Rock River Trail brings three congressmen and more to Rockford

Rock River Trail brings three congressmen and more to Rockford

• Living Lands and Waters donates 10,000 oak trees to Rock River Trail Initiative

By Brandon Reid
Assistant Editor


In 1926, at age 15, Ronald Reagan became a lifeguard at Lowell Park on the Rock River in Dixon, Ill. The boy they called “Dutch” saved 77 lives—and one pair of false teeth—in his seven years as a lifeguard. Fifty-five years later, in 1981, “Dutch” was inaugurated the 40th president of the United States.


Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011, three United States congressmen, U.S. Senate and other U.S. congressional staff, state representatives and senators from Illinois and Wisconsin, various government officials, and members of numerous regulatory agencies, including three officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,  gathered at Burpee Museum of Natural History on the bank of the Rock River to discuss several proposals included in the Rock River Trail Initiative (RRTI).

The Rock River Trail, whose parent organization is the 501 (c)(3) Friends of the Rock, aims to found a National Scenic, Recreational and Historic Trail along the 285 miles of the Rock River, from its source above the Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin to its mouth at the Quad Cities in Illinois.

Speaking before the gathering of about 80 other officials and citizens at the Feb. 3 legislative briefing, U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo (R-16) said it was a “stellar day in Rockford” since it had been quite some time since three members of the United States Congress met in one room in Rockford at the same time.

Joining Manzullo were U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.).

Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R), in introducing Manzullo, said the RRTI provides an “excellent opportunity to import money,” as the trail would work to improve the Rock River ecosystem, promote eco-tourism, bring awareness to Native American, cultural and historical sites, and market recreational opportunities throughout the 11 counties along the river.

In his opening remarks, Manzullo said: “Improving the quality of the water and working to strengthen the health of the Rock River is a major component of this effort as well. Here in Illinois, we are celebrating the 100th birthday of our native son, President Ronald Reagan, who grew up just south of here in Dixon. In President Reagan’s autobiography, he recalls his joy as a child playing along the shores of the Rock River and describes it as a ‘stretch of blue-green water flanked by wooded hills and limestone cliffs that meanders through the farmland of northwestern Illinois on its way to the Mississippi.’ I would like to see the Rock River restored to that blue-green quality again.”

Citing the success of the Ice Age Trail Alliance (near Madison, Wis.), the Glacial Drumlin State Trail (starting in Cottage Grove, Wis., then going east for 52 miles, connecting with other trails in the Fox River Sanctuary in Waukesha, Wis.) and the Sugar River Trail (following an abandoned railroad line in south central Wisconsin for 24 miles from New Glarus to Brodhead), Baldwin said the RRTI “is going to do exactly the same” as those trails by using “natural resources to create jobs and improve the quality of life for all of our constituents who visit this area.”

“I know that the Rock River Trail can become a ‘staycation destination,’” Baldwin added.

Schilling, who is from the Quad Cities area along the Mississippi River, said “It’s a great day when we can come together,” referencing the bipartisan gathering of representatives. “It’s gonna be a good thing,” Schilling said, with regard to the RRTI.

In introducing Frank Schier, founder and chairman of the Rock River Trail and editor and publisher of The Rock River Times, Dr. Sonia Vogl, vice president of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association and co-founder of Friends of the Rock, presented Schier with a “symbol of sustainability”—farm-raised organic eggs.

Vogl said the RRTI would improve water quality and bring awareness to scenic areas along the river. She also said Friends of the Rock was “immediately impressed” by the project’s scope.

In his opening remarks, Schier thanked Winnebago County Geographic Information System (WinGIS) and WinGIS Director Bernie Turner for WinGIS’ $20,000 worth of map time in composing the map of the trail. He said Turner and his staff have been “lightning fast” in updating the maps.

Schier said the Rock River Trail would be similar to the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, which extends 2,181 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, and the Pacific Crest Trail, which extends 2,650 miles along the Western Seaboard from the California border with Mexico through the states of California, Oregon and Washington, and ending in British Columbia, Canada. Schier said the Lewis and Clark Trail, which covers more than 4,600 miles and crosses four time zones, is also similar, although it’s on a much grander scale.

The Rock River Trail, Schier said, would be about “driving, hiking, biking, kayaking and canoeing” to the many recreational, scenic and historical attractions in the 11 counties along the river corridor: Fond du Lac, Dodge, Jefferson, Dane and Rock in Wisconsin; and Winnebago, Ogle, Lee, Whiteside, Henry and Rock Island in Illinois.

Schier said the RRTI would work to inventory, protect and bring to light the many and hidden prehistoric and Woodland Native American village sites on the Rock River. Specifically, he cited the many mysterious effigy mounds—in the forms of thunderbirds, panthers, deer, bears, direct north-south lines, cones and turtles—located along the banks of the Rock River that were created by the lost Adena/Hopewell civilization (1,000 BC-500 AD).

Ultimately, Schier said, the Rock River Trail is a “tremendous opportunity” to “show the river and all it has to offer.”

In addition to promoting the many attractions along the river, the RRTI would also work to improve the river’s water quality. Schier suggested the three federal designations the RRTI is attempting to gain—scenic, recreational and heritage—would help to protect the river.

Sprawl and runoff from chemicals used in farming have had significant impacts on flooding and water quality, Schier noted. He suggested implementation of organic farming, agricultural easements and conservation design would help address some of those issues.

Conservation design is a controlled-growth land-use development that generally requires a project dedicate 50 percent of the total development to open space. Conservation design practices also call for protection of the natural environmental features of a development’s space, provided by devices such as low-impact lighting to reduce light pollution, rain gardens, rain barrels, bioswales and permeable pavements to reduce stormwater runoff and replenish the aquifer, and renewable energy systems to reduce the carbon footprint.

Schier advocated for encouraging farmers to create a “buffer zone” along the edge of their farms. He said three species of prairie grass have been found to survive floods (a mixed stand of cordgrass (best), big bluestem (good), indian grass (average), and others including mixed rushes and sedges), and he suggested those species may serve as an effective buffer to filter pollution from agricultural and urban runoff, as wetlands to help absorb runoff and flood waters, and as habitat for wildlife.

To monitor the water quality and determine the level of contaminants in the water, Schier suggested monitoring centers be created along the river. He proposed placing water monitoring stations or centers every 5 miles on the 285 miles of the river, for a total of 55 centers. He said such a center would have proven crucial for evidence collection in the aftermath of the June 19, 2009, derailment of a Canadian National train in Rockford that spilled ethanol, which leaked into the river, killing off fish and other wildlife—the largest fish kill in the history of the state.

Schier also noted Chairman Christiansen’s suggestion of the dredging of the Rock River at the Roscoe Shallows just below Rockton and at the Fordam Dam to just past Blackhawk Park in Rockford. An Army Corps of Engineers representative present at the legislative hearing, however, later recommended against such an endeavor. He said “dredging on a large scale is not very cost-effective” because it doesn’t last long, and it has serious environmental consequences.

Schier referenced a comment by Manzullo’s deputy chief of staff, Bryan Davis, who said the RRTI’s goal should be for the Rock River to be “the cleanest river in the United States in 20 years.”

In addition to discussing the attractions along the trail and the protection of the river, Schier also noted the 19 dams along the trail. He said although a 300-foot buffer zone is already required before dams, safety channels could be created for further safety, along with common signage and portage facilities, at a cost of approximately $250,000 per dam.

Ultimately, Schier said the Rock River Trail—with its 19 dams, 28 camping areas and various hiking and biking trails—already exists, gaps just need to be filled in, and Winnebago County can be used as the template for completion of the trail, where 18 new campsites in five areas were created in two months.

Following Schier’s remarks, the floor was opened to the various officials present. State Rep. Dave Winters (R-68) said he would contact the Illinois Department of Transportation regarding signs for the roads along the scenic trail, and suggested representatives from Wisconsin do the same.

Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) questioned Manzullo about funding available for capital projects. Manzullo said no money was currently designated for the project, and added the purpose of the legislative briefing was to solidify a template of the trail for other counties. Schier suggested, however, a tremendous amount of money is available through grants, which the RRTI plans to pursue.

Following the open comment period, Quad Cities Waterkeeper Art Norris introduced Chad Pregracke of Living Lands and Waters, a 501 (c)(3) environmental organization with headquarters in Moline, Ill.

Pregracke established Living Lands and Waters, which is active in nine states, in 1998. The Living Lands and Waters website,, states: “Since the project’s inception, Chad, his crew, and more than 60,000 volunteers have collected more than 6 million pounds of debris from our nation’s greatest rivers. Most recently, Chad expanded the mission of the organization to include Big River Educational Outreach, The Million Trees Project and the Adopt-a-River Mile programs.”

Pregracke began by announcing Living Lands and Waters had planned to donate 5,000 trees to the RRTI, Illinois and Wisconsin, but after seeing the level of support at the legislative briefing, would donate 10,000 trees. At about $2-$3 per tree, the donation amounts to a more than $20,000 contribution.
Sixty percent of the trees will be bur oak, 20 percent red oak and 20 percent white oak.

“You’ve got to have passion, you’ve got to have vision—these two guys [Schier and Norris] have that,” Pregracke said.

Pregracke also noted that the Rock River is the only river he has been in that has given him a rash, when working in it as a commercial diver. With regard to cleaning the river, he said, “We screwed it up, we can fix it.”

“The Rock River Trail is the best investment you can make,” Pregracke added.

Manzullo concluded the legislative hearing by stating, “The significance of this meeting is the birth of a vision.” He added he had not seen anything with the vision and scope of the project since EIGERlab, which was created in 2004.

“Who would’ve ever thought it would be the river that connects all of us?” Manzullo pondered.

The next meeting regarding the RRTI is set for Thursday, April 28, at the Best Western Clock Tower Resort and Conference Center in Rockford.