A significant portion of the Cache River wetlands are protected by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1990, covers 14,000 acres (57 km²) of aquatic and riparian habitat, and is eventually planned to expand to 35,509 acres (144 km²). The Illinois Department of Natural Resources protects another 14,314 acres (57.9 km²) through the Cache State Natural Area. The Lower Cache River, a habitat that encompasses much of these landholdings, has been listed as a U.S. National Natural Landmark.
French Voyageurs gave the river its modern name, calling it “cache” which means secret or hidden place. European settlers arrived in the region in 1803. They found the soil too wet for farming, and the swamps full of mosquitoes and venomous snakes; many early settlers died of malaria. However, the Cache provided excellent hunting and fishing, and abundant timber. One settler wrote home that the Cache River Basin was “good country for men and dogs, but hard on women and oxen.” Between 1810 and 1890 timber harvesting became a major industry in the Cache basin, cypress wood being sought after for its light, water-resistant properties. The small towns on the edge of the swamp experienced a small boom during this period. Several sawmills and small factories sprung up to process timber for lumber, railroad ties, charcoal, and packing crates and boxes.
In 2002 the levee dividing the Post Creek Cutoff and the Lower Cache suffered a catastrophic failure during the spring flood season. The failure of the levee has resulted in dropping water levels in the Lower Cache. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has proposed restoration work including installation of a dam and weir to protect the Cache from water loss, which would stabilize water levels and remedy some of the hydrologic disconnect between the upper and lower Cache. However, the Army Corps of Engineers intends merely to restore the levee to its original condition. No work on either solution has begun as of January 2007.
Over the course of the restoration work, there have been tensions between the conservationists and some local landowners. Some of the region’s farmers feared that restoration of the wetlands would cause flooding and loss of agricultural land, and many resented what they perceived as ‘outside influences’ meddling in their communities. Some local sportsmen feared that their favorite hunting and fishing grounds would either be put off limits, or else overrun by visitors. State and Federal agencies have attempted at all times to reach compromise with local landowners and sportsmen, but tensions and resentment remain. The Cache offers ample recreation opportunities, such as canoeing, hiking, bird watching, fishing and hunting. The 45 mile long Tunnel Hill State Bicycle Trail provides an excellent look at the sloughs and bottomland forest as it follows the disused Norfolk Southern railroad grade (originally owned by the Cairo and Vincennes Railroad) from Karnak to Vienna, then continues north through the Shawnee National Forest to Harrisburg, Illinois.