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Mackinaw River Project

 A Collaborative Effort to Develop a Watershed Management Plan


Jim McMahon leading a landowner tour on the Mackinaw River


Jim leading landowner group on tour


The Mackinaw River Watershed, a 1,100-square-mile basin in central Illinois, holds some of the most diverse aquatic communities in the state. This river ecosystem is threatened by a landscape that consists of 85% row crops. The Mackinaw River Project was funded by Illinois EPA and managed by The Nature Conservancy.

Jim was hired by The Nature Conservancy to manage the effort to engage with and involve local community members in development of a comprehensive watershed management plan. The project was extemely controversial and encountered serious resistance from local landowners. However Jim was able to build relationships throughout the watershed. The first year of the project was spent building relationships. Then the planning phase began. Jim recruited 30 landowners who were influential in the community. Professional facilitator Larry Huggins was hired and the 18 month process began. Together this group of individuals was successful in both writing a plan to reduce agricultural impacts on river and also in winning over the larger community. What started out being very controversial became welcome in the area. The project ran from 1994 to 1998.

Jim, aided ecologist Steven Apfelbaum and land steward Vern LaGesse, designed and constructed numerous conservation projects throughout the watershed. These demonstration projects on private land included constructed wetlands and both forest and prairie restoration.

At the headwaters of the Mackinaw an ancient grove of Burr Oaks still remains. Known as Sibley Grove, the land was donated to The Nature Conservancy. Restoration included the removal of drainage tiles and controlled burns of the forest understory and surrounding wetlands and prairie. Truly a symbolic donation Sibley Grove was a turning point in the Mackinaw River Project's success.

The Mackinaw River Project became one of TNC's premier efforts in community conservation, the notion of protecting landscapes by involving local stakeholders. Unfortunately the leadership of the Illinois Field Office did not have the patience to endure and once the watershed management plan was completed they were ready to move on to other things. This of course led to disappointment among the stakeholders who had worked so hard. TNC continues a minor effort in the watershed but failed to fulfill its promises to local landowners. 









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