From Wasteland to Wildlife Habitat

May 24, 2021
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Standing at the Indian Ridge Marsh, in every direction you look there is either a railroad, garbage dump, oil refinery, chemical refinery, steel mill, bustling factory, or abandoned factory. The 154-acre wildlife habitat is located in the Calumet Industrial Corridor, about a mile and a half shy of the Indiana border. It is a splash of green in a sea of concrete, where the hum of eighteen-wheelers is second to the chirping of native birds. The contrasts between natural beauty and bustling industry reflect the area’s potential for restoration, amid its history of environmental neglect.

I photographed the marsh over the course of four seasons, where I explored how one of the most environmentally impacted sites in the country is being renewed through ecological means.

Before its designation to become a wildlife habitat, Indian Marsh Ridge was the de facto dumping ground for industrial waste and slag, which is the stony waste matter that is separated during the metal refining process. Often, slag from steel contains toxic heavy metals such as lead, manganese, cyanide, and arsenic—all of which have been found at Indian Ridge Marsh.

Pollution spills over beyond the marsh, as the surrounding area has a complex history of environmental racism. The predominantly Black and Latino communities on the Southeast side see some of the worst pollution in the state. Soil contamination is just the beginning, as the environmental burdens in the Southeast side communities include higher flood riskworse air qualityhigher heat vulnerability, and overall higher cumulative environmental impacts. Steps to reduce these burdens are necessary in the movement toward environmental equity, and wetlands can help.

In 2010, the Illinois EPA classified the Lake Calumet Cluster as a Superfund site. (The Superfund classification is applied to polluted locations in the United States that require a long-term response to clean up hazardous contaminants.) As a result, Indian Ridge Marsh and its bordering sites were put on a remediation project plan. The land was deemed so toxic that some parts were capped with ten feet of soil. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers removed nearly 480 tons of garbage from the site in a project between 2011 and 2014, a project that cost roughly $6.7 million.

The Chicago Park District began reestablishment of the wetland in 2017. In collaboration with the city, a number of Chicago-based conservation organizations, including Audubon Great Lakes, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, and Friends of the Forest Preserves, put forward resources to maintain and improve the marsh. They hoped to transform Indian Ridge Marsh into a native oasis for wetland-dependent species, and there have been some promising results, including the growth of sensitive plants like Pale Indian Plantain.

The marsh is now home to a wide diversity of birds and wildlife. The rehabilitation approach taken by the coalition of conservation organizations has pushed boundaries on how to rehabilitate wetland habitats, as they are experimenting with what species will take in the heavily disturbed soil.

In the already flood-prone Calumet region, a marsh habitat pays in spades by absorbing rainwater and mitigating the spread of contaminants into people’s homes and water systems. Incorporating feedback from people in the region is part of this approach. A community cork board shares volunteer work days and events, tapping the community for their input on the greening marsh.

Vegetation that is unbothered by the pollution at Indian Ridge Marsh thrives with plenty of sunlight and water in the summer.

It seems almost implausible that anything could grow at the nexus of Chicago industry. Still, the ongoing restoration efforts at Indian Ridge Marsh have the potential to set an example for regenerative urban conservation. As cities across the Rust Belt wrestle with their industrial scars, the marsh is living proof that the environmental injustices of the past do not have to persist.

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