Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge Overview
Perhaps the most dramatic species present within the refuge are the bald cypress and water tupelo trees that are declared to make up the oldest living stand of trees east of the Mississippi River. Core samples show that the largest cypress trees are well over 1,000 years old. The largest has a circumference of 31 feet and a height of 95 feet, one of 12 in the area that the state has designated as champion trees. Surprising, too, is that these trees are living at the northernmost point in their range. Surveys have revealed that at least 400 plants of every type continue to survive within the Cache River floodplain.
Life is a little easier now for the trees than it was 20 years ago...
"When I was 12 years old, I thought there was no end to the bottomland forests around Belknap. But, as I wandered a little farther each year, it came to me that the woods and swamps didn't just go on and on. This bothered me a little, but still, there seemed to be a lot of 'wild' country left.
Then in the 1950s and 1960s, I watched the bulldozers move in and begin clearing bottomland on a grand scale. It took a while for me to comprehend what was happening. Entire sections of timberland were cleared in a single summer. It was with sadness that I watched cypress swamps like Turkey Pond, where I killed my first fox squirrel, disappear. It was also quite a shock to see how small it looked as a soybean field."
Max Hutchison, an ecologist with the Natural Land Institute, wrote these words in 1984 in the preface of a plan to preserve the swamps of the lower Cache River in southern Illinois. The time had come to preserve and protect the remnants of what was, including over 1,000-year old cypress trees, 251 species of birds and more than 100 threatened and endangered species listed by federal and state authorities. One result was the creation of Cypress Creek NWR. Another was for the refuge, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, and Ducks Unlimited to pool their resources and enter an agreement to safeguard 60,000 acres along 50 miles of this tributary of the Ohio River near its confluence with the Mississippi.
Like so many other river valleys, the Cache was seen as a natural resource offering fertile soils and mature harvestable timber. But a huge problem faced the first settlers of the valley: When the Ohio River flooded, so did the Cache bottomlands. Farmers were losing two crops of every three because of floods. Thus started a series of stream channelizations, dammings, and levee placements. Landowners succeeded in draining sizeable cleared areas by speeding runoffs to tributary streams as early as the 1850s. Other major alterations occurred in the 20th century under the auspices of the Cache Creek Drainage District, including construction of the Post Creek Cutoff in 1915, a ditch that diverted water from the Cache River to the Ohio River some 55 miles from the real mouth of the Cache. Then in 1950, the original mouth of the Cache was bypassed by a shortcut ditch that emptied the lower Cache directly into the Mississippi, reducing the river by some 20 miles.
The Cache had effectively become two rivers: its upper basin with slopes reaching 15 feet per mile, extensively drained for agriculture, and the lower basin with less than one foot of fall per mile where standing water still predominated. But the changes in the lower Cache River were nevertheless extraordinary. River flows can now be in either direction, depending on water levels. Runoff from uplands that once took days to reach the lowlands now arrives in hours. The faster moving water brought with it phenomenal amounts of silt. Sedimentation was as much as 12 inches in a year. Trees were being undercut by bank erosion and others were smothered by water pushed up by rising silt layers, thereby also reducing water-holding capacities of the wetlands. Estimates are that only one thousandth of the remaining swamp could be considered to be undisturbed since presettlement days.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication