PURCHASE THIS PHOTO AT PJSTAR.COM DAVID ZALAZNIK/JOURNAL STAR Ray Keithley, foreground, of Peoria, takes a photograph Wednesday at The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve. Keithley was on a field trip with other members of Bradley University’s Institute for Learning in Retirement. What the group won’t see there for another year are anglers.
There oughta be a law
A wet spring has done more than flood the Emiquon Preserve with clear water.
All the rain also provided 2,000 more reasons for legislators to change Illinois’ Recreational Use of Land and Water Areas Act.
Before you cast this aside as another boring story about knuckleheads in Springfield, bear with me.
A much preferable column would announce opening day for fishing at The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve, the former Norris Farms river bottom near Havana. More than 2,000 acres of Emiquon have flooded with clear water this spring and promise to offer outstanding fishing as soon as anglers can wet a line in the restored wetland.
Until recently, several signs pointed to fishing at Emiquon starting this month. For the past year the Department of Natural Resources has been busy stocking fish at Emiquon. With that in mind, the state included regulations in the 2008 Illinois Fishing Information pamphlet. And fish have thrived at the site, as spring surveys showed an adundance of largemouth bass virtually unmatched in Illinois.
That’s why I promoted the fishery to anyone who would listen and planned to take vacation when Emiquon opened. With good reason. Two of the best fishing trips I’ve enjoyed in Illinois came in the first year anglers were allowed to wet a line at the restored Hennepin and Hopper lakes.
Fishing at Emiquon should be just as good, if not better. Unfortunately, this fine fishery will remain off limits until at least next June.
Why? Why wait to fish the restored Thompson and Flag lakes when biologists say the fishery is ready?
This is where the knuckleheads in Springfield come in. Because the main reason for a delay appears to be foot-dragging by the Illinois General Assembly.
Back in June of 2005, legislators amended the Recreational Use act to provide limited liability for landowners who allow hunting or recreational shooting on their property at no cost. Unfortunately — due to back-room wheeling and dealing orchestrated largely by trial lawyers — many other recreational activities were omitted at the last minute.
That’s why there’s currently no limited liability for Illinois landowners who allow fishing, hiking, birdwatching, trapping, rock climbing, horseback riding, swimming, boating, camping, sledding, snowmobiling or even picnicking.
Attempts to extend liability protection to those activities have stalled for the past two years. That even though most Illinois representatives agree this is a no-brainer and despite the fact more than 40 other states have similar legislation.
This spring TNC officials apparently felt confident they had an amendment brokered. But when their changes fell through, TNC backed off on opening Emiquon to fishing.
Could TNC have opened the site to anglers anyway? Yes. Since Emiquon will be limited to boats without gas motors, infrastructure needs are minimal. A few gravel ramps and parking lots will suffice.
But there’s not yet cause to bash The Nature Conservancy about access. Changing water levels would have made placing ramps and lots difficult. And unlike The Wetlands Initiative — which had to be brow-beaten into allowing the public onto Hennepin-Hopper — TNC has been more cooperative.
Birdwatchers and other groups regularly tour Emiquon. And hunters have had two years to stalk waterfowl at the restored wetland located 40 miles southwest of Peoria.
Given that, it’s easier to empathize with Doug Blodgett, TNC’s Illinois River program director, when he frets about liability concerns related to fishing.
And Blodgett correctly notes this issue is larger than just Emiquon. In the years since liability protection was eliminated, numerous Illinois landowners have limited access to their property for fear of lawsuits.
Repercussions from that could reach well beyond finding a place to fish.
“If people aren’t able to use land to hike or bike or fish or camp we think long-term there’s going to be less constituency for open lands and recreation,” Blodgett said.
And for what reason? Because legislators want to pacify trial lawyers? Because hunting or shooting guns is safer than birdwatching?
With all this in mind, The Nature Conservancy is planning a stepped-up campaign to amend the Recreational Use of Land and Water Areas Act. Look for more details on this in the months to come, since constituent support will be important.
As you wait, imagine all those hungry bass that have never seen a lure. Ponder how 2,000 acres of prime fishing water can sit idle for want of a simple legislative change.
Is it any wonder Illinoisans become more cynical the more they know about state politics?