The 754,942-acre Saline River watershed in far southeastern Illinois has gone from one of the most important historical and geographical features in the region to one of the most abused and under-appreciated watersheds in the entire state. Once a pristine river running through vast forested wetlands the Saline has been turned into an extensively channelized river system that carries pollutants from coal mines, agricultural fields, and even oil extraction.
So why, you might be asking yourself, would 21 people choose to float this seemingly undesirable river on an Illinois Chapter conservation outing? It all started in 2011 when we first heard about a proposed land exchange between the U.S. Forest Service (FS) and Peabody Coal Company. In the proposed exchange the Forest Service would trade a parcel of approximately 384 acres in size on the Saline River in Gallatin County for three tracts of Peabody land, which adjoin FS land in Pope and Jackson Counties. (See Stop the Swap–Go to Bat for the Bats for details.)
The reason Peabody wants the Gallatin County parcel is for the coal that lay underneath it. The reason we want to stop the swap is to preserve this beautiful site with its forested wetlands, huge cherrybark oak trees, and habitat for endangered Indiana and gray bats from being strip mined for coal.
After two visits last year we realized a unique and fun way to raise awareness of the situation was to take people to the site. And, since the site straddles both sides of the Saline River, what better way to see it than by canoe?
So, last Saturday, April 13th, twenty-one paddlers embarked on a canoe float down the final 10 miles of the Saline River. We put in not far from the salt springs that were an important source of salt for Native Americans and early settlers, and took out at the mouth of the Saline at the Ohio River.
A couple miles into the trip we pulled out at the Forest Service parcel to explore on foot. It took a little finessing the muddy, slippery bank but everyone managed to reach dry ground without too much trouble. We took advantage of a large downed log to sit as we ate our lunch before scattering in different directions to explore the site. Although our time on land was limited everyone got to experience a bottomland forest with its large trees and pockets of standing water. We even got to see some wood ducks in one ponded area.
As the elevation rose above the floodplain we started seeing lots of spring wildflowers: bluebell, bloodroot, spring beauty, larkspur, trillium, Dutchman’s breeches, trout lily, Virginia waterleaf, blue phlox and wild ginger to name some, but probably not all.
With another 8 miles to go we hurried back to the canoes and by 2 pm were floating again. Although we did see a lot of agricultural land coming right up to the river’s edge, we also saw a lot of forested land, including another FS tract. During the remainder of the leisurely paddle everyone enjoyed the warmth of the spring sun and the sights and sounds of the wildlife life both in and out of the river. A large bald eagle nest was one of the first things we spotted, but it wasn’t until we neared the Ohio when we saw two adult bald eagles flying over. Wood ducks and belted kingfishers seemed to be around every bend. A barred owl that crossed the river right in front of us and landed in a nearby tree watched intently as we floated by. Migrant songbirds heard along the way included Louisiana waterthrush, blue gray gnatcatcher, northern parula and yellow-throated warbler. And, we got good looks at red-headed, red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers, great blue herons and a green heron. In addition to a few Asian carp jumping out of the water, several people saw a gar and a paddlefish.
The take-away from the outing was not only the importance of preserving this parcel of public land for the eco-system services it provides to people and critters, but moreover what a tragedy that the Saline has been written off as nothing more than an industrial ditch.
Rather than swap this parcel, perhaps the Forest Service should be partnering with other public agencies and private land trusts to embark on an epic project to restore of one of the most unique and important watersheds in the state.