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All-woman group of volunteers works to restore parts of the Dunes' Great Marsh

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After six months of restoring trails and killing invasive plants at Chicago parklands, an 11-woman group of volunteers said planting native grasses at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was a treat.

Crew leaders for the Student Conservation Association group estimated they would plant 5,000 to 6,000 grasses this week as part of a restoration project in the central portion of the Great Marsh.

"We've spent a lot of time killing things," crew leader Amanda Villacreses said. "So it feels good to be planting something new."

The Great Marsh once stretched from Michigan City to Gary, but swaths of the historic wetland were drained and cleared to make way for development. At one time, parts of the marsh were even drained for agricultural purposes, said Bruce Rowe, spokesman for the national lakeshore.

In recent years, the National Park Service — in partnership with the National Parks Conservation Association and Save the Dunes  — has been able to restore parts of the marsh thanks to funding from the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, said Colin Deverell, Midwest program manager with the NPCA.

"Wetlands serve as a water filtration system for Lake Michigan," he said.

The Great Lakes provide drinking water for 30 million people across eight states.

In total, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has spent more than $2 million on Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore restoration projects.

The Trump administration's 2018 budget would have eliminated funding for the initiative, but Congress fully funded the program after lobbying from the NPCA, Save the Dunes and other organizations, Deverell said.

"Restoring a marsh like this takes a lot of work," Deverell said, as he trudged through mud on his way to the site where volunteers were working Thursday.

Park visitors are not permitted to walk that far into the marsh. The muddy trail is a byproduct of the many trips made by park service staff and others working to restore the area.

Deep in the muck, the volunteers — residents of underserved inner-city areas and part of the Student Conservation Association's first all-woman crew — made quick work of the planting. Nearly a dozen buckets, once filled with small plant "plugs," stood empty.

The park service used a herbicide to kill cattails, which had overrun the area, before the volunteers arrived, Deverell said. The volunteers then went through, cutting the tops of the cattails off to prevent seeds from spreading and planting native grasses.

Cinnamon Hoskins, of Chicago, said she joined the Student Conservation Association to explore nature. 

"A lot of people don't know nature past birds and squirrels," she said. "We as people, first and foremost, have to take care of this Earth, because nobody else is going to do it."

Not too far from the planting site, a thicket of dead cattails still loaded with seeds covered the landscape.

"That is why these sort of crews are important," said Cathy Martin, project manager for Save the Dunes. "Because there is no shortage of work out here."

Restoration work creates habitat and supports wildlife, but it also improves water quality in the park, Deverell said.

"We've spent a lot of time killing things. So it feels good to be planting something new." — Amanda Villacreses

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