various constituencies, The Department of Conservation, for example, constantly grapples with the question of whether to manage a natural area so as to maximize populations of a single species highly desirable for hunting or fishing, or to create a stable ecological community of which that desirable species may be only a small part. (The classic example of the first option is a meadow plowed up and planted in corn to be left for ducks.) "Management for target species sometimes decreases habitat diversity and eliminates niches occupied by nontarget birds," explain Maimborg and Nancy Wiseman of the Natural History Survey. At the same time, "sportsmen insist on renewable supplies of game birds and represent a substantial source of [agency] funds."

Animals that may be shot, netted, or hooked thus receive much attention in these pages, while reptiles and amphibians, which constitute a significant number of Illinois' vertebrate animals, are shunned, as they are shunned in life (except for two pages devoted to snakes). There is no real mention of insects--not even the corn rootworm or gypsy moth, both much studied because of the damage they inflict on field and forest--even though insects comprise by far the largest class of nonplant species among Illinois' living things. Nor are nonagricultural plants described, except in passing, even though many such species are disappearing.

When it comes to more practical editorial matters, the compilers do better. Their book is a handsome physical production, reliably spiralbound and printed on sturdy stock, with an especially clever foldout map of Illinois counties. The text provides citations to more than 400 books and articles for readers wishing to learn more about given topics. There is no index--a lamentable omission in a reference work--but the graphics are plentiful, sizable, and brightly colored. If The Natural Resources of Illinois is not yet the compendium on the subject that we need--and it favors resources over nature too much to qualify--it is the best that we have been given to date.

The Natural Resources of Illinois: Introduction and Guide, compiled by R. Dan Neely and Carla G. Heister, Special Publication 6, Illinois Natural History Survey (607 E. Peabody Drive, Champaign, IL 61820), $10.00.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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