UIC biologist sees Nature Sanctuary as important to wildlife

Bob Dolgan leads birdwatchers on a Nov. 18 tour of the South Shore Nature Sanctuary, 7059 S. South Shore Drive. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff writer

“Every little bit is important.”

Those words codify the reasons why conservationists are fighting to prevent the South Shore Nature Sanctuary from being swallowed up by a championship-grade golf course proposed to stretch over South Shore and Jackson parks.

And they were the words of Emily Minor, a biologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies humans’ impact on landscapes and their ecological communities. “Every little bit that’s available for the birds as they’re passing through to rest for a day or more and refuel, in terms of finding food — every little bit is important,” she said in an interview.

The dunes, wetlands, woods and prairie within the Nature Sanctuary create a facsimile of the area landscape that existed before urbanization, and which still exists in areas such as Indiana Dunes National Park and the Park District’s 80 nature areas.

“Think back to several hundred years ago,” Minor said. “This whole area was covered in forests and prairies and swamps, and it was all habitat for animals. And now the vast majority of that is gone, so it’s not like we can say that having Montrose Beach and a few other places is enough. There’re still serving a function, but we could certainly do so much better.”

But under the Chicago Park District’s South Lakefront Framework Plan, the 15th teebox, fairway and green would replace the 6-acre site, which juts out on a northern peninsula atop revetments. The Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan would frame photo and TV shots of putting golfers.

Bob Dolgan, a documentary maker who made “Monty and Rose” about the rare piping plover birds that nested at the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary last summer, spoke to the Nature Sanctuary’s importance.

“We’re in the middle of a really significant flyway for all sorts of bird species,” he said. “Right along the western edge of Lake Michigan, going back centuries, has been a critical highway for birds of all types, and there’s only a patchwork of suitable habitat for those birds to ensure their dietary needs and to find cover from predators.

“Some of these birds are flying from South America to the Arctic. We need as much habitat as we can have along the lakefront,” he continued, clarifying that he meant native and restored habitat.

While Montrose Point is Chicago’s most-notable bird sanctuary, Dolgan said many area birdwatchers venture south for its habitats. Attendees looked at waterfowl bobbing a hundred yards out on the lake through a telescope and called out the location of flying birds as they zipped through the brush.

“I’d say some of the places where we see the most diverse array of bird species exists on the South Side of Chicago and down into the Calumet Region,” he said. “We have bird species that nest in this area that almost don’t nest anywhere else in Chicagoland.”

Set between the lake and endless fields of soybeans and corn, Minor said Chicago itself is a “more-hospitable” environment for birds than “agricultural mono-culture areas.”

“What we have in terms of Montrose Beach and some other large parks is good, certainly, but I don’t think we should be satisfied that that’s enough, and I think we can always do more,” she said, citing the effect of even small places like the Nature Sanctuary in improving air quality, soaking up stormwater and reducing noise and the urban heat island effect.

As the Sun-Times reported, the planned golf course is in limbo, as Mayor Lori Lightfoot is not committed to it. Should it be built, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), who courted controversy by insisting that the Nature Preserve is “all dead” and supports plans for the golf course, has said that the Nature Sanctuary, 7059 S. South Shore Drive, will be replaced with similar habitat within the golf course.

But supporters on the South Shore Park Advisory Council say much will be lost “after decades of community use, stewardship, and native plant growth” if the lakeside, 2002-established Nature Sanctuary — which Park District spokeswoman Michele Lemons costs $28,500 annually — goes away.

On eBill, a website in which birdwatchers record avian sightings — “the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project,” managed by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithologybirders have notched 133 species at the South Shore Culture Center.

On iNaturalist, a similar program by the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic Society, 274 observations of 143 plant and animal species have been tallied at the Nature Sanctuary.

This summer, the Herald observed Royal Catchfly, a perennial native to Midwestern tallgrass prairie and listed on the Illinois endangered and threatened species list, growing in the Nature Sanctuary.

The Park District does not keep visitation figures for the Nature Sanctuary, but birders use and love it. A month ago, a dozen came out for Monday morning walk around the site, and Canada geese were by far the most abundant.

While she cautioned that she is not an expert in golf course maintenance, Minor said she supposed that they use a multitude of pesticides and herbicides. “In addition to just being a lot of lawn, they’re also probably, I’m guessing, dumping a lot of chemicals into the environment.”

“I know some golf courses do have some nice little pockets of woods and things like that,” Minor said. “Again, small pockets of habitat can still provide some value. But if most of this is going to be cut down and replaced with lawn, then we’re not going to be getting those benefits and that habitat.”

Billy Casper Golf, which manages the links in South Shore and Jackson parks, had no comment on their pesticide use.

There would be 90 acres of natural area under the South Lakefront Framework Plan. In Jackson Park, the Bobolink Meadow, 6091 S. Cornell Drive, would be expanded, and natural areas. A new one would be established by 63rd Street Beach, 6301 S. Lake Shore Drive.

While the South Shore Nature Sanctuary would be replaced with the 15th hole, the 5 tees in South Shore Park would surround expanded nature sanctuary on either side of the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Drive. Under the plan, they would contain wetlands and dune habitat, “integrated” into the golf courses

The plan identifies natural areas as a sustainability measure: “The naturalized areas of the South Lakefront can serve the Olmsted aesthetic of framing space and views while also serving an important environmental function. These zones play a vital role in stormwater management, strengthening the parks’ capacity to handle heavy rainstorms while improving water quality within the lagoons, harbors and basin.”

All in all, the plan would add 13 acres of natural area to the two parks, even counting the loss of the Nature Sanctuary’s 6 acres.