State looks to buy Mississippi River island

Saturday, April 25, 2009 | 4:40 p.m. CDT; updated 5:32 p.m. CDT, Saturday, April 25, 2009

CAPE GIRARDEAU — An island sitting in the Mississippi River, south of Cape Girardeau, could soon be the latest addition to the Missouri Department of Conservation's landholdings.

The department is considering buying Marquette Island, an 835-acre island covered in cottonwoods, willow and sand.

The island was formed from silt deposited by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from navigation projects on the river. It provides a home for the endangered least tern and helps form a protective shelter for the endangered pallid sturgeon.

Federal officials have offered the department a grant of almost $243,000 to help with the purchase. The department hasn't determined whether to accept the money because it would provide only a third of the island's price.

"Right now we don't quite have our ducks in a row," said Peggy Horner, a wildlife program supervisor with the conservation department. "It was actually for partial funding. We are not quite sure what we are going to do."

The Middle Mississippi River Partnership, a coalition of 16 public and private agencies that promote the environmental health of the river, identified Marquette as one of seven "string of pearls" — environmentally important islands in the river.

The department last year bought the 705-acre Windy Bar Island north of Cape Girardeau. Jenny Frazier, director of the American Land Conservancy's Mississippi River Program, said the purchase of Marquette Island would complement that acquisition and make it easy to manage both properties.

"We look at areas that have critical habitat that are in proximity to other publicly owned areas so management efforts can be consolidated," said Frazier, a resident of Bollinger County. "We also look at areas that have a potential to bring outside dollars to a region through recreation and tourism."

Both Marquette Island and Windy Bar Island provide public access to river habitat for the Cape Girardeau area, she said.

The island remains in private hands, Frazier said. The conservancy has options on part of the island and is negotiating with other property owners to set a price for the rest, she said.

"It is like with any of our projects, it is kind of a building process," Frazier said. "We are at a variety of different stages with different landowners."

Department administrators will decide in the coming weeks whether to accept the grant, Horner said. The department has a policy not to spend state tax dollars to buy land unless the property complements or in some other way enhances the existing conservation area.

"Because it is not full funding, we may not accept the grant at all," Horner said.


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