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Field & Street



My first visit to the Calumet marshes was in the summer of 1982. My guide for the trip was Larry Balch, an expert birder who is now the immediate past president of the American Birding Association.

I had known about the marshes for some time before that first visit, but I didn't know exactly where they were or how to get at them until Larry led me in. What I saw that summer day was absolutely stunning. There in the Tenth Ward, in the middle of a nightmarish landscape of steel mills, landfills, and sludge-drying operations, were these glorious islands of life. Black terns and tree swallows hawked for insects above the muskrat houses. Black-crowned night herons passed overhead with slow, stately wing beats. Gaudy yellow-headed blackbirds, the first I had ever seen, danced over the reeds singing a song that sounded like the noise a bucket of nuts and bolts would make if you dumped it from a second-story window onto the sidewalk.

I was amazed at the existence of these refuges, but the more I saw of them and the more I thought about them, the more I realized that this landscape was a perfect metaphor for the state of our planet in the waning years of the 20th century. Here was nature hanging on in shrinking islands while industrial disease closed in from all sides.

Shortly after that first visit, I heard that Waste Management, Inc., had purchased the largest of the marshes, a highly productive wetland at 116th and Torrence, from Interlake Steel to create yet another landfill. The eerily magic place I had just discovered was about to be buried in garbage. Saving it seemed like a worthwhile cause.

I volunteered myself as a delegate for the Chicago Audubon Society to the Lake Calumet Study Committee, a coalition of conservation organizations that had been put together by Dr. James Landing, a geography professor at Circle. Jim had started the committee even before Waste Management bought the big marsh, and he has tenaciously stayed with this issue ever since.

It seemed unlikely to me that our environmental groups could muster the muscle needed to derail Waste Management's plan. Jane Byrne was mayor then. Eddie Vrdolyak, alderman of the Tenth Ward, was her right-hand man, and people in the community were telling us that Eddie's precinct captains were circulating through the neighborhoods telling everyone that the new landfill would be a wonderful addition to the ward. The city's Zoning Board of Appeals quickly granted a variance to Waste Management that would allow the construction of the landfill.

But then community opposition began to develop. In the neighborhood of South Deering--also known as Irondale--the people who would be closest to the new landfill began to organize against it. A group called IACT, Irondalers Against the Chemical Threat, an offshoot of the United Neighborhood Organization, began a noisy campaign of rallies and demonstrations.

I went along on some of these, including a demonstration at Waste Management's annual stockholders meeting in Oak Brook, because it seemed a good idea to hook up with the community and to call attention to the marshes. Most of the community people had little concern for them. They wanted no part of a landfill, but they might well go for filling the wetlands to provide a home for some nice, clean light-industrial operation.

IACT's campaign culminated in August '83 when the newly elected mayor, Harold Washington, came into the Tenth Ward to tell an overflow crowd gathered in the basement of Saint Kevin's Catholic Church on Torrence Avenue that he would not allow Waste Management to put a landfill in the big marsh. The next day, he introduced an ordinance in the City Council that created a moratorium on new landfills that has been continued to the present.

Meanwhile, Waste Management had applied to the Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to convert the big marsh into a landfill. I couldn't get Chicago Audubon members out to demonstrations, but writing letters is traditionally something that middle-class environmentalists are good at, so we got a large number of comments submitted to the Corps.

And the Corps' people were discovering on their own the secret that local birders already knew: the Calumet marshes are unique. Three species of birds on the endangered list in Illinois and one on the threatened list nest there regularly in some numbers. In several recent years, tricolored herons have spent the summer there, although nesting has not been documented. This species is not on any Illinois rarities lists because it is not known to occur regularly in any other place in the state.

As evidence of the biological value of the marshes piled up, Waste Management, faced with what looked like certain rejection from the Corps, withdrew its permit application.

This was a clear victory for our side, but as usual in environmental battles, one victory does not end the war. All sorts of questions remained. The city was running out of landfill space; would it eventually decide that public necessity required a new dump? The land around Lake Calumet is the only substantial piece of open space left in the city, so what better place could there be for the new facility? Waste Management also owns a marsh at 134th and Torrence and a high-quality prairie and savanna remnant a little farther south in Burnham. If they can't put dumps on these parcels, what will they do with them? And of course the marshes remained absolutely without any formal protection.

The search for answers to these problems has occupied all sorts of people for the past six years. Marian Byrnes, who lives in the Tenth Ward neighborhood of Jeffery Manor, hooked up her community group with antidump forces in Hegewisch, Altgeld Gardens, Pullman, Burnham, and Calumet City to fight any plan to locate more dumps on the southeast side. Jim Landing and I have been working with this coalition in an alliance based on the willingness of the environmental groups to support a no-dumps position and the willingness of the community groups to support the preservation of the remaining marshes.

And after all these years and all our battles, things did seem to be looking better. Clem Balanoff, who made the state of the local environment a major focus of his campaign, beat out the forces of Vrdolyak for state representative from Calumet, and even Vrdolyak's people saw the light and came out against more dumps. Last year, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District agreed to provide at least temporary protection for marshlands it owns east of Lake Calumet. Waste Management even offered to preserve its land at the big marsh at 116th and Torrence. The city made a rather tentative move in the direction of recycling, and a new ordinance may push it further in that direction and thus reduce the need for new landfill space. Cleanup operations began at the Paxton Lagoons, the most horribly polluted of the old dumps. As I say, things were looking up.

And then Richie dropped the bomb. There had been a previous proposal to build a cargo-only airport right over the marshes, but it never got very far because there wasn't really enough open land to contain it. Daley got around that problem by proposing to obliterate the neighborhoods of Hegewisch and South Deering and thus create lots of new open land. Of course this would be a great economic boon to the area, a comprehensive and permanent solution to the problem of unemployment--at least in Hegewisch and South Deering.

The airport plan raises all sorts of questions. To start with, what are we going to do with all that garbage? The airport site is dotted with huge landfills, including the old city dump at 103rd and Stony Island, the Paxton landfill on 122nd Street, and Waste Management's huge C.I.D. landfill and hazardous-waste site south of 130th Street. Large hills are not desirable in airports, so will we truck all that stuff out? Can those fills be opened safely? And where--in a state already desperately short of landfill space--will we rebury it?

And then there are the marshes. Daley's people are supposed to unveil their wetlands mitigation plans soon. These days, the Army Corps of Engineers is requiring the creation of new wetlands to replace natural wetlands destroyed by new construction. Thus far, our experience with these artificial swamps and marshes is not very good. Often they do not support the numbers or the diversity of plants and animals found in natural settings.

I know from what I have seen of prairie restoration that it is possible to create something very much like a natural community. But I also know it takes decades. You can't just dig a hole, fill it with water, throw in a few cattail seeds, and declare the result a marsh. If Daley goes ahead with his proposal, he is not going to wait decades for the black-crowned night herons, or the endangered great egrets that moved into the Calumet marshes just last year, to colonize our new-made wetlands. We can expect these birds to vanish with the marshes that sustained them.

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