by Vanessa Villarreal, USACE Chicago District Public Affairs Office
As the nation’s environmental engineer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages one of the largest federal environmental missions – constructing sustainable facilities; regulating waterways; managing natural resources; cleaning up contaminated sites from past military activities; and restoring degraded ecosystems.
Through the implementation of 33 ecosystem restoration and protection projects totaling over 4,200 acres and 7.5 miles of aquatic habitat, the USACE Chicago District has proven project execution experience under the Continuing Authorities Program and Great Lakes Fishery & Ecosystem Restoration authorities. While these figures demonstrate the success of former projects, a planning effort is happening now that will be more focused on identifying opportunities and funding to implement more projects in the future. And it’s called the Ecosystem Restoration Master Plan.
On Dec. 10, 2019, the district held a Vision Workshop to introduce the Chicago District’s initiative to develop a strategic plan for future ecosystem restoration investments in the Chicagoland area of northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana to its partners and stakeholders. The meeting was used to facilitate feedback from stakeholders on draft objectives for a vision document which will outline the purpose and need for funding and the strategy for efficiently and effectively implementing future projects. Attendees included the McHenry County Conservation District, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Chicago Wilderness, and Openlands.
“We shared success and lessons learned, and developed a unified message regarding the importance of continuing to implement ecosystem restoration projects in the Chicagoland area,” Alex Hoxsie, USACE planner and landscape architect, said.
Meeting participants were asked to provide feedback on the benefits of restoration projects, identify opportunities and risks in implementing restoration projects, and how to best utilize a crowd source mapping tool to improve collaboration.
“This mapping tool will create a central repository for partners to share information about their completed projects and plans for the future,” Hoxsie said. “By showing where all of these groups have done work, are doing work, and plan to do work in the future, we hope to be able to identify opportunities for collaboration and guide future effort.”
During the interactive exercises, participants indicated that collaboration between community groups, non-government organizations, academia, and state and local agencies would assist ecosystem restoration objectives. Participants also indicated a strong desire for a unified vision for the region that captures the big picture.
The vision for this plan was developed collaboratively by the Corps and a number of environmental stakeholders in the Chicagoland area.
“The beauty of the plan is that there are a lot of groups already working on ecosystem restoration initiatives in the area,” Hoxsie said. “What we wanted to accomplish with this effort was to bring all of these existing visions together in order to demonstrate the need for investments in future work and to identify opportunities for projects to collaborate on.”
Gene Fleming, chief of the Environmental Formulation and Analysis Section, said ecosystem protection and restoration is vital because it helps save existing valuable habitats and restores habitats that provide communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms interacting with their environment. He added that a healthy environment provides us with food, fuel and timber; contributes to the purification of the air and water; helps mitigate climate change; restores wildlife populations; prevents the loss of species including threatened and endangered species, and more.
“Additionally, it creates jobs and provides a quality of life for the millions of people that enjoy the outdoors,” he said. “People that enjoy their nature walks through restored habitats, wildlife watchers that seek out areas that support the migratory and resident birds they want to see, and all of those people that want to catch those largemouth bass. Ecosystem restoration is important.”
On Feb. 25, 2020, a virtual follow-up meeting was held to discuss due-outs from, and progress since, the December 2019 summit. The district also informed its stakeholders that the district boundaries have expanded and will require developing a lot of new relationships and bringing other groups up to speed.
“But it will ultimately help us generate an even better picture of all the good work that is going on in the larger region that includes the entire western shore of Lake Michigan,” Hoxsie said.
He added that, since the early 1800s, the district’s regional boundary has seen a 2508% increase in developed land, 75% reduction in forests, 95% reduction in prairies, and 55% decrease in wetlands.
“Coordinated planning of ecosystem restoration efforts will help create unified results across county, state, and regional boundaries to maximize benefits to wildlife and people,” he said. “We've had successful meetings so far with some great dialogue and I look forward to seeing what we come up with next.”