Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Friday April 6th, 2012, 11:22am

Helping Nature Reclaim Chicago's Calumet Region

Judy Lihota, president of the Calumet Ecological Park Association, has been fighting for more than a decade to preserve the natural environment in the Calumet region of Chicago on the South East Side.

In 1990, former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley wanted to bulldoze her house to build an airport. She lives in Hegewisch, the farthest south east neighborhood of the city. It’s surrounded by wet lands called the Hegewisch Marsh.

But she wouldn’t let that happen.

“The whole Hegewisch area would have been wiped out,” she said. “It was just horrendous. That’s what threw me into this.”

The proposed airport was never approved, and Lihota has since made protecting the Calumet region, which is comprised of lakes, rivers, trails, open green space and a rich industrial history, her life’s work.

And now it appears Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel are on her side—almost.

In December, the two vowed to work together to preserve the area under the Millennium Reserve Initiative in an effort to reconnect with nature, under a proposal backed by President Barack Obama.

The hope is that the Calumet area could end up getting a boost from Obama’s plan, said Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, which works to protect the area.

The Millennium Reserve is a partnership between various local environmental groups, including the Calumet Ecological Park Association and the Southeast Environmental Task Force, among others, along with the city and the state.

When completed, the Calumet region, located along the I-90 expressway and the Illinois and Indiana border, will be comprised of 140,000 acres of preserved green space, connected trail ways and a $24 million learning center, among other highlights.

Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, which is part of the initiative, said the project brings recognition to “all the human and natural wonders that are in the area, instead of trying to ignore or destroy it.”

The Millennium Reserve “shows how far we’ve come,” Darin said, adding that the Sierra Club was also opposed to Daley’s airport in the area.

“We face constant battles with environmental protection, and this really stands out as a unique, positive example,” said Darin.

Although many local environmental groups are pleased with the idea of the Millennium Reserve, some are confused why Emanuel has vowed to protect the area, yet planned to build a Chicago Police Department outdoor firing range in the area.

Plans for the firing range were recently scrapped when a Bald Eagle's nest was found in the area.

Prior to the nest discovery, Lihota warned that the firing range would be close to the Calumet River, a flyway for birds. She was concerned that the noise would have scared them away.

“That’s why the people come down here—to see the birds,” Lihota said.

Over the last century, the Calumet region was a booming center for steel mills, oil refineries and factories, but today only a few remain, and nature has begun to reclaim the area.

In 2000, the city created the Calumet Area Land Use Plan, Salazar said.

“The city realized when the industry moved out, we were left with a lot of open space,” Salazar said.

Much of the open space consisted of brownfields, which are areas containing hazardous toxins. However, many brownfields have been reclaimed by nature and cleaned up with the help of residents and environmental groups, Salazar added.

The Calumet Area Land Use Plan began the city’s conversation around protecting the area, but funding is the main reason a large preservation project hasn’t happened sooner, Lihota said.

Despite all the partners involved with the Millennium Reserve, funding is still the number one issue holding it back and therefore there’s no clear timetable for its completion, Salazar pointed out.

“It’s going to take a long time to get this work accomplished,” she said.

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