Audubon Society restores Calumet Big Marsh, brings minority communities into nature

CHICAGO (WLS) -- "Big Marsh. where we're currently standing, is one of the jewels of the Chicago Park District. Just a couple of years ago, we might not have said that because the marsh that's behind us here was in pretty bad shape," said Daniel Suarez, Stewardship Manager for Audubon Great Lakes.

Over the past century, Chicago's Calumet region has been known more for factories and industry than for its natural resources. But in the past five years, the Great Lakes chapter of the Audubon Society has made the region one of its target areas for natural restoration.

"Because these marshes were historically connected to Lake Michigan, it's really important to restore these areas, not only for the animals, but for our drinking water. Just for the health of the whole ecosystem," Suarez said.

Restoration of Big Marsh is well underway. Now, Audubon Great Lakes say they just want more Chicagoans to appreciate and visit the natural resources in their own city. That's where Audubon's restoration work overlaps with its Wild Indigo Nature Explorations program.

"Wild indigo is a program with the Audubon Society and other partners that strives to get people of color and people living in urban areas out into their natural spaces," said program coordinator Jennifer Johnson. "Historically, most people that engage in outdoor recreation weren't people of color. And so we saw that it was important because the earth belongs to all of us."

So far, the regional Audubon chapter has opened Wild Indigo programs in around Illinois, Michigan and Indiana. Community Engagement Manager Carina Ruiz said that the program eliminates barriers in many ways, including transportation and Spanish-language programming.

"There's such a need to create exposure and awareness and dismantle barriers that exist for communities of color to get involved in the conservation field," Ruiz said.

During a program earlier this week, Audubon combined their efforts to restore natural spaces and increase access to them by bringing the Waukegan-based Cool Learning Experience summer camp to Big Marsh.

"We brought the kids to Big Marsh because it's a good way to show the connection of why we're restoring, how we're restoring," Ruiz said. "But also, it is right in the community, so (it shows) how these spaces impact our neighborhood as well."

Students spent the day learning about the intersection of environmental health and human community. When industrialization had a detrimental impact on the environment, marsh flooding affected homes and businesses in the area. Now that the region is being restored, wildlife is returning to the marsh and water levels are safe for the surrounding neighborhoods.

For Suarez, the restoration work becomes even more meaningful when combined with programming that introduces youth to the area.

"Just like the birds, (the kids) don't have boundaries. Just because they live up in Waukegan, they want to come experience other places, kind of understand the patchwork of conservation of natural areas that exist," Suarez said.
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