Even though we are past the worst of the pandemic, we are still unable to hold our annual Field to Fork fundraiser this year. The beloved summer event raises money for ongoing conservation efforts in southwestern Illinois. Funds that are critical to healthy habitats, clean water, and wildlife.

Instead, for June and July, HeartLands is asking for your donations to support ongoing restoration and stewardship at Arlington Wetlands – a unique wetland and prairie habitat just outside of Collinsville near I-255.

What’s more, the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation will TRIPLE the first $7,000 in donations! That means, if we raise $7,000 for Arlington Wetlands, the foundation will contribute $21,000. Anything raised over that amount will go to HeartLands’ other conservation and community programs in southwestern Illinois.

 Why is Arlington Wetlands so important?
Before Europeans settled in the American Bottom (the historic floodplain of the Mississippi River), the Mississippi River twisted and turned through its entire floodplain, from bluff to bluff. The river resembled a loosely braided rope, much different than the broad and deep Mighty Mississippi we are familiar with today. Settlers drained the wetlands and lakes for agriculture, built levees and canals to protect property from floodwaters, and channeled the river for shipping. All of this nearly erased the historic natural landscape and functioning ecosystem.
However, little clues remain about this past landscape. Remnants of the Mississippi River channels, now lakes, remain in the area. Horseshoe Lake, for example, is the largest remnant river lake in the area. Arlington Wetlands is another.

Today, the 80-acre Arlington Wetlands is a work in progress. There are many types of habitat on the site for visitors to explore, including wetland, floodplain forest, and sand prairies.

 The wetland is the heart of the site. Stretching the length of the property, but only reaching depths of about 5-6 feet. In the summer, the lake becomes completely covered with water-loving vegetation like American lotus, rushes, and water lilies, while buttonbushes crowd the bank. Arlington becomes a great home or resting place for thousands of migratory birds, like ducks, geese, swans, herons, and smaller songbirds. In the water, frogs, turtles, and sometimes beavers can be spotted on warm summer days. One of the highlights of visiting Arlington Wetlands is crossing the floating boardwalk. Here visitors can get a unique and up-close view of the center of a wetland.

Surrounding the wetlands is a floodplain forest, full of cottonwoods, persimmons, and oaks. This is where visitors could see deer, turkey, rabbits, birds, and turtles.

The sand prairies are the first thing many people see when they arrive at Arlington Wetlands. As you take the path from the parking lot to the floating boardwalk, you meander through a small section of sand prairie, and again on the other side of the wetland, many paths wind through this habitat. Sand prairies are one of Illinois’ rarest landscapes. Only 2,400 acres of sand prairies remain in Illinois, an area about the size of SIUE. Some of the unique species that could be found in the sand prairie include Tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum), Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus), Purple-headed sneezeweed (Helenium flexuosum), Eastern prickly pear (Optotia cespitosa), Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), and ornate box turtles (Terrapene ornata ornata).

In addition to being a great natural area, habitat, and home for wildlife, and a nice recreation area, all of these habitats together provide another benefit to human life. Arlington Wetlands acts like a sponge during significant rains. It can hold a lot of stormwater and then slowly release it over many days. This helps reduce flooding in neighborhoods downstream. While slowing and storing the stormwater, the wetland filters pollutants out of the water, helping to improve water quality.

So far, volunteers have been working hard removing non-native Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana) from the sand prairie. They have successfully cleared a small section in the front. Also, partners from the Illinois Forestry Association, through a grant from the Illinois Forestry Development Council, used a forestry mower to clear honeysuckle from the forest on the east side of the wetland.

However, much work remains to remove invasive plants from the rest of the site. If not removed, these invasive species will crowd out the plants that the animals need to survive. The invasive plants can also eventually cause the wetland to lose function as floodwater storage.

In addition to removing invasive species, the prairie is overdue for a prescribed burn. Prescribed fire helps control non-native plants and encourages native plants to grow. Some native species need fire to survive. HeartLands Conservancy may even need to plant native wildflowers, grasses, and sedges where non-native have been removed to complete this restoration project.

We can’t do this alone. In addition to matching cash donations, the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation will also match volunteer hours! If we can log 400 volunteer hours at Arlington Wetlands, we will receive an additional $4,000 from the Foundation for restoration. As such, we will be planning several volunteer dates throughout the remainder of the year. A group meets on the first Friday of each month, from 9-11 am to volunteer. They always welcome new faces to help a great cause.

 Want to experience Arlington Wetlands up-close? Join us in the evening on July 17th for Discover A Wetland: Walk with Fireflies at Arlington Wetlands. We will explore the wetland and walk among the fireflies in the sand prairie.