Hegewisch Marsh, oasis of nature in industrial Southeast Chicago

June 14, 2011

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(WBEZ/Michael Puente)
Volunteers plant native plants at Hegewisch Marsh last Saturday.
(WBEZ/Michael Puente)
Britt Willey holds two heavy chucks of slag found at Hegewisch Marsh.
(WBEZ/Michael Puente)
Jerry Attere holds up a native grass he'll plant at Hegewish Marsh to weed out invasive species.
(WBEZ/Michael Puente)
Conservationist Amber Bixler does some planting at Hegewisch Marsh.

Chicago’s far Southeast Side evokes images of factories, abandoned industrial sites and blight. But few realize it’s also home to the city’s largest wetland.

Hegewisch Marsh is an oasis of trees, migratory birds and trails that’s undergoing extensive restoration. Some conservationists want to introduce everyone to this unique place.

It’s hard to understand exactly why Hegewisch Marsh is still around. It’s part of the Calumet region--a string of marshes, rivers and wooded areas that stretches from South Chicago to Gary. More specifically, it’s just south of the Ford Motor Plant at Torrence Avenue and 130th Street, east of a massive landfill near the Little Calumet River.

Conservationists are amazed the 130-acre marsh survived the industrial era, but on top of that, 20 years ago the city nearly turned it into an airport. But Hegewisch Marsh did survive … and there are people who say it’s a living time capsule.

Britt Willey is one of those.

WILLEY: These are really special nature areas that you wouldn’t imagine are in the city limits. It’s within our urban confines. So, I was just talking to a few people earlier that had never been here and they were just amazed that you can just come here and feel like you’re in the Bayou or feel like you're in another country.

Willey works for WRD Environmental … a consultant to Chicago’s Department of Environment. She helps restore native plants in the marsh. In fact, she joined volunteers to do that last weekend. Willey wants to remove invasive plants as well as decades-worth of pollution and trash.

WILLEY: They’ll pull out appliances and tires and things like that. Come back a few weeks later and it’s still being dumped on.

Willey says it’s common to find big chunks of slag. They look like black rocks, but are byproducts of the area’s abandoned steel industry. She shows me two heavy chucks of slag sticking out of the muddy marsh.

WILLEY: So this is the contamination that’s dug out of the soil from the industrial deposits. I don’t exactly know the composition but I know there’s some heavy metals in there. And, it was at one point dumped into these wetland areas because there weren’t any regulations about industrial pollution, about where any of this should go. So, it was just dumped at the nearest open space.

Fellow conservationist Amber Bixler helped develop a remediation plan for Hegewisch Marsh.

BIXLER: Well, historically, the Calumet Region was one of the largest wetlands in the country and through industrialization and development of the area, it got seriously fragmented. But, as you can see, there are still a lot of remnant areas.
 
Bixler wishes more people knew about the marsh.

In her opinion, it’s worth preserving …

BIXLER: ... just to have natural areas, both for the wildlife and for the people to enjoy. You don’t even have to leave the city and you can come and see something like this. Which is great.


ATTERE: This is the representation of beautiful natural spaces within the city of Chicago.

That’s Jerry Attere. He coordinates the Calumet Initiative to restore Hegewisch Marsh. It’s a restoration project that’s supposed to be finished next year.

Attere says, after that, Chicagoans need to remember the marsh exists, otherwise it might be lost, like so many others have been in Illinois.

ATTERE: A lot of people think in terms of national parks, open spaces, you have to go to the Grand Canyon or that kind of thing, but no! You have nature in your backyard.

And Attere says if you want evidence, you can go to Chicago’s Hegewisch Marsh… and see the coyote, beaver and muskrats for yourself.