A northern Illinois county known for its rich farmland faces questions about how some of that land is being used. Peat mining is a key industry in Whiteside County. Supporters say it provides jobs, and creates opportunities for more open water habitats. But some residents wonder if the payoff is worth it.
When you head west out of the town Morrison on Garden Plain Road, you will soon reach a valley surrounded by wetlands and fields of corn. There’s also a good chance you will hear many trucks bringing in and shipping out peat moss, a product commonly used by gardeners. This part of the county is a hotbed for peat mining, which involves stripping topsoil from the ground.
The mayor of Morrison, Everett Pannier, doesn’t have a stance on the controversial practice one way or the other. But over the years, he says the industry has provided a boost to the area.
“There’s no direct tax benefit to the city, but it does provide an opportunity for Morrison citizens to work out there,” Pannier said.
Pannier also says all the truck traffic moving through the area brings extra dollars to local businesses. The mayor adds that the peat mining companies and their producers haven’t been disruptive.
But this summer, there was some noise heard in the community about the operations. That noise came from residents who objected to a permit application submitted by two producers wanting to mine for peat on property west of town. The request was ultimately approved by the county.
Mary Jo Gooley lives near that site. She says she worries about digging up precious farmland.
“It’s not gonna affect me. But it’s gonna affect my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren when there’s not enough farm to produce food to eat,” Gooley said.
And Gooley and other opponents of the practice say once that soil is dug up, there’s not much use for the land afterwards.
“It’s just wasteland. True, it becomes wetlands, but you can’t do anything with it, cause peat is just like quicksand. You can’t walk on it because you will sink,” Gooley said.
But others say the prospect of creating more wetlands can’t be ignored, including soil expert Dave Harrison.
“Anytime you can create wetlands, it’s positive. In Illinois, we’ve lost over 90-percent of our original wetlands, and if we can create more wetland habitat, I don’t see a problem with it,” Harrison said.
Harrison works with the Soil and Water Conservation District in Whiteside County. Harrison was asked to submit a report related to the recent permit request. After getting a look at the current situation, he doesn’t think the industry is a serious threat to area farmland.
“Just my opinion, and this is not the district board’s [opinion], I would say no, not on the scale it’s being done right now,” Harrison said.
But residents like Mary Jo Gooley say they would rather preserve as much land as they can, to make sure it can be used in the future.
“It’s some of the richest ground, and yet we’re strip mining it out to put it in somebody else’s yard, when they can make their own compost pile and have the same nutrients and even actually better,” Gooley said.
Efforts to interview the companies that have large-scale peat mining operations in Whiteside County were unsuccessful. But one of them, Scott’s Miracle-Gro, pointed to information on their website. It says the company is aware of the environmental impact, and they’re focused on sustainable harvesting practices.
This web link provides more details about the impact peat mining has on wetland habitats. The article looks at the debate on whether areas mined for peat can be restored to their natural state.