Natural Spaces and National Recognition for Chicago’s Calumet Region

Natural Spaces and National Recognition for Chicago’s Calumet Region

Two new developments are shaking up the Calumet region on Chicago’s south side. And unlike 2002, when the proposed construction of an impractical new marina on Lake Calumet was front and center, the latest proposals are ones that the community is enjoying supporting.

Perhaps most welcome, the Illinois International Port District has announced that the western shore of Lake Calumet will be opened to the public for the first time in years. This arrives in direct response to community pressure from residents and organizations, including the Lake Michigan Federation. Local resource users have long emphasized the value of the lake’s unique aquatic habitat and opportunity for natural solitude in the midst of a highly industrialized area. Opening the site to the public would preserve the site as a natural area and provide an opportunity for passive recreation.

A substantial contingency to the District’s plan however, is that the port would like to see the site managed by a different entity. The port has wisely conceded that they are not equipped to effectively manage a public space for natural habitat restoration. Community organizations presented several land management agencies as options to the District, and the Cook County Forest Preserve District (CCFPD) took a bold step in spring 2003 when it proposed acquisition of the land for management as a natural area. It remains to be seen if the cash-strapped CCFPD can take on this additional responsibility, but there is strong pressure on this agency to increase its level of service within the city of Chicago.

In a related development, there is legislation pending in Congress that would expand an existing National Heritage Corridor to include the Lake Calumet watershed all the way to Lake Michigan. The Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor was founded in 1984 to celebrate the first link between Lake Michigan and the Illinois River. This connection is what allowed the city of Chicago to become a boomtown prior to the Great Chicago Fire. The 97-mile canal, long unused, was outdone by the construction of the somewhat notorious Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which drains wastewater from Chicago and is threatening to bring Asian carp to the Great Lakes.

This historic linkage provided a logical base for community organizations to build interest in the aquatic resources of the region, and the sites linked by the canal eventually became the first National Heritage Corridor. The program, administered under the auspices of the National Park Service but allowing a good deal of local control, is designed to celebrate the natural, economic, and cultural history of the canal. Funds made available through the program have allowed local communities to provide nature centers, trail access, and assist in habitat preservation activities at sites along the canal.

The original incarnation of the National Heritage Corridor did not include the sections of the Chicago and Calumet Rivers that allowed access to Lake Michigan. Several groups on the south side of Chicago are rallying around the inclusion of the Calumet region in the corridor program through the above-mentioned legislation. To support efforts to expand the corridor, the Southeast Environmental Task Force worked with the Federation in formulating its open space vision for the northern portion of the Calumet River, just south of a former U.S. Steel property on Lake Michigan.The visuals created are being used throughout the community to advocate for expansion of aquatic-based recreation opportunities along the river, with fishing reefs and soft shorelines as the prime methods identified to get local residents more involved with conservation.



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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.