The Peabody River King State Fish and Wildlife Area
St. Clair County, Illinois
The Peabody River King State Fish and Wildlife Area is a twenty minute-drive from my house, a good place to get a handle on how energy extraction changes the landscape.
The Lower Kaskaskia River runs through an eroded till plain laid down by Illinoian glaciation 130,000 years ago and capped by loess, dried silt that lay on the surface of Wisconsinan valley trains that filled the Mississippi. Winds created huge dust storms and lifted the loess out of the river valley and deposited on the adjacent uplands. Underneath lay Pennsylvania rocks, holding seams of coal.
In 1974 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the channelization of the Kaskaskia River from Fayetteville, Illinois to its mouth at the Mississippi River, a distance of 36 miles. In doing so, the Corps created an efficient barge canal to ferry the 1.8 billion tons of coal that lies buried in Pennsylvanian rocks within 15 miles of the river.
Peabody started stripping the coal from Pit #3 of its vast River King Mine in 1965. By 1986 when the mine played out, Peabody had taken 6,728,122 tons of coal from the mine.
In 1977 Congress passed the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act, requiring coal companies to restore the landscapes, from which they stripped coal, to their original conditions. Hence, I found a corrugated landscape that had not been restored and a prairie landscape, rare in Illinois, that had been restored.
The Corps of Engineers turned 20,000 acres or cutoff oxbows and bottomland forests along the banks of the channel over to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for management as a wildlife refuge. In 1994 Peabody donated the old strip mine, 2,200 acres, to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as a wildlife refuge, to be included in the larger refuge.
“When they straightened the channel of the river, they took out a lot of pecan and walnut groves. Then they dammed and drained the old channel and mined it for coal. They removed seven feet of river bottom to find the coal.”
“The road through the refuge is the line between the area that came under the reclamation law and the area that didn’t. I asked a guy who knew this place if the reclaimed area looked like it did before they mined it. He said it did. We have a real good crop of quail this year out there in the reclaimed area.”
“This pond behind me is a box strip. They just dumped the soil and made that hill.”
The process: Think of it as a really, really big Tonka Toy, a huge steam shovel, a stripping shovel actually, 22-stories tall, all levers and pulleys, operating a shovel capable of scooping 200 tons of earth and rock–the overburden–from the landscape, reaching down to the underlying coal seam. Once there it creeps along, scooping out the earth in front of it. It scoops, it swivels, it dumps the overburden to the side, and moves forward, creating a sausage-shaped spoil ridge. When the shovel reaches the end of its first strip, it drills holes in the overburden in the next strip, fills it with explosives, and blasts the soil and rock to loosen it. The shovel scoops up overburden, exposes the coal seam, swivels, and dumps it into the first pit, creating a second sausage-shaped spoil ridge parallel to the first. And so on, back and forth across the landscape it works until coal is gone. Smaller shovels and bulldozers, but still big Tonka Toys, follow in its wake, digging out the coal and dumping it into haulers, more big Tonka Toys, which drive up a long, widroad– running perpendicular to the spoil ridges and sloping to the bottom of the pit–out of the mine.
When the mine is played out, rainwater fills the steeply inclined road, creating the deep, narrow lakes you see at the Peabody River King State Fish and Wildlife Area.
This is how the River King–a huge Bucyrus Erie 3850B stripping-shovel created the corrugated landscape that is western half of the Peabody River King State Fish and Wildlife Area. Peabody worked the eastern half after Congress passed the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and required the company to restore the landscape—farmland to farmland, prairie to prairie, forest to forest–once it removed the coal.
“Yeah, that’s what they did up here. They striped the coal in one direction. Then they worked in the other direction. They dumped the soil and rock in the first strip.” –John Bowman
“A great part of the territory is miserably poor, especially that near lakes Michigan & Erie & that upon the Mississippi & the Illinois consists of extensive plains which have not had from appearances & will not have a single bush on them, for ages. The districts therefore within which these fall will perhaps never contain a sufficient number of Inhabitants to entitle them to membership in the confederacy.” –James Monroe, 1786
James Monroe, who visited the old Northwest Territory twice after the Revolution, laid out the conventional wisdom about the fertility of Illinois prairie to his friend and neighbor Thomas Jefferson in a letter dated January 19, 1786: Conventional wisdom at the end of the eighteenth century stated that land that did not support trees could not support the crops that sustain human life; that treeless grasslands were barren places; that bottomlands and forests along the rivers were fertile places; that the flat prairies of Illinois were too far from the existing modes of transportation to move grain to market. The Illinois prairie grasses that stretched west from the Wabash River, north from the Kaskaskia River and, and east from the Illinois River, were treeless with few rivers and streams. James Monroe and conventional wisdom were wrong about the humid prairie lands west of the Wabash River. The land was productive; it would support human life, but not easily until John Deere invented the steel plow in 1831 and Cyrus McCormick the reaper in 1837. The largest grasslands in Illinois today are reclaimed strip mines.
Peabody mined this area before Congress passed the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which grandfathered-in this rough, corrugated landscape.
Each hillock in the spoil ridge represents one 200-ton scoop of topsoil (though there is little of that left in agricultural Illinois) and underlying rock–nutrient-rich limestones, sandstones, and shales.
Tall grasses and weeds grow in a trough between two ridges. Here hiking is difficult. Long grass snags the toe and ankle-breakers, rocks–large and small–litter the landscape, hiding in the grass.
Reclamation came in steps. The first reclamation law required mine companies to level out the tops of the spoil ridges. The next law required companies to make the spoil nice and flat and appealing to the eye close to roads. Finally, the 1977 act required complete restoration of the landscape.
After the reclaimers returned the soil and leveled it, coal compaies planted it in Kentucky fescue. It grows tall, it’s hardy, it’s cheap, and it inhibits the growth of woody plants. Reclamation specialists also use big and little bluestem, smooth brome, orchardgrass, lespedeza, sweetclover, and alfalfa, and some native forbs, like goldenrod. Rabbits and other rodents thrive in the dense cover the grasses offer. Grassland birds, however, like warm season grasses and forbs. Birds, which specialize in grasslands, avoid these places. Others, which are not so picky, don’t.
Refuge managers are beginning to plant native prairie grasses that attract prairie species like Henslow’s Sparrow in the Grasshopper Sparrow in the summer and Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers in winter. Peabody River King boosts a full complement of the owls and harriers in winter.
Forests in Reclaimed Strip Mines: Restoring strip-mined land to forests has not been a high priority in Illinois. Nor was it a high priority for the drafters of the 1977 Reclamation Act. Agriculture was and is. Fish and wildlife were and are. Nor has restoring forests been easy when tried. That means prairie, grassland, and wetlands restoration, all of which happened at Peabody River King.
Many of the grasses grown inhibit the germination of trees grown from seed. But, trees do grow on un-restored land, where the grasses hid those ankle-breaking hunks of nutrient-rich limestone and sandstone. Soils containing coarse fragments of rock are productive and become more productive as the rocks weather and break down. Trees, uninhibited by dense grasses, thrive. Like the grasses they anchor the soil, retard runoff, prevent erosion, and preserve the clarity of the lakes.
At Peabody River King: “The soil has been disturbed so much that we have had trouble planting trees, even on the reclaimed lands. The trees tend to dry out. We had some success with oaks back in the un-reclaimed section. But we found its best to let the trees come in by natural succession: willows, then cottonwoods, then oaks.”—John Bowman, Manager, Peabody River King State Fish and Wildlife Management Area
Anglers on Fishing the Lakes at Peabody River King
“Fish the Pits: For the adventurous angler there are numerous lakes to be found by walking and exploring the roadless areas of the park. There are lakes out there tucked in hollows, and surrounded by trees and weeds. These may be a hike, but can produce some great action and big fish due to lack of pressure.”–Bob Rutkowsi, http://www.siloutdoors.com/showthread.php?t=58
“There are over 20 pits at the Peabody site. Some are big and some are tiny. Some have great bass fishing, some are mediocre, and some offer good chances for fish other than bass.”—Bryan Dent, Illinois Game and Fish
“Some of these pits might only be a few acres in surface area, but all strip pits have deep water. Whenever I hear about somebody catching a 6- or 7-pound bass, it is usually from one of the back lakes.”—Fred Cronin, Fishery Biologist, Illinois DNR
Fred Cronin, Fishery Biologist, Illinois DNR, on Cottonwood Lake
“These pits are difficult to sample because of the steep banks. Most of the information I get on them is from angler reports. But it is not hard to figure that they have a lot of bass.
“One such is 13-acre Cottonwood Lake, a long, narrow pit at the end of the access road in the West Sub Unit. Cottonwood is practically walled-in by the steep banks like a canyon and is hardly ever fished. From the road, a steep, muddy trail leads down to the water’s edge, over which a couple guys can, with some difficulty, haul a johnboat or canoe. There is no other way to access it.
“Cottonwood is a typically clear lake that has hordes of bass – perhaps too many. A lot of them are sublegal 10- to 12-inchers. This pit is also one of the better crappie lakes.”
Copyright © Quinta Scott, 2009, All Rights Reserved