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It's not a future mall, but a wetland

Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Daily Southtown

Nancy James sounded nervous when she telephoned the newspaper office. She had spied surveyors on a patch of Cook County Forest Preserve District land in the south suburbs.
Worse, the next day, tiny flags appeared in the ground. The kind of flags, she said, that you see when someone is plotting out a construction site.
Had the county, desperate for money, sold a patch of pristine property? Was a shopping mall going up? What the heck was going on?
Cook County has been extremely protective of forest preserve land in the past. The county refused to sell a few strips of the stuff to Orland Park for street widening in exchange for nearly twice as much acreage elsewhere.
About the only time I could recall the county loosening its grip on a forest preserve was when Rosemont Mayor Don Stephens conned them into giving him a bit of property for his casino. It was hard to blame Cook County for that one because Stephens had already talked the state Legislature into changing the very definition of a riverboat casino in Illinois in the first place.
But times are changing in "Crook County," so just maybe the forest preserve district had changed as well.
I told James I would make a few calls.
It turns out that the forest preserve land in question may become part of something called the O'Hare Modernization Mitigation Account Wetlands Restoration.
Now there's a mouthful of words for you.
What the heck is a south suburban forest preserve doing as part of the O'Hare International Airport modernization plan?
Well, as part of that plan, the city of Chicago had to destroy some existing wetlands. And to do that, it had to put money in an account to create new wetlands.
About $25 million of that money is being used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and The Corporation For Open Lands (CorLands) to restore and enhance wetlands in the Des Plaines River watershed.
One of the proposals under consideration is from the forest preserve district for a property between 183rd Street and Flossmoor Road and from Central Avenue east to Interstate 57.
That's the forest preserve land that James called all concerned about.
Joseph Roth, director of restoration programs and special funds for CorLands, said surveyors were out looking at the site to see if it met all the criteria for wetlands development.
"A lot of that area, we discovered, had at one time consisted of row farms," said Roth, a resident of Joliet. "Around the turn of the century, before the forest preserve district owned it, it was operated by farmers. We discovered they installed rain tiles to remove water off of the land and decrease the water table.
"Before you can even consider developing wetlands out there, we had to determine where these drain tiles run, how they impact water runoff to surrounding areas and how nearby property owners might be affected if they were removed."
If that were to happen, the original water table would be restored, native plants would be planted and new varieties of insects, critters and birds would be attracted to the place.
None of that will happen, Roth stressed, until the site gets the thumbs up from the Army Corps of Engineers and CorLands, at which point Cook County would hold public hearings on the wetlands proposal.
By now, most readers have probably wandered on to something else.
I wouldn't blame them.
Wetlands are beautiful things but not nearly as interesting to suburbanites as shopping malls.
While people complain about suburban traffic and concrete parking lots, you'll see a lot more cars parked at a mall on a Saturday afternoon than you will ever see at a wetlands restoration project.
Roth tried to convince me that this is a wonderful thing by talking about a previous wetlands restoration project, the Bartel Grassland, near the proposed site.
It attracts flocks of rare Sandhill Cranes, birds with the longest fossil record of any existing fowl in the world.
I told Roth when I think of wetlands I think of mosquitoes.
"Well, there are mosquitoes, but there are all kinds of things that live there that eat mosquitoes," he said.
Actually, the Cook County forest preserves, which most of us take for granted, are amazing.
I've often wondered why the county doesn't run tours through some of the more densely forested areas on a regular basis.
Sure, you could walk through these places yourself, but you wouldn't know what you're looking at.
I would pay $10 for a guided tour where someone pointed out some of the native plants or rare insect species and explained the history of the area.
Instead of forest preserve district police, maybe we need forest preserve rangers.
I still wouldn't want to walk through a wetland.
"Restoring a wetland area can keep creeks from overflowing, by providing a natural area for water to collect and slowly be absorbed into the ground," Roth said.
"Not all wetlands are wet all the time. Those are called ponds. Most wetlands in this area actually have water visible in them for only part of the year."
James said she was just happy the forest preserves weren't being sold to balance the county's budget.


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