Salazar praises National Lakeshore during visit to region

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., left, and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar talk Thursday during a tour of West Beach at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Salazar, Durbin and other officials made an announcement in Chicago earlier Thursday about a $1 million federal grant for Lake Michigan shoreline restoration as part of the Millennium Reserve conservation project.

John Luke, The Times

CHICAGO | Federal and Illinois officials are offering financial support to a dozen conservation projects to bolster environmental and recreation benefits to Lake Calumet and the south suburbs.

The projects will advance the Millennium Reserve, a long-term plan to revitalize the one-time industrial areas on the city’s Southeast Side by funding ecological improvements to the area.

"Few places have seen as much abuse and neglect and have been written off like the Lake Calumet region," said Cameron Davis, a senior adviser with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, referring to the factories that now sit empty in the area.

"But every place is salvageable," Davis said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., were on hand Thursday to announce the projects, and 10th Ward Alderman John Pope said that while the Millennium Reserve plan sets goals for his part of the city and its surrounding suburbs, the announcement, "provides some teeth to those goals. We’re talking about money and tangible projects, rather than ideals."

Among the projects to receive support are creation of an invasive species removal corps to work with the Friends of the Forest Preserves group to get rid of potential threats to the local ecology on 227 acres across four forest preserve sites, along with a roots program working with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to plant native gardens on private and public property that mesh with existing natural areas.

The Cook County Forest Preserve District will receive funding for projects including restoration of 130 acres of lakeplain habitat in the Thornton-Lansing Road Nature Preserve near Thornton, along with cooperation with the Audubon Society for enhancement of the Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland.

But projects and their purposes vary. Among the recipients of some funds will be the Hegewisch neighborhood-based Southeast Environmental Task Force, which will receive a small grant to support the tours the group gives periodically of neighborhoods in and around the 10th Ward to point out ecological benefits and the level of pollution that has occurred in the area throughout the decades.

While the entire funding for this round of projects totals $11.6 million, officials with the various groups said that exact amounts for each project have yet to be determined.

Pope said his personal favorite of all the programs to be created is one that will hire expert fishermen for the next three years to teach classes to Chicago-area children so they can learn the proper way to fish.

Also pleased to see these improvements is Ed Woodbury, president of McCaffery Interests, the developer who wants to take the site of one-time U.S. Steel Southworks plant on the lakefront near the South Chicago neighborhood and turn it into an upscale residential development.

Woodbury said the existence of improved recreational sites will make his Lakeside Development plan even more desirable.

"This will help us to reconnect to the city a site that has never been accessible to the public," he said.

Ed Paesel, executive director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, said that such projects would benefit south suburban municipalities by giving them quality recreational sites in or near their boundaries.

He also said that federal and state involvement was essential, because such projects would be beyond the financial possibilities of local governments themselves.

"Even a city as big as Chicago couldn't do things like this by themselves," Paesel said. "Particularly in these lean times when local governments don’t have any money to spare, it takes federal and state cooperation to get things moving."

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Jeanette is a journalist with The Times Media Co. who has worked as both a reporter and editor. She has a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield.