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SIU students to travel to flood plain to learn about land use, environmental justice along Mississippi River

Cypress and tupelo trees
Provided by Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Cypress and tupelo trees inhabit the Horseshoe Lake area in Alexander County.

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Nearly 70 Southern Illinois University Carbondale students, including 55 first-year SIU School of Law students, will travel to a Mississippi River flood plain in Alexander County to learn more about land use policies and environmental and social justice on Wednesday, Aug. 30.

The excursion to the Dogtooth Bend area near Horseshoe Lake was proposed by Sheila Simon, assistant professor in the SIU School of Law, as part of her course on property law, and will be joined by students in media arts professor Sarah Lewison’s fall course in environmental media, Rivers and Forests Without End: The Mississippi River Open School.

“I hope they begin to grasp the long life and autonomy of the river - especially as we examine another contemporary legal concept, which is that entities such as rivers should be bestowed rights of existence, besides that, a critical understanding of the inherent conflicts involved,” Lewison said.

Simon said the journey is an opportunity for her property law students to “get a first-hand look at environmental restoration that is made possible through the ways we can split ownership and control of the land,” in addition to seeing Horseshoe Lake, which is the product of historical changes in the Mississippi River.

By visiting the river’s floodplain by kayak, students get to “directly experience its dynamism,” Lewison said, and compare flooding at Dogtooth Bend with “similar patterns of developmental mismanagement they have seen.”

“We will contemplate the Mississippi as a dynamic entity existing long before technologies of canalization and the notion of turning places into ‘property,’” along with cultural and political dynamics of colonization, she said. Lewison’s group includes five undergraduate students from the School of Media Arts, along with three graduate students in forestry, sociology and writing programs and a teaching assistant in the mass communication and media arts programs.

When students return, they will also study the impact of a 2011 Mississippi River flood near Cairo, Illinois, along with the inactive village of Pinhook, Missouri, which was destroyed after a levee was dynamited to divert floodwaters from Cairo.

“This trip hits on all of the themes of the Mississippi River Open School, our umbrella project which extends from the headwaters to the Gulf,” Lewison said. “We are getting students into the field to witness entanglements of regional ecology, human practice and politics.”

Witnessing the impact of property law

Simon noted that for the past two summers, Robert Phillippe, a third-year law student, has worked under her supervision to iron out some issues regarding land titles to properties in Dogtooth Bend in a cooperative arrangement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and The Nature Conservancy. The work has allowed several local landowners to be compensated for not farming their flood-prone land and the conservation easements allow for restoration of land which can then tolerate regular flooding, Simon said.

There is more to property law than textbooks, Simon said.

“Once we get out of the books, students can see the importance of understanding how land ownership can be divided in so many ways,” Simon said. “They will be able to see the power of law to make a more sustainable landscape right here in Southern Illinois. I hope my students, who are brand new to law school, can use this trip to strengthen their resolve to make positive change. My students are idealistic and committed. I want to reinforce that.”

Course development from Mellon Foundation Award

The effort is part of a 2-½-year multi-layered collaborative project from a 2022 award of more than $16 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. SIU is partnering with Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, for its Mississippi River Watershed: An Immersive Humanities Curriculum project to examine issues of race, environment and extraction along five hubs of the 2,300-mile river. SIU, partnering with Rhodes College in Memphis, is on the Lower Mississippi River Hub.

In spring 2023, Lewison invited faculty to propose activities and courses that engage with the region’s history, identity and ecology in the context of the Anthropocene, a period when “human activity began to effect significant environmental consequences, specifically on ecosystems and climate.”

Simon’s proposal, Lewison said, was “exemplary.” She added that faculty can still propose speakers, field trips and courses.

“This expedition to Horseshoe Lake and the focus on property is an amazing example of the kind of vivid learning experiences students can have in our region,” she said.

Pete Rosenbery — arts and design, architecture, automotive and aviation, humanities, journalism and mass communications, law, public policy, social sciences.

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