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Nature in a Sorry State

A state assessment of Illinois's natural systems

July 29, 1988

Only Chicago's Reader would run a review of a government report. The paper's original subtitle was a fair summary: "Illinois' new guide to natural resources too often favors resources over nature, but it's nonetheless a fascinating compendium of valuable information."


Reviewed: The Natural Resources of Illinois: Introduction and Guide, compiled by R. Dan Neely and Carla G. Heister, Illinois Natural History Survey, Illinois Department of Natural resources, Springfield Ill. , 1987


Listen, things could be worse. You could be a coot. Coot, reports Patti Malmborg of the Illinois Natural History Survey, usually feed in the same waters as ducks. Unlike ducks, they are unpalatable and so are not considered good sport by hunters, but often coot do offer the advantage of lying within convenient gunshot range. Coot, writes Malmborg, "commonly . . . have been used as practice targets." And because they're seldom retrieved, a curious public has no way of knowing how many coot die in Illinois each year in the cause of good marksmanship.

That is one of the few facts that cannot be found in The Natural Resources of Illinois, an "introduction and guide" published by the state's Natural History Survey. Natural Resources is itself a considerable resource, a catalog crammed with more than 200 maps, tables, and charts. Its text describes the weather and geology, the agriculture, the water and mineral resources, and the fish, birds, and mammals of Illinois. It is a Baedeker to a different Illinois, one in which most of us will always be tourists, whose realms are familiar only to specialists, usually those who work for the state's natural resources bureaucracy—the Department of Conservation, the state's Water, Geological, and Natural History surveys, state and federal agriculture departments, and so on. Some 50 of these experts contributed articles to this collection, and many others supplied research information. (Natural Resources is one of the few books to call attention to the George Hubert Jrs. of the world—he "graciously allowed the use of his furbearer data.")


If citizenship were subject to a test of local knowledge, most of us could qualify only as honorary Illinoisans. We know that Illinois is big, humid, and not very hilly. But few appreciate how big, how humid, or how unhilly. Natural Resources tells much more.


Illinois' greatest natural resource is space. Downstaters are forever being astonished by Chicagoans who, after motoring down Interstate 55 toward Springfield for 200 numbing miles, imagine themselves to be in "southern" Illinois. There is as much Illinois to the south of Springfield as there is to the north of it—385 miles total north-south distance—with the result that Carbondale has not only a different congressman from Chicago's but a different climate.

Illinois is all wet. Rain is why Illinois doesn't look like Kansas: thousands of years of erosion have carved the state's once-flat postglacial terrain into its current distinctive rolling shape. A billion gallons of water is estimated to fall on Illinois during an average day, roughly 200 times the amount Chicago withdraws daily from Lake Michigan.

Illinois is pretty flat. The highest point in most counties is not more than 200 feet above the lowest point. Counties like Cook (which is situated on an ancient lake bed) are even less distinguished, topographically speaking. The bed of the Illinois River slopes a scant one inch per mile from its headwaters southwest of Chicago to its mouth at the Mississippi, which means that the river is going downhill a lot slower than most things in the state.


A thousand facts in Natural Resources will enlarge your understanding of the state, not to mention your fund of party trivia. No one will be surprised to read that Chicago historically has led Illinois cities in the number of heavy (six inches or more) snowfalls. The city also is less foggy than the rest of the state, gets relatively fewer heavy rains and relatively more tornadoes, few thunderstorms and little hail. (Chicago's eccentric weather is ascribed to various factors, from its northern locale to its proximity to Lake Michigan to the "urban effect": big cities generate heat and dust and alter local winds and thus create their own weather.) And wonder of wonders, Chicago is windier than much of Illinois, although not by very much; wind speeds higher than eight miles per hour have been recorded here at least 60 percent of the time, which may explain why Cubs hitters seem much less imposing when they play away from home.

I was amazed to learn how ignorant I am about certain important things. The typical Chicagoan probably goes for days without thinking about fluorspar, even though it is Illinois' official state mineral. But urban life would be impossible without it. It is used to make steel, which fortifies your security door; to fluoridate drinking water, which makes your smile gleam convincingly; to manufacture aluminum, gasoline, toothpaste, and even eyeglass lenses. It is used to make refrigerants (warm white wine—ugh!), stain repellants (no more finger food at parties!), and space guidance systems (no satellites, no cable TV) and to harden concrete (soft sidewalks?). And Illinois has led the United States in the mining of the stuff since 1942.

So if you overhear someone at a party asking for bets on which state leads a grateful nation in the production of canning pumpkins, or how many ducks are killed in Illinois each year, or which county is the leading producer of turnip greens, keep your money in your pocket, because the guy's obviously read this book. (The answers are: Illinois; between 300,000 and 460,000; and Cook.)

I know of no other single reference work that explains how Illinois coal got so much sulfur in it, or which county has the most laying hens, or where you are most likely to die in a tornado. (Readers may want to try their own correlations of such disparate data, perhaps to find out where a laying hen is most at risk from tornadoes, or how much sulfur there is in Illinois eggs.) Nor have I ever before run across John Todd, the first appointed executive of the then-county of Illinois. He arrived in 1778 from Kentucky but left Illinois after only three months, complaining of unwholesome air, the rudeness of life in general, and the fact that everyone in Kaskaskia spoke French—the first Illinoisan on record as wishing he lived somewhere else.

Make no mistake. Natural Resources is not casual reading. Often the prose is reminiscent of a grade school geography, a litany of tonnages and distances and gross receipts. More troubling is the notion this book shares with those old textbooks, which saw nature solely as an exploitable resource. Paul Risser, who until recently was the chief of the Natural History Survey, sounds that note in his introduction, when he describes the value of natural resources in terms of "fashioning a life-style." In places, the book seems a script for a conservationist's nightmare: "Together the land and its residents have made the state first in the production of soybeans, second in the production of corn and hogs, third in commercial bank assets, and fifth in the production of coal." You can almost hear Cecil B. De Mille doing the voice-over.

Illinoisans have been taking a crass view of nature for some 300 years. White men first laid eyes on it while looking for a new route for commerce, after all, and our local heroes are people like John Deere, famous for having perfected a plow capable of destroying the tallgrass prairie. The research mandate of the state's three scientific surveys, founded in the 19th century, has always been as much economic as ecological—mapping minable coal reserves, for example, or studying crop diseases.

It seems inevitable in retrospect that such agencies would eventually have to devote themselves to preserving or restoring the state's natural resources as well as cataloging them. The environmental calamities that have attended the heedless exploitation of Illinois's once-rich land, minerals, and game today make up a sizable portion of the research agenda of its resource scientists.

The Illinois State Water Survey, for example, now studies groundwater contamination as well as rain making and reservoir management. As an institution the Water Survey shows perhaps the most evolved environmental consciousness of the three surveys, probably because pollution problems, going back to the days of typhoid, have tended to manifest themselves in water first. The habitat destruction that has imperiled huntable and fishable wildlife has pushed the Natural History Survey in the same direction, as have such potential hazards to cash crops as acid rain. The Geological Survey has been perhaps the last to admit ecological consequence as a research consideration, but even it has had to hotfoot it into the late 20th century now that its agenda includes landfill siting and mined-land reclamation.

The state's natural resources bureaucracy is an odd animal. The Department of Conservation is notorious in Springfield as a bureaucratic Beirut, whose factions are ultimately answerable to rich guys who have dead things hanging on their walls. The scientific, surveys have historically been affiliated with the University of Illinois, on whose Urbana campus each is still housed, but they are administered as part of the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources. Other branches of the bureaucracy include the Department of Transportation, which pays for plant studies; the Cooperative Extension Service, which studies lakes; and the state EPA, which is rumored to have something to do with air, water, and soil.

A creature so equipped will not find it easy to cope with resource problems. Like the natural systems from which they're derived, such problems stray across the boundaries separating the animal, the mineral, and the vegetable. Each agency operates with its own research protocol, budget, and priorities, and each responds to its own politically connected constituency. Science occasionally transcends such barriers; acid rain has brought the Water and Natural History surveys into the same lab, for example, just as groundwater pollution has required the mutual attention of Water and Geological survey staffs. But the bureaucracy remains essentially brontosaurian, a beast with different brains to govern different parts of its body.

The exploitation of Illinois' natural resources may be economic in its impulse, but it has seldom been economical. Consider the Illinois River. It is widely known that pollution practically killed the Illinois River as a fishery after the Sanitary and Ship Canal provided "a hydraulically efficient means of pouring Chicago-area wastes downstream," in the words of contributor Thomas Butts of the Water Survey. From 1905 to 1915, the river and its chain of backwater lakes yielded commercial fish harvests of about 25 million pounds a year; by 1931, the take had dropped to 6.8 million pounds. Consider what that drop means today in lost jobs and retail sales, especially given the booming demand for fresh fish in Chicago (partly because of the new Asian population). The sewage has been largely cleaned up, but after World War II the Illinois River system suffered further insults. Erosion from farm fields silted up the channel, and backwater lakes were drained for farming.

But even if the physical damage to the river system could be repaired and Butts thinks that it will never again be the mecca for fish it used to be—the attitudes that destroyed it persist. Of late the mussels that survive in the Illinois have been harvested for sale to the Japanese cultured-pearl industry at rates of roughly 1,000 tons per year; biologists are worried whether the river can sustain such losses, and regulations have been proposed to compel a more rational exploitation of this limited economic resource.

While they still can, mussel harvesters might want to ponder the lessons learned by commercial fishermen on Lake Michigan. As we learn in Natural Resources, fishing techniques used by early-19th-century whites mimicked the Indians, who took fish mainly from shallow bays of the lakes tributaries. Overfishing depleted these inshore waters and shrank catches; pollution from waterfront enterprises such as sawmills sped the declines, since these near-shore waters were also spawning grounds. To find fish, fishermen had to venture farther onto the lake, fishing from boats and using new and stronger nets and eventually new and stronger machines to lift them. These new technologies enabled successive generations of fishermen to survive the heedlessness of their predecessors by taking fish from deeper and deeper water.

The fish proved not so adaptable. By 1900, lake sturgeon had all but disappeared from Lake Michigan; by the 1930s, the lake whitefish was gone, followed by the lake trout and herring. The opening of navigation canals allowed the migration into the lake of exotic species such as lamprey eels and the alewife, which fed upon either the native species themselves or their food supplies. In spite of the fact that regulation of the catch began as early as World War I, today there is little industry left to regulate, and the number of commercial fishermen licensed to take fish from the lake has shriveled to a handful.

Natural Resources was not intended as an environmentalist's tract, but it is a sobering chronicle of the risks of human intervention in natural systems. In the 1820s 40 percent of Illinois was forest; today only 1 percent is woods. Illinois once boasted more than nine million acres of wetlands; today we count fewer than 500,000 acres. The prairie has been destroyed as an ecosystem (although it survives here and there as an artifact), and even such "substitute prairie" as hay fields and pastureland has disappeared as farming has changed. Half the lakes in the state are so muddy that light can't penetrate farther than two feet; most of the natural lakes in Illinois six acres or larger have been drained; and most of the man-made ones—three-fourths of the more than 2,900—are filling up with soil eroded mainly from farms.

Several species of nongame fish have been extirpated in Illinois primarily because of siltation from eroding farm fields; another 21 are threatened. The number of mallard ducks that sojourn along the Mississippi and Illinois flyways has declined to record lows because of habitat degradation; populations of lesser scaups also are down. Sightings of ring-necked pheasants have become rare. A few species, such as wood duck and prairie chickens, have thrived, usually as a result of intensive, species-specific habitat management. But approximately 50 plant and animal species indigenous to the state are known to have been extirpated; the number of nonvertebrate species that have vanished will never be known.

Commerce per se is not the villain but commerce organized on an industrial scale and using industrial methods is. R. Dan Neely of the Natural History Survey writes, "Natural conditions in Illinois favor profitable farming." But Neely does not point out that Illinois farming is profitable—when it is profitable—mainly because the environmental costs of farm operations are being paid by others. It would have been more accurate for Neely to say that natural conditions here favor a certain kind of industrial farming.

There is an unintended irony in the choice of a photograph for the book's cover. By Larry Kanfer, it shows newly sprouted corn bright green against the rich brown soil, both arrayed against a backdrop of blue sky dotted with cumulus clouds. To most city dwellers, the scene oozes "nature." But these are hybridized corn plants in a field very likely artificially drained, sustained by artificial fertilizers and chemically protected from pests.

The most recognized symbol of industrialization in Illinois may be a south-side steel mill, but modern factory-style agriculture has affected hundreds of thousands more acres. 

The fall plowing of harvested cornfields by farmers eager to get a head start on spring planting has decreased the amount of waste grain available in central Illinois to migrating mallards.

The modern farm is so barren of cover and food in the spring that hatchery-raised pheasant chicks released as part of game-stocking programs typically survive only a few days or weeks.

Because pastureland and hedgerows have been plowed up, the number of cottontail rabbits has declined since 1960 by more than 70 percent statewide, and by more than 90 percent in the more intensely farmed parts of the state.

In two surveys by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, of 56 lakes tested, 51 in one survey and 52 in the other were eutrophic, meaning they were so loaded with dissolved nutrients (mainly the result of fertilizer runoff from farms) that they suffered potentially ruinous growths of oxygen-consuming algae.


The compilers of Natural Resources are circumspect about linking the cause with the effect when reciting such ills. The villain is always "modern agriculture," never Illinois farmers. Such objectivity makes for good science, and even better politics, but it may confuse some readers who do not share the contributors' understanding of the way the state's economy relates to environmental pollution.

The interconnectedness of things is a truth that was recognized early on in the history of Illinois' public science: the first chief of the Natural History Survey, entomologist Dr. Stephen Forbes, is often identified as the "father of ecology." But this collection of articles reflects the administrative preoccupations of the bureaucracy, not nature. And those preoccupations in turn reflect the interests of the bureaucracy's various constituencies, The Department of Conservation, for example, constantly grapples with the question of whether to manage a natural area so as to maximize populations of a single species highly desirable for hunting or fishing, or to create a stable ecological community of which that desirable species may be only a small part. (The classic example of the first option is a meadow plowed up and planted in corn to be left for ducks.) "Management for target species sometimes decreases habitat diversity and eliminates niches occupied by nontarget birds," explain Maimborg and Nancy Wiseman of the Natural History Survey. At the same time, "sportsmen insist on renewable supplies of game birds and represent a substantial source of [agency] funds."

Animals that may be shot, netted, or hooked thus receive much attention in these pages, while reptiles and amphibians, which constitute a significant number of Illinois' vertebrate animals, are shunned, as they are shunned in life (except for two pages devoted to snakes). There is no real mention of insects—not even the corn rootworm or gypsy moth, both much studied because of the damage they inflict on field and forest—even though insects comprise by far the largest class of nonplant species among Illinois's living things. Nor are nonagricultural plants described, except in passing, even though many such species are disappearing.

When it comes to more practical editorial matters, the compilers do better. Their book is a handsome physical production, reliably spiralbound and printed on sturdy stock, with an especially clever foldout map of Illinois counties. The text provides citations to more than 400 books and articles for readers wishing to learn more about given topics. There is no index—a lamentable omission in a reference work—but the graphics are plentiful, sizable, and brightly colored. If The Natural Resources of Illinois is not yet the compendium on the subject that we need--and it favors resources over nature too much to qualify--it is the best that we have been given to date. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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