CACHE RIVER STATE NATURAL AREA
CACHE RIVER STATE NATURAL AREA
930 Sunflower Lane
Belknap, Illinois 62908
Cache River State Natural Area 'Heron Pond'
When storms pushed Norseman Lief Ericsson westward to the North American continent 1,000 years ago, many of the cypress trees of today's Cache River State Natural Area were just saplings. By the time Christopher Columbus landed in the Western Hemisphere 500 years later, they had grown into ancient trees that towered above even more ancient blackwater swamps.
Cache River State Natural Area is situated in southernmost Illinois within a floodplain carved long ago by glacial floodwater of the Ohio River. When the Ohio River adopted its present course, it left the Cache River to meander across rich and vast wetlands. Among the outstanding natural features found within the area today are massive cypress trees whose flared bases, called buttresses, exceed 40 feet circumference. Many are more than 1,000 years old, including one that has earned the title of state champion bald cypress because of its huge trunk girth, towering height, and heavily branched canopy.
Despite intensive efforts to convert land along the Cache River to cropland, the land that today makes up the Cache River State Natural Area has managed to hold onto some of the highest quality aquatic and terrestrial "natural communities" remaining in Illinois. Wetlands within this area are so important to migratory waterfowl and shorebirds that in 1996 the RAMSAR Convention collectively designated them a Wetland of International Importance, only the 19th wetland in the United States to receive the distinction.
It is within southern Illinois that north meets south and east meets west. With its diversity of soils, bedrock and landforms, the Cache River Valley contains four distinct ecological regions. Its hodgepodge of ecological factors has resulted in a collage of natural communities, each with its own unique assemblage of physical attributes, plants and animals.
Not surprisingly, people have rallied to protect the Cache River watershed. The National Park Service has designated two National Natural Landmarks within its borders - Buttonland Swamp and Heron Pond. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has identified three Nature Preserves here - Section 8 Woods, Heron Pond-Wildcat Bluff and Little Black Slough - and registered 10,367 acres of the area's 14,314 acres in the Land and Water Reserve Program. These designations assure that the site management will emphasize restoration and preservation of the area's natural characteristics.
The area's natural resources have always been important to people living in the Cache River valley. Native Americans found the region rich in wildlife and relied on their expertise in fishing, hunting and trapping for food, hides and furs. The first European settlers arrived in 1803, and, finding the soil too wet to farm, concentrated their efforts on timber harvesting. By 1870, several saw mills were processing timber for lumber, railroads ties, boxes and charcoal. Large-scale drainage and land-clearing efforts began in the early 1900s, eventually bringing thousands of acres of bottomland under cultivation. The state of Illinois acquired the first parcel of Cache River State Natural Area in 1970, following cooperation among private, governmental and commercial groups working together to conserve this unique natural resource.
Today, a cooperative effort called the Cache River Wetlands Joint Venture Partnership is working to protect and restore a 60,000-acre wetland corridor along 50 miles of the Cache River. Partners include the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge, The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited, with support from the Citizens Committee to Save the Cache River. The focus is to repair natural ecosystems and provide hunting, fishing, hiking, canoeing and other recreational opportunities, which will promote economic development and tourism.
Scientific and educational use of the area is allowed by permit, issued by the Department of Natural Resources. For information about the permit, hunting and fishing regulations or the site in general, contact Cache River State Natural Area, 930 Sunflower Lane, Belknap, IL 62908, or phone (618) 634-9678.