Swamp Squad | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Miscellany

Swamp Squad

The Sierra Club's wetland watchers represent an important new trend in environmental protection: When laws are in place but enforcement is lax, call in the citizen volunteers.

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

comment

It was on August 16--the Wednesday morning after the family got home from vacation--that Karen Pritchard first heard the sound of trouble: "I got up in the morning, and I heard noises that sounded like the garbage pickup. But then I realized it wasn't Thursday."

The Pritchards and their two teenage sons have lived in the same house in west-suburban North Aurora for the past 20 years. The subdivision of modest, neatly kept homes is old enough that the trees have been taller than the houses for some time now. Their yard is not exceptionally large by suburban standards, but it appears enormous: out back it merges into the right-of-way underneath two big Commonwealth Edison power lines--a wide green space stretching east and west far beyond the limits of their block. "All the neighbors up and down the block mow it," says Karen's husband, Tod, "to keep it looking nice and to keep the mosquitoes down."

South of the power-line right-of-way is the Valley Green Golf Course ("the kids used to collect balls hit out and sell them back to the golfers"). West of the golf course is the North Aurora water tower, a landmark easily visible from the East-West Tollway (Interstate 88). And just west of the water tower a weedy, marshy place known simply as "the swamp" stretches about a mile west, to and beyond Randall Road, a major north-south thoroughfare between Aurora and Algonquin.

"I know it's not a swamp," says Karen. "A swamp has trees in it. It's a palustrine marsh--seasonally flooded and partially ditched. But we've always called it a swamp." For at least a generation, under whatever name, the swamp has been the neighborhood "kid zone." "There's all kinds of wildlife there," says Karen. "The kids have fished and camped and played there for years. They've seen a green heron, egrets, wood ducks, pintails, mallards, and Canada geese." The Pritchards' oldest, now 17, got a good scare years ago when he thought he saw a bobcat.

"The kids know the paths, how to walk through it," says Karen. "The adults don't. There's an island out there where they go camping." At the end near the golf course is a pond with some open water, and Karen has occasionally seen a rowboat out on it.

Who owns it? Says Tod, "Nobody ever thought about that."

Until that Wednesday, that is. Gradually Karen realized that the noise was coming from behind their house rather than from the street. It wasn't a garbage truck, and it wasn't going away. With her 13-year-old as a guide, she made her way through the wetland and clambered over a freshly piled ridge of black topsoil.

Where the pond had been, she says, "There was a bulldozer with two men in the cab, and one of those doublesized dump trucks." They had scraped some topsoil to one side and were bringing in clay-and-gravel fill to raise the ground level of perhaps an acre of the swamp.

"I thought I'd walk up to the bulldozer, and it kept coming at me," says Karen. "I got a little anxious, but I thought, they're not going to kill me, right?"

When she's not walking in front of bulldozers, Karen Pritchard teaches remedial reading to first- through fifth-graders at Aurora's inner-city Hill School. She has just finished taking graduate courses for a master's equivalency at Northern Illinois University and the National College of Education. She speaks in a precise, self-assured way, and although she's not physically very imposing, some of that teacherly definiteness must have come across to the men in the bulldozer.

"They came pretty close before they stopped," she says, "but I didn't feel they were trying to run me over. I asked if they knew they had to have a permit to fill in a wetland, and the guy driving the bulldozer answered me in filthy language. I'd really rather not tell you what he said. I yelled up to them that it was illegal to be doing this without a permit, and I would call the police."

Chances are Pritchard would have checked out the strange noise in any case. But if she hadn't just joined the Illinois Sierra Club's swamp squad in May, she wouldn't have known what to do next. (Other than call the local police, which proved useless anyway: they told her that they had never heard of such a law and could do nothing.) As it was, on the following Friday she went down to the Loop and reported a possible violation of section 404 of the Clean Water Act to the Chicago district office of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Section 404 says that you can't fill in a wetland unless the Corps gives you a permit. Congress passed the act in 1972, based on the facts--long known to biologists if not the general public--that swamps, marshes, bogs, fens, and other wetlands hold back floodwaters, filter out water pollutants, and harbor unique plants and animals. Unrestrained by the permit process, developers tend to fill everything in sight in a self-defeating rush to profit--speeding runoff, raising flood heights, worsening pollution, and obliterating the greenery that made the area worth developing in the first place. Those old-time environmentalists who remember the Corps of Engineers only as a gang of demented dam builders have to get used to its being the. first line of defense for natural wetlands. Says swamp-squad coordinator Ken Stoffel, "When you walk in the Corps' office, they have as many nature posters as the Sierra Club has, if not more."

But the Corps--even before the crass indifference of the Reagan era--has never had the money or the staff to enforce section 404 very well. About half the permits submitted are approved without significant changes; fewer than 5 percent are denied. And in those cases where a cagey developer figures it might be easier to obtain forgiveness than a permit--and when the development has gone so far as to be irrevocable--the Corps can issue after-the-fact permits. Sometimes these require "mitigation" for the wetland destroyed, but that mitigation often takes the form of a sterile, steep-sided retention pond, which holds floodwaters but does little for pollution control or wildlife. A retention pond doesn't strike Karen Pritchard as a good deal: "I feel everybody's going retention-pond crazy. . . . If we're not careful, we're going to end up years from now with a world quite different from this one--we'll have to go to zoos to see any wildlife."

If the Corps has had too few people with too much to do, the environmental movement generally has had the opposite problem: too many people with not enough to do. Not everyone can go to Springfield or Washington to demonstrate or lobby, especially as the arguments become increasingly technical. Ken Stoffel was introduced to the movement through the National Wildlife Federation: "But they didn't have anything local that I could get involved in."

Not enough people in one camp, too many in the other--these two puzzle pieces came together in the mind of Albert Ettinger, a Chicago antitrust attorney who is also the Illinois Sierra Club's conservation coordinator. "I was sitting at my desk during the height of the flooding year before last, and I got a public notice in the mail [from the Corps] for an after-the-fact permit for a subdivision in the Salt Creek floodplain. This was at a time when everyone out west was pumping Salt Creek floodwater out of their basements! And I thought, we should start catching these guys."

And so the swamp squad was born--so far, the only organization of its kind focusing on 404 permits in the country. Members watch wetlands in their own areas: when a developer fills a wetland without a permit, they report it; when a developer applies for a permit, they may comment on the application. "No law is worth anything unless you have an active citizenry behind it," reflects Ettinger. "We could agitate all we want, but we aren' t going to get 2,000 Corps cops to run around and check everything." That's just as well, Ettinger thinks: "Government is a wonderful thing, but it's limited, and it should be. Besides I'm very interested in hands-on ecology: the hero might not be the person who flies to Washington, D.C., but the one who recycles diapers carefully, saves the swamp in their backyard, and doesn't drive to Granny's when they can take the train instead."

Ettinger borrowed the swamp-squad concept from the Illinois Nature Conservancy's volunteer-stewardship network: individuals--"stewards"--volunteer to watch over and work on particular stretches of preserved or restored prairies. Says Ettinger, "This is both harder--there are a lot more wetlands--and easier, since all we're trying to do is stop destruction." (There is some personnel overlap, too--Stoffel is not only coordinator of the swamp squad but costeward at the Forest Preserve's Cap Sauers Holdings, Cook County's largest roadless area.)

The Corps gets plenty of calls from curious or outraged citizens already. Biologist John Rogner of the Chicago district's Regulatory Functions Branch estimates that they received 250 calls about wetlands in the first eight months of 1989. An organized swamp squad might add to that total. But Ettinger acknowledges that part of its intent is to bluff developers: "The number in our squad is not that critical, if we can heighten the general awareness." Or as Ken Stoffel puts it, "We want developers to think they're being watched."

The first person Karen Pritchard called that Wednesday was Stoffel. He told her that no permit had been applied for in the case of her neighborhood swamp.

Stoffel, a dentist in his 20s who practices in Cicero and lives in southwest-suburban Palos Park, has coordinated the swamp squad since its beginning eight months ago. His equipment is a telephone and several cardboard boxes that serve as files. Would-be stewards call Stoffel (863-6363), and he sends them a 48-page booklet, a map, and a letter.

The booklet, Wetlands and Water Quality: A Citizen's Handbook on How to Review and Comment on Section 404 Permits, was written by Gerald Paulson and published in 1985 by the Lake Michigan Federation. It explains both the ecological values of wetlands and the federal procedures involved in protecting them.

The map is a "quad"--a U.S. Geological Survey map of a 48-square-mile quadrangle, with wetlands highlighted and classified using a complicated letter code. The Pritchards' quad contains well over 100 wetlands--more than they have tried to count, much less visit.

The letter, from Stoffel, briefly outlines the swamp-squad program and asks the new volunteer to give him a call. "I talk for five or ten minutes to each one," he says, "explaining that we're not enforcers but monitors. I tell them to concentrate on the larger wetlands, unless there's something else unusual involved, like a high-quality prairie remnant. I say, 'You're a Sierra Club member [most are], you probably don't like the Army Corps of Engineers--but at least around Chicago, they're more open to what the community wants."

When a developer applies for a permit, the Corps sends out a public notice and "the public" has 30 days in which to comment. Although anyone who asks can be placed on the Corps mailing list to get notices of permits applied for and granted, Stoffel has for the time being had them routed to himself to pass along to squad members. So when a volunteer sees suspicious bulldozing, Stoffel is the first person he or she calls, to see if there is a permit. The routine, however, is for Stoffel to send notice of an application to the appropriate squad member, "so that they can go check on it and see if the plan looks good."

There is no formal training and no particular surveillance requirements for swamp-squad members. Stoffel checks out wetlands near his home when he runs and bicycles; Pritchard has kept an eye on a few wetlands on her commute to grad school this summer. "You can learn as much as you want," says Stoffel, "or just go out and look at birds."

The swamp squad is not intended to deluge the Corps with phone calls, and they haven't--the only other big violation they have found is in Romeoville, where a developer filled an area that was to be acquired by the Will County Forest Preserve District. The squad is not intended to fill the Sierra Club's traditional role as lobbyist--the role of nag. The squad is supposed to act as the Corps' "eyes in the field where they can't get to," says Stoffel. "I don't want to be a pest to them."

To date pestiness has not been a problem. There are only about 40 swamp-squad volunteers scattered around the metropolitan area. (Most of the city of Chicago is crossed off Stoffel's master map, because--with the conspicuous exception of the Lake Calumet area--there aren't any wetlands left here.) Many quads, like the Pritchards', have only one watcher in them. When a second volunteer turns up, Stoffel sends that person a map, too, and lets the two people get together and divide up their turf.

For now, the swamp squad is strictly a shoestring operation. Stoffel figures that the Sierra Club has spent about $680 on it during its first six months. And it has so far pleased the Corps. "For years we've had people call us about possibly prohibited activities in wetlands," says John Rogner. "This is more organized. We're delighted to have these extra eyes and ears."

But will the swamp squad be equally delighted with the Corps? When someone complains about illegal filling of a wetland, it can take four weeks or more for a Corps investigator to check it out. Says Rogner, without apparent intent to commit a pun, "We're pretty much swamped." In the North Aurora case, Rogner showed up just four days after Pritchard's report, on Tuesday, August 22. But that he confesses, "had a lot to do with the fact that the site is right on my way home."

In the meantime, Pritchard had not been sitting around listening to the bulldozer growl. After going to see the Corps, she went back to the site to take pictures and list vehicle license numbers. She also got an up-close-and-personal view of small-town politics. (North Aurora's population is a little over 6,000.) One village trustee--she prefers not to name him--called up and harangued her for 45 minutes: "He kept giving me veiled threats about going onto that land, because it was private property.

"He said, 'You know who owns it, don't you? One of the very rich and powerful people in North Aurora! I said, well, I figured it was somebody rich if they could afford land that close to the toll road. And he said, 'How would you like to spend $50,000 for a parcel of land and then not be able to develop it? A man should be able to do whatever he wants with his own property.' But you know, I thought afterwards, really you can't. If I wanted to dig up my front and back yards for a marsh, the village wouldn't let me."

She talked to another, more conciliatory trustee as well. He even called her back Friday night with various placatory comments. "He was saying that the runoff would be controlled, and other things like that. The last question he asked was, 'Have you called the Corps of Engineers?' I said no, I didn't--I went in there in person. And he just said 'Oh' and hung up."

That was Friday night, after a quiet day on the site. Pritchard woke up Saturday morning at 5 AM and heard machinery running. "The activity here you would not believe," she says. "They had two bulldozers and the trucks were coming in relays." The work went on until 11 PM, and again on Sunday until at least 9:30 PM.

"I do feel sorry for the guy who owns it," says Pritchard. But, she says, "he has totally defied" the permit process. She has had mixed feelings, wondering (until Rogner's visit) whether the Corps would agree that the wetland was important and what the trustee's phone call meant: "You know, you're not used to being harassed. . . . I'm very glad I have Ken to call. He's been very accessible and his wife has been very gracious. I could always call him up and he would tell me not to worry, it would be OK. In the last two weeks I've felt almost all the officials in the town are against me and mad at me.

"I get the feeling from the two trustees that they wouldn't mind if the whole town was paved with asphalt as long as it made money."

Village president Al Imgrund has been less dismissive of Pritchard's concerns. (He was on vacation when Pritchard blew the whistle.) "I personally am generally sympathetic to environmental issues," he says, "and I believe that complying with the regulations doesn't necessarily lower commercial values." He says that the village will consider adopting its own wetlands ordinance, something Pritchard would like to see. "We will definitely be more careful in the future," Imgrund says.

Pritchard's tale made the front page of the Aurora Beacon-News, the area daily, on August 25. She says that the response--aside from that of most elected officials--has been entirely favorable. "Both people here and in Aurora, where I work, said, 'Good for you. I'm glad you're doing this. It needs to be done.' We haven't had any negative feedback at all."

Neither Pritchard nor Stoffel minds that they're doing a job that, at least theoretically, they're paying taxes to have done for them. "It doesn't bother me at all," says Pritchard. "In fact, I feel kind of privileged to be able to help." She and her husband have definite ideas about the appropriate penalty, too: "I'd like to see them have to dig it all out, so that it can function as a pond again."

This is a more drastic sentence than the Corps usually imposes on wetland violators. "It does happen occasionally," says Rogner. "It depends in part on how far along they are in the work." For obvious reasons, the agency is unlikely to require that an entire subdivision be demolished because it was built on illegal fill--the after-the-fact permit is often handed out in such cases. (Ettinger describes this as getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar and then asking for a cookie.) Obviously the Pritchards would not think much of a retention pond as mitigation for the damage done. And Stoffel says flatly, "If these cases don't get enforcement, our program will be kind of useless." It may take some time to tell, however. Stoffel points to a recent Sun-Times report that a builder was fined $50,000 (plus restoration and mitigation costs) for an illegal 1985 fill near Hoffman Estates.

And perhaps this is all much ado about very little. In the normal course of events, few people outside the Pritchards' immediate neighborhood would even know that there had been a pond there. The floods that sometimes fill the Com Ed right-of-way and their neighbors' basements may be a little bit higher with the pond gone, but not much. The birds and the kids may have to find someplace else, but they're resourceful. This is just one acre out of a good-sized wetland, in a quad with more than 100 wetlands, in a metropolitan area with about 78 quads. Why make it such a test case?

Partly it's a matter of legal principle--you don't want to condone a purse snatching just because the purse was beat-up and had only 50 cents in it. But there's an environmental principle involved, too. Illinois now has less than 10 percent of the natural wetlands it once had. So each one that is left is more valuable for flood protection and wildlife than it used to be. Exactly how valuable? Who knows? But an airplane wing doesn't need every one of its rivets to hold together, either. How comfortable would you be flying if the ground crew went around popping two or three rivets out of each wing just before takeoff?

Karen and Tod Pritchard have been Sierra Club members for only a little more than a year. "Before, we belonged to the National Wildlife Federation for years and to Audubon--we still do. But I don't think they are as active in local issues. I always felt with both that I was sending my money in to support the good things they do--but nothing ever came to us about getting really active. I know the Nature Conservancy is active around here. We also belong to Citizens for a Better Environment, but they're more political. I'd say of those four, the Sierra Club is a lot different: right away you can be as involved as you want to be.

"I hope to have time to monitor more areas and recruit more people, now that I've finished my degree and the kids don't need a lot of supervision. In fact, they can get involved with it. We've done this together. You can do some good deeds with your kids, and that's what you want them to remember."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

Add a comment