Rebecca Lave and John Baeten, Director of the department's new Historic Landscapes Lab received a seed grant to develop a novel interdisciplinary approach to the study of historical wetland loss in the Midwest that uses analysis of the archival record of political-economic processes to ground truth physical records of fluvial processes, and vice versa.
The Grand Kankakee System (GKS), which consists of the Grand Marsh and the Kankakee River, was the second largest wetland in the continental U.S prior to extensive modifications in the 1900s. Often referred to as the Everglades of the North, the GKS stretched across approximately 500,000 acres in northern Indiana and Illinois. In Illinois, the Kankakee system was left largely intact. In Indiana, by contrast, the concerns of early conservationists were overruled. According to the limited historical accounts we possess, efforts to drain the Indiana portion of the GKS began with hand-dug ditches in the 1850s, accelerated with the introduction of the steam dredge and extensive public investment in the 1880s, and were essentially complete by the late 1910s. The GKS was reduced by almost 90% via the construction of a network of lateral ditches and the channelization of the Kankakee River, whose length was reduced by almost 2/3. This dramatic anthropogenic intervention changed the hydro-social relations that had previously characterized the GKS: agricultural production increased, but fluvial dynamics changed dramatically, and the human and biotic communities that had previously flourished in the GKS were devastated, causing more than a century of heated conflict between the two states. Calls to restore the GKS began in the 1930s but made little headway until recently, when climate change-induced increases in the frequency and duration of flood events began to significantly impact communities, infrastructure, and agriculture, illustrating the ineffectiveness of previous management strategies and producing broad support for restoration initiatives.
Despite the size of the GKS, the dramatic scale of human interventions in its hydrology, and more than a century of inter-state conflict about its future, there have been remarkably few academic investigations into the social and physical transformation that accompanied the modification of the GKS. Our proposed research will first draw on a range of archival sources including historical maps, General Land Office survey data, and County Surveyor records, land sale records to construct a timeline of key political-economic events and processes that are likely to be visible in sediment cores, from deforestation and the construction of drainage systems to the sale of swamplands in response to federal policy. We will then collect and analyze two sediment cores from floodplain lakes, one from the Illinois side of the border and one on the Indiana side, to determine whether the duration and resolution of the cores are sufficient to allow us to accurately connect that physical evidence to the political-economic timeline. The combined analysis of these political-economic and physical datasets should allow us to develop more robust findings about environmental change in the GKS, providing proof of concept for our methodology and thus a stronger basis for an upcoming NSF Coupled Natural/Human Systems proposal.