Work to begin on restoration at Horner Park
by CYRYL JAKUBOWSKI
Work on a ecosystem restoration project that involves the removal of trees along the west bank of the Chicago River at Horner Park, 2724 W. Montrose Ave., could begin soon after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received the final necessary permit to begin the work from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
The nearly $6 million project is designed to restore the natural features of the west bank of the river to pre-settlement conditions by restoring stream hydraulics, river bank habitat and vegetation, removing invasive species of trees and restoring the land to an oak savanna habitat and wetlands.
The restoration site, which runs along the river between Montrose Avenue and Irving Park Road, was chosen after a study found problems with the site including erosion due to the unnatural steepness of the riverbank, an abundance of invasive species and a lack of native plants which results in a poor wildlife habitat.
Workers will remove European buckthorn and aggressive native trees such as silver maple and green ash to open the canopy for a more diverse understory to develop through the planting native plants.
Benefits of the project include increasing the connection of the riparian zone to the river to allow greater use by reptiles and amphibians, providing shelter and food for migratory birds such as waterfowl and shore birds, improving soil quality, providing resources for bees, increasing native plants and insects, and providing sources of native seeds to other areas, according to the Corps of Engineers.
Nineteen ecosystem restoration projects have been completed or are in the works, and more than 2,600 acres of habitat have been restored and more than 60 miles of unimpeded river flow is helping to prevent the interbasin transfer of Asian carp, according to the corps.
The project has been a source of controversy because residents were concerned about the effect it would have on their neighborhood. The project triggered a public review last year by the Corps of Engineers and the Chicago Park District because residents were concerned about the removal of trees.
Residents were concerned how the project would affect the black-crowned night heron, which is a state endangered species that is found in the area. The corps said that the project would have no adverse affects on any endangered species.
Horner Park Advisory Council president Peter Schlossman said that the council has been working on the restoration effort with the Friends of the Chicago River for more than a decade.
"We’ve been supporting this project for more than 10 years," Schlossman said. "Back then the project was much more dramatic and aggressive. This is strictly about environmental restoration."
Schlossman said that the steep slope of the river bank is unsafe.
Schlossman said that most of the opposition to the plan was from residents who live east of the river. "People are reluctant to change," he said. "Those people got used to trees on the river bank. When that is your daily view and someone wants to get rid of that, it is understandable why they would be reluctant to change that. That’s why they pulled back a bit and changed some of the plans."
The project has been revised to save the maximum number of trees, adding more diverse species of plants and installing a woodchip trail to complete the natural trail at the top of the new bank.
The project has been broken into three zones to describe the project’s features. Zone 1 includes the project area from an existing fence east to the river bank. The engineers will remove invasive species along the river but will retain sections that contain by mature trees.
Zone 2 includes the project area between the fence and the top of the regraded bank. The trees along the fence line will be removed due to the grade and the slope change. The corps will remove 42 trees rather than 52 trees in the original plan and nonnative invasive vegetation will be replaced with native plant species.
Zone 3 includes the project area between the top of the regraded bank and the western project limit. The previous plan called for removal of about 47 of 189 trees, but under the new plan no trees will be removed in that zone except for those in a staging area.
The size of the woodchip trail has been increased from 3,432 feet to 5,314 feet with seven access points, and there will be a 10-foot grass buffer east of a concrete path. Workers will plant nine tree species, 10 shrub species, 27 herbaceous species and one vine in the stream bank area, 14 species in the wetlands area and one tree species and 45 herbaceous species in the oak savannah area.
"They want to turn it back to an oak savanna, but they have added more species to their list to make it more diverse to create a vivid animal, insect and wildlife," Schlossman said.
Residents also expressed concern about how the removal of trees would affect light coming from the baseball fields in at the park. Schlossman said that the towers that are used to light the baseball field have always caused concern but that the park district said that it will install light shields on three east-facing lights poles that are not shielded.
The natural condition of Horner Park was marshland with little or no trees before the river was deepened and channelized. The majority of the species on the river bank are invasive when considering the native ecological integrity of the site, according to the corps.
The preliminary timetable for the project is for clearing to be completed by the end of March, earth work to be completed by the end of May and material disposal to be completed by the end of June. The riparian habitat should be completed by September of 2018, and the corps will monitor the vegetation for 5 years after the project if completed.
"The construction fence was going up this week, but as far as the actual work I think they still have some time and it won’t be happening any time soon," Schlossman said.
"The project has a lot of community support, and the Army Corps of Engineers listened to the people’s concerns," Alderman Deb Mell (33rd) said. "I think that they came up with a pretty fair compromise. We are happy that it is starting, but I think that the work will be weather dependent."
Mell said that she received a lot of phone calls last year from residents who were concerned about the project and that she had attended numerous meetings because residents were angry about the removal of trees. She said that the work is necessary in order to open up the area and restore the ecological habitat.
Photo taken by Chicago Park District