Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

August 1, 2022

Heron Pond – Wildcat Bluff Nature Preserve Celebrate Golden Anniversary

A dark and light green map of the state of Illinois with the very southern tip in white indicating the coastal plains natural division.
The Coastal Plain Natural Division is located at the very southern tip of Illinois. Illustration of Sarah Marjanovic.

If there is an education to be had in wild spaces, then the Cache River State Natural Area (CRSNA), which includes the original Heron Pond – Wildcat Bluff Nature Preserve (since expanded and renamed the Heron Pond – Little Black Slough Nature Preserve), is quite the classroom. Located within Johnson, Massac, and Pulaski counties, the more than 17,000 acres of state land provide large areas of contiguous and diverse habitats including limestone glades, floodplain forests, flatwoods, deepwater swamps, and more that foster a spectacular level of native biodiversity.

The Cache River watershed, like only five other places in the entire country, supports a convergence of species and communities from four Physiographic Provinces (regions which are similar in geologic structure and climate, and which have had a unified geologic history), including many at the very edge of their range. Populations of nearly 100 state and/or federally listed species and Species in Greatest Conservation Need can be found within the SNA. Virgin timber with living trees more than 1,000 years old still stand in the Nature Preserve, providing a unique window into the past. Researchers from across the decades have capitalized on this relatively intact system to study topics ranging from fungi to fireflies to soils and songbirds. As it exists now, there is more to explore and learn about this area than can be done in any career or lifetime.

A photo of a light reflecting off the surface of water in a swamp. Cypress trees are interspersed throughout. On the bottom right is text explaining the definitions of alluvial, Colluvial and Lacustrine.
Photo courtesy of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

And yet, what remains of the historic landscape, the truly high-quality natural communities, is only 1 percent of its original extent. How much poorer would we all be if that 1 percent had fallen to the same fate as the other 99 percent? The fact that Heron Pond and Wildcat Bluff remain despite the many potential and realized threats to this watershed is a victory for the natural world and a legacy that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) is proud to be a part of.

As an additional testament to the ecological value of the Heron Pond – Wildcat Bluff NP is its designation as a National Natural Landmark (NNL) by the Secretary of the Interior, another 50th anniversary that Illinois will be celebrating in November 2022. NNLs are natural areas recognized as containing “significant examples of the nation’s biological and/or geological features.” In particular, the official NNL brief recognizes this protected natural area as “the largest remaining cypress-tupelo swamp in Illinois” with an “outstanding example of alluvial, colluvial, and lacustrine sedimentation within an entrenched meandering valley system.”

An elevated pathway extends over a swamp. To the left, a gray and blue heron wades in the water. In the background is tall cypress trees against a partly cloudy sky.
Illustration by Katherine Accettura.

Heron Pond and Wildcat Bluff are not only noteworthy for their rich ecology but also for their human history, particularly in relation to the conservation movement. When the Heron Pond – Wildcat Bluff Nature Preserve was dedicated on September 8, 1971, it was one of Illinois’ first nature preserves and one of the first natural areas protected by law in the entire country. It pre-dated the Illinois Endangered Species Act (1972), the federal Endangered Species Act, the delineation of the Natural Divisions of Illinois (1973), and the publication of the original Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (1975-1978). The concepts of natural areas, their conservation, and their management were all very much in its infancy.

How fitting then that in 1972, the first Natural Areas Day celebration was held at Heron Pond. That particular event was the birthplace of the Natural Areas Association, an organization dedicated to the understanding, appreciation, protection, and management of natural areas across the country. Fifty years later, the conservation community gathered again at the CRSNA to commemorate a milestone in the site’s history and to reaffirm the value of natural areas protection. The three featured speakers at the April 9, 2022, celebration of Heron Pond and Wildcat Bluff were involved with the nascent Natural Areas Association, and one, John Schwegman, served as its first president. Max Hutchison (Natural Lands Institute and The Nature Conservancy ecologist, retired), John Schwegman (IDNR state botanist, retired; author of The Natural Divisions of Illinois), and Andy West (IDNR Natural Heritage Biologist and Trail of Tears State Forest Site Superintendent, retired) were directly responsible for the recognition of Heron Pond and Wildcat Bluff as a natural area worth conserving, acquiring, and protecting. During the event’s main ceremony, they shared stories about the origins and significance of the Heron Pond – Wildcat Bluff Nature Preserve and inspired the attendees to continue the rewarding work of protecting the natural world.

To the left is a photo of a group of people enjoying exploring a swamp while walking on an elevated pathway. To the right is text sharing information about the planning committee for the group outing.
Photo courtesy of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

From a humble start with an original purchase of 1,198 acres, five decades of collaboration among federal, state, and private landowners have resulted in the protection of an incredible 50,000-acre wetland complex that hosts numerous imperiled species and high-quality natural communities. Countless individuals contributed to the protection and management of Heron Pond and Wildcat Bluff, and undoubtedly scores more will step forward to inspire action to safeguard Illinois’ natural areas for the next 50 years.

Christina Feng is an Illinois Department of Natural Resources Natural Heritage Biologist and has been responsible for stewarding sites in southern Illinois, including the Cache River State Natural Area, since 2019.

Kathy Andrews Wright is retired from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources where she was editor of Outdoor Illinois magazine. She is currently the editor of Outdoor Illinois Wildlife Journal and Illinois Audubon magazine.

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