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Reconnecting People to Nature in the Calumet Region

The Calumet region, located along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, is home to some of the most majestic yet underrated natural areas in the greater Chicago region. Located in an area known for its history of heavy industry, Calumet is home to ecological treasures teeming with rich biodiversity including several forest preserve sites, Lake Calumet, and the Lake Michigan shoreline. However, many communities are unaware that opportunities for paddling, biking, and hiking are available in their own backyard.

Openlands has taken an active role in connecting communities of the Calumet Region with the beautiful woods and wetlands available for recreation. This summer, Openlands commenced its first-ever African American Heritage Water Trail Paddling and Interpretation Training internship program, which taught local youth to interpret and confidently paddle along the African American Heritage Water Trail.

The African American Heritage Water Trail was created to better connect people to the Little Calumet River and raise awareness of the significant history that the region contains. The Little Calumet River flows through several south-side Chicago neighborhoods and 180 years of African American history, including sites like Ton Farm, which served as a stop for freedom seekers navigating the Underground Railroad. After launching in 2020, the trail received substantial press attention, including a feature in the New York Times’ ’52 Places For A Changed World’ list.

According to Laura Barghusen, Openlands’ Blueways Director and one of the organizers of the internship program, the internship was born out of a need to meet the increased demand for interest from the public to get out on the water and tour the African American Heritage Water Trail. The internship was created to train local youth to interpret the trail, which has the dual benefit of employing youth in the area to learn valuable job skills while also attracting positive attention and investment to the area.

Openlands partnered with Friends of the Forest Preserves and St Sabina to add paddling and interpretation modules to a preexisting internship, which employed local youth to undertake paid restoration work at the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Beaubien Woods. Led by Laura Barghusen, Openlands’ Education and Community Outreach Coordinator Lillian Holden, and St. Sabina’s Erica Nanton, once per week youth were trained to paddle down the Little Calumet River, followed by lessons on the history of the region, environmental justice, and public speaking to master trail interpretation while assisting with paddling events.

Trail interpretation, or storytelling, is a critical part of the African American Heritage Trail experience. According to Laura, “You can have as many paddling events as you want, but if you don’t have interpretation, or people explaining what events happened along the trail and why they were significant, then you can’t convey the real significance of the region.”

According to Lillian, interns found the training in interpretation and public speaking to be highly valuable and their largest areas of growth. While many of the interns were shy towards public speaking and reserved at the beginning of the program, by the end Lillian witnessed the youth embracing risk-taking and healthy forms of anxiety through their public speaking.  

The first class of interns commenced the program on July 23rd by leading a public paddling event at the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Beaubien Woods Boat Launch. Interns used their new skillset to educate attendees by sharing the local history of the environmental justice movement and its beginnings in Altgeld Gardens through the work of Hazel Johnson, founder of People for Community Recovery, the history of the Robbins Airport, and its role in producing Tuskegee Airmen, and the Underground Railroad and how freedom seekers traveled along the Little Calumet to navigate their way to freedom in Canada.

Along with working to make the Little Calumet River a paddling destination for the public, Openlands has taken an active role in advocating to make Lake Calumet publicly accessible through the development of a new Lake Calumet and Port District Master Plan. While most of the lake has been fenced off and inaccessible for recreation for the last few decades, prior to the introduction of heavy industry on the Southeast side, Lake Calumet was once a thriving community getaway where locals would fish, hike, and hunt. The Port District took over the area in the 1960s and eventually installed razor wire-topped fencing around the entire, still substantially vacant lakeshore lands, which ended public access to the area. Currently, the Port District holds 2200 acres at Lake Calumet, with only a golf course open for the public, which is too expensive for local communities to use.

The Lake Calumet and Port District Master Plan, recently approved by the Port District Board, is the third plan since the 2001 and 2005 plans, prepared by the city of Chicago, which balanced job creation, public access, and habitat preservation and restoration. Openlands is excited to support the new Port District plan that opens recreation back up for local neighborhoods while remediating the site of dangerous industrial waste and protecting habitat for threatened and endangered bird species, which use the area as a critical migratory flyway. Birders have documented over 100 species in the Lake Calumet area, and at a time when habitat destruction is a leading cause of species endangerment worldwide, the protection of our local natural areas is more critical than ever.

Openlands has been a long-time member of the Lake Calumet Vision Committee, which was founded after the publication of the City’s 2001 Calumet Land Use Plan to advocate for the implementation of recommendations made in the plan. The 2022 Port District Master Plan finally ratifies most of the public access and habitat recommendations of the 2001/2005 plans.

The new Master Plan reflects three land uses: economic development, community access, and habitat conservation. In its formal comments on the new plan, Openlands recommended collaboration with agencies with the expertise to implement significant-scale community access and habitat conservation features, including the Chicago park district, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources; developing a strategy for comprehensively assessing the entire site for illegal dumping and toxic wastes and cleaning up or capping these deposits so that they no longer enter can enter Lake Calumet’s water habitat; and applying for Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funding. Working closely with local community and neighborhood advocacy groups and individuals over a 20-year period was the key to finally achieving a healthy future for Lake Calumet and its surrounding neighborhoods. 

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