Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Broken Promises
When it comes to preserving our region's natural heritage nothing so better represents the broken promises made to local residents than the Cache River Wetlands in southernmost Illinois.

The cypress swamps and sloughs of the Cache River Basin provide some of the most diverse wildlife habitat in the country. They've even been recognized as a "wetland of international importance" under the international Ramsar Treaty and the United Nations.

It should be preserved and restored as it's part of our stewardship of this planet for which we will all find ourselves one day to be judged. Yet, as we switch the land from agricultural uses back to wetlands there are economic considerations that come into play.

More than a decade has past since the creation of the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. During the public meetings held leading up to the refuge's creation, supporters argued that agricultural jobs lost could in part be replaced with tourism jobs, both directly created and indirectly supported through the dollars spent by visitors.

One of the promises made consisted of a federal interpretive center for the wetlands. More than a decade later that has not happened. Instead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rents space on the "rustic campus" formerly known as "plywood tech" at Shawnee Community College, which is near the refuge, but not even on it.

Originally, backers proposed a joint interpretive center and headquarters to house both the state's offices for the Heron Pond/Little Black Slough on the upper Cache and the USFWS offices for the federal refuge on the lower Cache.

About 12 years ago discussions centered on locating the center on the northwest quadrant of the I-57/Ullin Road interchange. A service station and modern hotel graced the south side of the road and the state police had their district offices a bit farther down. The north side was a field backed up to a beautiful cypress slough. A hardwood forest along the banks of the Cache River itself served as the backdrop.

Not only was it almost at the midway point of the Cache River it was right on the interstate, a perfect location to draw travelers off for a spell. For some reason that didn't happen.

I've been told that some feared if they put it there, a McDonalds might open next to it.

But that's the point! Jobs through tourism! Tourists can't spend money out in the woods. They can't spend money on the boardwalk out in Heron Pond, they can only drop their wallet in the water and that doesn't do either the tourist or the region any good. For tourism to create jobs, the tourists have to spend money locally.

Had DNR been interested in helping the local community rather than building a new office for the site superintendent at Giant City State Park, that new interpretive center would have been located somewhere in downtown Makanda near the boardwalk just outside the park boundary, a natural stopping place for tourists to spend their money.

Likewise, an interpretive center at the Ullin interchange would boost the fortunes, as bleak as they are, in that corner of Pulaski County.

By the way, Pulaski is one of five counties in Southern Illinois along the Ohio River that doesn't have a fast food restaurant, which is to say that a McDonalds would be an improvement and an attraction that could pull off interstate travelers.

Instead we have the Henry Barkhausen Cache River Wetlands Center located in Johnson County backed up to a flooded field that one day will be pretty in a wild sort of way, but for now is still in its infancy. It's in the middle of nowhere though at least it is on a state highway, an improvement over the existing site office.

Gov. Jim Edgar broke ground on the building that was finished under Gov. George Ryan's administration. Now two years into Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration it is still closed.

Yesterday I picked up at a heritage meeting that DNR will finally open the center in January. That's the good news.

The bad news is that it won't be open seven days a week and for the most part won't be staffed. You see, at the same time they plan to open the site the governor is laying off the two-thirds of the site's staff so the site superintendent will now be by himself somehow doing his job, his two assistant's jobs as well as run a new interpretive center on Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Well maybe they can bring staff from another site you say? The state site adjacent to the Cache River is the Tunnel Hill State Trail that has a spur that runs to the center. The trail office is in Vienna in its own office/interpretive center. And guess what? The state is laying off the site superintendent there.

Meanwhile over at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency they have no money for either site superintendents, site technicians or site interpreters for any of the five sites they own along the Ohio River.

Something needs to be done and the first thing is that the leaders in Springfield and Chicago needs to recognize that a problem exists.
Trail of Tears Chief Praised
A letter to the editor in yesterday's Southern Illinoisan praised the long service of Andy West, the site superintendent of Trail of Tears State Forest and one of the nearly 90 employees of the Department of Natural Resources being laid off.

The letter is the second one on the page.

Besides superintending the state forest, West is also involved in the effort to locate, mark and commemorate the Cherokee Trail of Tears, which as one might come to expect in Illinois, doesn't actually go through the state forest, but just near it.

Laying off the people who manage the sites in the field rather than the layers higher up only will hurt Southern Illinois' efforts to create jobs through tourism.