Some recent changes in Illinois river biology

by Stephen Alfred Forbes and Robert Earle Richardson

Publication Information: Printed by authority of the state of Illinois, 1 p.l., p. [139]-156. tables, diagr.

Annotation: Rooted throughout his life in the natural environment of his native Illinois, Stephen A. Forbes was a seminal figure in the study of ecology in the United States, a biologist of wide-ranging research interests who was Chief of the Illinois Natural History Survey when he wrote this study with his frequent scientific collaborator, Robert Earle Richardson. Among his major works, Forbes's 1887 article "The Lake as a Microcosm" (Bulletin of the Scientific Association of Peoria, Illinois [1887]: 77-87, and several times reprinted) had significantly advanced the development of ecological understanding by analyzing Illinois lakes as largely self-contained and self-equilibrating systems. The present work explores a concern which would become increasingly urgent for the study of ecology, and increasingly important for the relation of science to conservation policy, as the century advanced: the impact of human activity on ecological systems. "The principal causes of change in the biological environment of the Illinois River which have come in since 1899 are the opening of the drainage canal of the Sanitary District of Chicago in January, 1900, a great increase in the amount of Chicago sewage emptied into the stream, and an extensive reclamation of the river bottoms for agricultural uses; and it is our present purpose to trace the principal effects of these changes upon the life of the stream" (p. 139). In other words, the authors consider the effects of riverine engineering--understood in this era as a component of conservation--as an ecological problem, with disturbing results. Forbes and Richardson set forth the complex consequences clearly and methodically, concluding that these have entailed an increase in stream pollution and a decrease in fish populations, and that "the total effect of reclamation operations upon the important fisheries of the Illinois is so serious as to call for a careful study of the possibilities of prevention and remedy" (p. 155). When this study was written, science and conservation were almost invariably seen as partners in the activist technological control over nature--but this work demonstrates that even in this era, ecological science had begun to develop the insights that would all but sever American conservationism from its formative technological faith.


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