Photo at right by Richard Jacobs, Root Resources




Summer 2002

Nature Along the Lakefront
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 with coastlines.

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
Chiwaukee 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 nature.

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.

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
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 lists.


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 Park.

Waukegan Harbor
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."

Northwestern University
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 feeding areas."

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.

Northerly Island
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 habitat."

The Artificial Reef
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 debate.

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.

Turning the Tide
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 Wilmette Harbor.

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.