A living laboratory along the shores of Lake Michigan

Published July 17, 2014
Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at a press conference at the Corps' Northerly Island Ecosystem Restoration Project site, Chicago, June 17, 2014. At right, Gina McCarthy, Environmental Protection Agency administrator; Jo-Ellen Darcy, Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works); Michael Kelly, Chicago Park District superintendent. (U.S. Army Photo by Sarah Gross/Released)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at a press conference at the Corps' Northerly Island Ecosystem Restoration Project site, Chicago, June 17, 2014. At right, Gina McCarthy, Environmental Protection Agency administrator; Jo-Ellen Darcy, Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works); Michael Kelly, Chicago Park District superintendent. (U.S. Army Photo by Sarah Gross/Released)

Nature, set in motion.

That’s how Frank Veraldi, a Corps Chicago District ecosystem planner, describes Chicago’s Northerly Island – the unique, manmade metropolitan peninsula.

The Chicago Park District, the Corps’s non-federal partner, developed the Northerly Island Framework Plan in 2010, which entails coastal islands in Lake Michigan; recreational park activities on the northern portion of peninsula; and restoration of the southern portion of the peninsula.  

Under the Great Lakes Fishery and Ecosystem Restoration Authority – and with the help of federal funding from the Corps and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative – the Corps leads the 40-acre habitat restoration project on land home to Chicago’s second World’s Fair, but more recently used for an airport.

“This is a premier spot,” said Gene Fleming, Corps Chicago District chief, Environmental Formulation and Analysis Section. “Where else do you get 40 acres of land in downtown Chicago to recreate six habitats? The things kids learn in school, they can apply in this outdoor laboratory.”

Northerly Island will act as a living educational spot as part of the world-renowned Museum Campus - also home to attractions like the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium.

“The close proximity to Navy Pier and other popular tourist sites will make Northerly Island a place for visitors to be able to enjoy the solitude of Lake Michigan, whether it be through walking, biking camping, or fishing.” said Kirston Buczak, Corps Chicago District project manager. “It will also provide an everlasting ecological oasis for migratory birds and for the people who love to watch them.”

Through the planting of 347 pounds of seed, 250,000 plugs, 10,300 shrubs and 431 trees, this project will create six habitat types that existed before the metropolitan area was developed: lake, dunal pond, emergent marsh, wet prairie, mesic prairie and savanna (the largest).

“All habitats will seamlessly meld into one another, ebbing and waning with Lake Michigan,” said Veraldi.

With a variety of habitat comes an abundance of wildlife. The site will be a short-term host for hundreds of species of migratory birds twice a year, along with a variety of resident birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, including the state-threatened mudpuppy.

The oak savanna and mesic prairie hillsides are a typical habitat where large female snapping turtles may dig nests and lay eggs. Small mud chimneys or prairie crayfish may be seen in the wet prairie habitat. The aromatic meadowsweet – the plant used to synthesize the first aspirin – may omit its scent on the island. Between the pond and the wet prairie is the emergent marsh, which is one of the most productive habitats in North America, and the critical crossover habitat for dragonflies, butterflies, salamanders, frogs, toads, snakes, turtles, lizards, herons, ducks, raptors, nighthawks, wrens, mice, voles, muskrat, raccoon, beaver, deer and coyotes.

“The historical timber crib that was exhumed while creating the pond will be preserved to pay homage to architect Daniel Burnham’s extraordinary vision and bravado,” said Veraldi. ”The bald cypress crib will be covered with sand and planted with native grasses and flowers to keep the wonting gulls from making Burnham’s garden an avian lavatory.”

Among many other interesting project features, a lake bed will be created by placing mixed soil along the western side of the peninsula on the Burnham Harbor revetment, and then sinking root stock of native pondweeds and eel grass weighted with stones into the soils. Another feature of the project includes excavating a 4-foot-deep pond, fringing emergent marsh and wet prairie, uncovering the sand to be used to create the rolling hills of the black and scarlet oak savanna habitat.

“Although large hills are not a feature that brings Chicago to mind, the region has one of the tallest systems of sand dunes in the country,” said Veraldi. “Indiana Dunes is guarded by the sentinel known as Mount Baldy, which rises 126 feet above the waves of Lake Michigan.”

Not quite at the Baldy level, the sand mounts at Northerly Island will rise 34 feet above the Lake Michigan waves – providing a beautiful aesthetic to the once-flat parkland and also enabling wind gusts to be broken.

With the abundance of wildlife also comes the challenge of keeping out nonnative species.

There will be a 3-inch diameter chain-link fence that seals the entrance into the dunal pond to keep adult common carp and salmonids from entering. Adult common carp would drive the system to lose native aquatic vegetation, and perhaps all aquatic vegetation. Adult salmonids may use the pond as a dying ground, which would turn the system into a cesspool.

However, access must be allowed for small fishes requiring estuarine habitat and for mudpuppies. Since the pond is small enough, manual removal of small common carp and goldfish may be necessary.

The Corps worked with the National Audubon Society, Field Museum, Openlands, Forest Preserve of Cook County, and Shedd Aquarium to ensure a successful and diverse restoration project.

This project has garnered great publicity since construction began on the southern part of Northerly Island in spring 2013.

This June, Jo-Ellen Darcy, Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works), joined Mayor Rahm Emanuel; Gina McCarthy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator; Rep. Danny Davis; and Michael Kelly, Chicago Park District superintendent, for a tour and press conference at the project site.

“When this is done, there is no museum park in the nation — even some national ones — that will compare to the museum campus that we have here in the city of Chicago,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said.

The project is currently in construction phase. A five-year contract was awarded in September 2012. The contract includes excavation of the pond, grading, constructing a connection to Lake Michigan, planting the six different habitat types, installing a 12-foot concrete path and bridge to loop around the pond, and overlooks.

As of spring 2014, the contractor has moved all of the material and installed approximately 30,000 of the 250,000 native plugs; and more than half of the shrubs and trees. This construction season, the contractor will complete the concrete path and overlooks, and initial plantings.

By fall 2014, visitors will be able to use a pathway that will traverse a wetland area, though some areas will be fenced off to protect the newly-planted vegetation. Subsequent years of the contract are for plant establishment activities. As establishment progresses, more of the site will open to the public.

“Through this project, we are empowering ourselves with future gains by keeping water clean, food abundant, and holding sanctuary the mysterious gift of nature,” said Veraldi.

For more info on the project, visit http://1.usa.gov/Uf29ts.

To view the photos from the press conference, visit http://bit.ly/NIpressconf.


Sarah Gross

Release no. 071714-002