What is and what could be
By Cameron Davis
The lakefront, that narrow ribbon
where water meets land along the northeastern boundary
of Chicago Wilderness, is that rare place you can go to
escape the city without leaving the city limits.
The Chicago lakefront alone gets sixty
million visits every year. With that popularity, however,
come ongoing proposals for parking lots, breakwaters,
and buildings with shoreline views.
Because everyone and everything loves
the lakefront, biodiversity health there is on the edge,
literally and figuratively. According to The Nature Conservancy,
nearly 30 percent of the globally significant species
and communities within the Great Lakes basin are associated
The lake's aquatic diversity has been
especially hard hit by a combination of overharvesting,
competition by invasive species, pollution, and habitat
loss. Some of the lake's native fish, such as the native
blackfin and shortnose cisco, are now extinct. Lake trout,
which in Lake Michigan used to have the largest self-reproducing
population in the world, are being stocked for survival
and sport fishing. Yellow perch, long a staple of Wisconsin's
Friday night fish fry, are now under severe fishing restrictions.
Ancient sturgeon were once so plentiful they were used
for ship fuel. Because they were harvested well before
they were ready to reproduce, populations plummeted almost
to the point of no return.
Habitat loss due to shoreline degradation
affects countless other species and is inspiring a new
brand of activisim to find ways the lakefront can provide
for people and nature at the same time.
In the spirit of Chicago's famed architectural
foot tours, let's head out for a glimpse of biodiversity
on the edge.
Chiwaukee Prairie and Illinois Beach
Prairie, named for its location midway between Chicago
and Milwaukee, has more than five hundred acres of protected
dune ridges, meadows, and other rare landforms. Its four
hundred-plus plant species, some with seductive names
like fringed gentian and wild lupine, and some not-so-seductive,
such as hairy vetch and hoary pucoon, represent plant
diversity unequalled in Wisconsin.
A dune ridge at Illinois Beach. Photo
by W. Anderson, Visual Echoes, Root Resources.
At the southern
end of the prairie is Spring Bluff Forest Preserve, which
then adjoins Illinois Beach
State Park more than seven miles of protected
As the eleventh most visited public
park in the country, it's a wonder more residents of the
Chicago Wilderness region don't know about Illinois Beach.
With more than four thousand acres of marshes, woods,
and meadows, it hosts well over 650 plant species. Some
of its sandy beaches are habitat for the piping plover,
a shorebird so rare than only eleven nesting pairs were
spotted on the entire lake in 1999.
According to the Illinois State Geological
Survey's Michael Chrzastowski, the park's "low-lying
dunes, freshwater wetlands, broad sandy beach, and Dead
River mimic what existed in Chicago," giving people
the best snapshot of what the city's lakefront looked
like before settlement.
In the late 1800s, University of Chicago professor Henry
Chandler Cowles used the Indiana dunes as a living laboratory
to help launch the science of ecology.
Today, the Indiana Dunes National
Lakeshore and Indiana
Dunes State Park protect some fifteen thousand acres
along Lake Michigan's southern shore. The Lakeshore ranks
seventh among national parks in plant diversity, with
ninety of its species on the state's endangered and threatened
Sundrops bloom in wet prairies in midsummer.
Photo by Joe Nowak.
Lakefront habitat restoration is the
practice of "connecting the dots" between the
"bookends" of Chiwaukee Prairie and Indiana
Dunes, creating a corridor from which native species can
expand and flourish. Let's move from north to south, starting
at Waukegan Harbor, just south of Illinois Beach State
Once referred to by a newspaper as "the worst PCB
mess in the world," Waukegan Harbor could be the
country's best chance to execute the Doctrine of Hazmat
to Habitat. With contaminated sediment cleanup due for
completion soon, officials may be tempted to declare victory
and go home.
What could distinguish Waukegan from
being just another former toxic hotspot is the vision
of local officials that economic revitalization need not
mean rushing to build the usual harbor-front condominiums.
According to Susie Schreiber of the Waukegan Citizens'
Advisory Group, redevelopment could instead take place
on Waukegan's bluff overlooking the harbor, allowing a
win-win scenario with spectacular residential views and
a re-naturalized lakefront.
Efforts to restore the nearby Waukegan
River offer a precedent for restoration. "There's
tremendous potential for returning the river to pre-settlement
conditions," says Schreiber. "We've researched
maps from the 1850s. We're looking at restoring springs
and removing dams. The public-private restoration partnership
is even being watched by citizens in Russia."
To the south, Northwestern University's Evanston campus
has eighty-four lakefront acres open to the public. Spring
and fall brings two rituals every year: occasional salmon
can be seen trying to breach the dam that impounds the
site's lagoon, and birders migrate to the site because
of its significance as a bird stopover point.
Still, the spot has the potential
for much more. Northwestern could follow the examples
set by Hyde Park's Wooded Island, Lincoln
Park's Bird Sanctuary, or Montrose Point's Magic
Hedge, which attract birders from around the world
when millions of birds fly through the lakefront from
as far away as South America and the Arctic.
One Northwestern birding enthusiast,
Donald Dann, has seen rarities like the American avocet,
red-throated loon, surf scoter, and others. "Since
the prevailing winds are westerly and most birds don't
like flying over water, green places like the campus and
the calm waters of its lagoon are attractive resting and
Northwestern built the site in the
1960s on public lakebottom with sand from an Indiana dune
and this year announced its intent to fill part of the
lagoon for a parking lot and buildings. State and federal
agencies claimed jurisdiction in March to review the proposal.
Still further south, Northerly Island at Museum
Campus offers another chance to bring history back to
the present. Under a new O'Hare Airport expansion agreement,
the island's airstrip, Meigs Field, could close as early
as 2006. With the city's recent adoption of the Chicago
Wilderness Biodiversity Recovery Plan, Migratory Bird
Treaty, and Native Lakefront Vegetation Protocol, the
stage may be set to turn the site into a haven for wildlife.
Without nearby residential pressures
for more orthodox recreational uses, the city can offer
birding, snorkeling, kayaking, and other water-based activities
that are increasing in popularity. Moreover, with virtually
all of Cook County's coastal wetlands wiped out and many
native fish in decline, Denise Marx, co-chair of the Lake
Michigan Federation's volunteer Lakefront Task Force,
asserts that "no other space in a Lake Michigan city
provides such an ideal setting to bring back lakefront
Nearly two miles east of the Museum of Science and Industry
in about thirty feet of water lies a newly built reef
of large granite boulders. Though out of the public's
everyday sight, the reef is the subject of a scientific
The Illinois Department of Natural
Resources championed the construction of the artificial
reef in November 1999, arguing that it would improve sport
fishing opportunities, mostly for smallmouth bass. The
year before last, the small native fighter drew eighty
thousand spectators to the BASS Masters Classic in Chicago,
the largest professional fishing event in the country.
The jury's still out on whether the
reef in a part of the lake where no natural reef
now exists will attract more pest species than
indigenous ones. Initial observations indicate that while
natives like yellow perch and rock bass are coming to
the structure, nuisance species such as rusty crayfish
and round gobies are colonizing it too.
The effort to restore Lake Michigan health will be won
gradually, in places like those mentioned here and in
others, like Chicago's Morgan Shoal outcroppings, USX
South Works site, the North Shore's famous ravines, and
In these communities and others along
the shoreline, citizens are getting their feet wet healing
this fragile band of land and water. Together, they are
bringing the lakefront back from the edge.