Farm Bureau efforts lead to Iroquois County Board resolution opposing refuge expansion

By Tammie Sloup

State and local Farm Bureau efforts helped lead to Iroquois County Board's unanimous passage of a resolution opposing the expansion of the Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation area.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has proposed acquiring 28 square miles of land in Kankakee County and six square miles in Iroquois County for a national wildlife refuge in the Kankakee River Basin. The Kankakee County Board previously approved a resolution opposing the expansion.

John Zumwalt, a Ford-Iroquois Farm Bureau member who serves on the Iroquois County Board, brought the resolution forward.

He credits Illinois Farm Bureau and his county Farm Bureau for helping spread the word of a project that many believe will have a negative impact on drainage, land acquisition and the local economy. He noted six square miles in his county equates to $194,000 in tax revenue per year.

The refuge was officially authorized in 1999, but it wasn’t until 2015 when USFWS express further interest in pursuing the refuge. In 2016, USFWS accepted a 66-acre donation and formally established the “Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area.” Farm Bureau circulated a petition of opposition in 2017, which garnered more than 1,400 signatures.

"Nobody asked us if we wanted a refuge," Zumwalt said. "We know better, as farmers, we're excellent stewards of the land.”

The Iroquois County Board's resolution is a "stepping stone" to furthering education about the project, Zumwalt said.

"The biggest obstacle is educating people about what the full impact of the refuge means," he said. "A lot of people just don't know anything about it."

As for what's next, Zumwalt said working with local legislators will be a priority.

The USFWS accepted public comments through Aug. 13, part of the process to finalize the land protection plan titled: A Vision of Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area: Growing Conservation Together.

In his comments to USFWS, IFB President Richard Guebert Jr. said many farmer concerns are still not addressed in the document. He also noted IFB supports voluntary, incentive-based conservation and environmental stewardship.

"The misperception that USFWS will maintain the existing remnants of ecosystems better than the local people who have preserved it to date, in many cases better than the existing 66-acre refuge area, is embedded throughout the plan and in the idea of the need for land acquisition," Guebert wrote.

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