Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Lake Calumet--The Dream of Recovery

The Lake Calumet region, located at the southwestern tip of Lake Michigan, once was one of the premier biologically diverse sites in Illinois. Presettlement habitats included extensive wetlands, dunes, swales, lakes, and some forested areas. Beginning in the mid-1800s, Great Lakes shipping increased and industrialization (manufacturing and processing of steel, brick, tile, sand, gravel, petroleum, and meat) and associated urban development began what would eventually become major modification of the area habitat. Wetlands were filled and replaced with industrial sites, homes, and landfills. In spite of this abuse, this area contains the richest remnant natural areas in the city of Chicago, and for these areas there are dreams and plans.

Fifteen significant wetlands and natural areas are listed in "An Open Space Plan for Chicago," completed in 1997. For these sites this integrated regional plan recommends their protection and enhancement, development of a habitat management plan for each, and their promotion as an essential component of an overall economic development plan for the area. The sites are Big Marsh, Deadstick Pond, Heron Pond, Hyde Lake, Migrant Bird Trap, Turning Basin Wetland, Calumet River, William Powers Conservation Area, Eggers Woods Extension, Eggers Woods Forest Preserve, Indian Ridge Marsh, Lake Calumet, Railroad Prairie, and Van Vlissingen Prairie.

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Lake Calumet near Chicago.

At one of these sites, Indian Ridge Marsh, the city of Chicago plans to build an environmental center that houses both interpretive exhibits as well as space for outreach personnel and research scientists. Emphasis at this site would be on rehabilitation and remediation, education, and urban environmental research. Traditional and new processes for site cleanup will be tested, including phytoremediation (the process of growing plants that biologically remove or degrade contaminants from water and soil), hydrological modifications for cleaner water, plantings on industrial fill (mostly slag), and using biological control to manage invasive exotic species like purple loosestrife.

The city of Chicago has designated an industrial corridor within the Calumet region to focus on economic development and job retention. This corridor is to be a model for environmental remediation as a partnership between the business and residential communities.

In addition, a Calumet National Heritage Area has been proposed by the Calumet Ecological Park Association for an area extending from Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on the east to the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor on the west. This designation would preserve both the natural and cultural heritage in ways that meet the economic needs of the present generation while preserving the area's unique natural resources for future citizens. A feasibility study on this proposed National Heritage Area was conducted by the National Park Service and released in 1998.

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Indian Ridge Marsh.

There is enormous interest in the Calumet area and the potential it holds--if given some tender loving care rather than abuse. Involvement and support of all those with interests in the region, from industrial concerns to the local property owners, as well as recreational interests and local, state, and national governments, are critical to the eventual success of the recovery efforts. This process will not be easy because of the diverse array of interests as well as the degraded conditions of many of these remnant habitats. However, the process has begun and, with broad support, will continue to gather momentum.

One of the amazing aspects of natural systems is their resiliency; and some of the remnant habitats in the Calumet region, such as Powderhorn Lake, that have received care and attention in recent years have shown remarkable improvement. If Powderhorn Lake is an indication, there is a great deal of promise in the Calumet region, and if only some of the dreams for it come to pass, it will once again be a biologically remarkable place.

David Voegtlin, Center for Biodiversity

Charlie Warwick, editor



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