Southland Natural Areas Enhancement Plan

          Figure One: Thorn Creek                                    Figure Two:   Little Calumet River near Riverdale, IL

Figure Three: Natural Area Near Wolf Lake

           History and Ecology Background


Located southeast of Chicago’s urban center, the Southland Region has been hugely impacted and molded by both geological and human activity. The descent of ice during the most recent Wisconsin glacial period determined the appearance of the topography (land formations) we see today. The advancing frozen monolith ravaged and imprisoned everything in its path eventually retreating about 10,000 years ago leaving great depressions, ravines, and broad plains. In retreat, warming climate resulted in the release of both the trapped water and trapped earth the glaciers had captured. Lakes and rivers formed in the depressions left by the melting ice. Ranging in scale from soil to gravel to boulders, earth remnants called Moraine created characteristic rolling land formations, known as drumlins including a Midwest continental divide.  While not extreme in elevation as one would find in Montana’s “Great continental divide,” nevertheless this low ridge of elevated land determines the regions watersheds – the flow of water through creeks, streams, and rivers eventually reaching either the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. This lack of elevation also determined the character of our abundant prairie marshes, wetlands, and savannas and by extension the native plants and animals that establish long-term habitats or those that arrive as visitors during seasonal migrations.

When first the Illini and Miami Indian Tribes and then European hunters and explorers arrived in the region they found and reported an incredible abundance of streams and rivers, plant and animal life, and the massive body of water which came to be known as Lake Michigan. The waterways provided means of transportation and the land provided sustenance. During the early years of Chicago’s settlement visitors on day trips to the marshes and prairies of the Calumet region described a sky filled with fowl of many kinds and fish available for the taking. It is this abundance which created a rich environment for settlement and urbanization. With the beginning of industrialization in the late-1800’s the availability of waterways and ground transportation including rail service provided excellent amenities.

However it soon became apparent that these activities would have a negative effect on what had once been a pristine environment. Early reports of fish kills and air heavy with fumes and smoke foretold the impact of an expanding culture and economic development. Population and industry expanded at astounding rates creating a vibrant city which like many others failed to protect and preserve the vibrant aspects of the region that had attracted individuals to settle here at the start. Those who settled here during the periods of very rapid development were by no means faint of heart. On realizing that industrial and human developments were having a negative impact on the viability and beauty of Lake Michigan engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River. However this caused the abundant clean drinking water along the streams and rivers to become polluted. People became ill. Creating the Sanitary Channel and one of the first sewerage treatment systems resolved this issue and was a major factor in the successful expansion of Chicago.

Figure Four: Calumet Sag Channel in Forest Preserves

    Ecology and Topography

The Chicago Southland region is characterized by its prairies and savannas; woodlands, wetlands and marshes. Located somewhat at the eastern edge of the Great Plaines this region is a transitional area reflected in the great diversity of biomes. One finds savannas and prairies; areas which range from scrub to woodland, marshes to
wetlands. Given this great variety it is important to bear in mind that nature has no fences or boundaries. Nature makes its own rules. The point being that to describe one prairie or savanna does not describe all situations or conditions. There are general characteristic that one should expect to find but no rigid rules. Gerould Wilhelm, Ph.D., Director of Research at Chicago’s Conservation Research Institute and a noted botanist, describes it beautifully, “We users of a written language are constantly driven to arrange limits or borders on almost all things, because written words have limits or borders, with mandated hard and fast definitions. Consequently our understanding of natural systems is constituted by the compilation of piles of facts and figures, models with dimensions, and places with edges. Understanding borne of unwritten languages can make it easier to see the circles or cycles of nature, easier to comprehend the infinities and paradoxes” (What is a Savanna? 2002).

The disclaimer thus offered some defining characteristics follow: A Savanna can have more or less tree cover. Seen as transitional regions between grassland and wooded areas (forests and woodlands), the sense of transition reflects a tension for succession between wooded growth and herbaceous growth. Though usually a mixture of plant species, grasses are often dominant. A particular characteristic of grassland management today is the spring ritual of burning back the “prairie”. Originally occurring naturally through lightning storms this practice was also found in early native practices as a means of insuring the survival of the indigenous plant culture and preventing weeds and invasive plants from establishing. Grassland plants have deep and complex root systems. Dying back in fall they remain dormant through the winter. Though it might seem to be destructive of established plant communities and species, it however has the opposite effect to strengthen and insure survival.

These extensive root systems found in grasslands have an incredible capacity for filtering and absorbing water. An additional factor present in these areas, due to the generally flat topography is the presence of wet areas covering again a wide range of biomes from damp meadows to areas of wet mesic soil found in wetlands to marshes and bogs. It is the richness of this vastly diverse region that demands of us the will to protect and preserve these precious natural areas not simply for the survival of plant species but as well to create habitats sufficiently varied that birds and other animal species might thrive. There is the need for height of trees for roosting and hunting; Ground cover to provide safety and food. Because of the diversity of habitats the region is blessed with a great diversity of birds and plants. As well we provide guest accommodations along one of the major raptor seasonal migration flyways.

           Root Systems of Prairie Plants

The following diagram demonstrates the various types of root systems of Prairie Plants.

Figure Five: Root Systems of Prairie Plants


           Region 9 Cook County FPD: Calumet Division CFP

This section contains all maps and information pertaining to the Region 9 Cook County FPD Calumet Division CFP.

    Designated INAI Areas Map

Figures 6 thru 8: Calumet Region INAI Maps

           Region 9 Cook County FPD: Thorn Creek CFP

This section contains maps and information pertaining to the Thorn Creek CFP. (Click to enlarge)
                                            Thorn Creek INAI Area Map

Thorn Creek Division CFP: USEPA Toxic Release Locations

Thorn Creek Division CFP: USEPA Discharge to Water Air Releases Map

Thorn Creek Division CFP: USEPA Hazardous Waste Handlers and Generators Map

Figures 9-11: Thorn Creek INAI Map

           Region 8 Cook County FPD: Tinley Creek Division

This section contains maps and information pertaining to the Tinley Creek Division. (Click to enlarge)

Region 8 Cook County FPD: Tinley Creek Division Overview Map

Tinley Creek CFP: INAI Designated Areas Map

                        Tinley Creek CFP: USEPA Toxic Releases Locations

Tinley Creek CFP: USEPA Water Discharges Air Release

Tinley Creek CFP: USEPA Hazardoud Waste Generators Handlers
Figure 9-14: Tinley Forest Preserve Region Maps

           Defining Designated INAI and INPC Areas

The Natural Areas Program
The Natural Areas Program is a science based program to identify, manage and preserve areas of the state that contain significant natural resource features and or which have the potential to be significant. Primarily, identification is through the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (INAI) process or gap analysis. Management activities are prioritized to maintain, restore or recreate significant natural resource features. Preservation is through coordination with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission in order to establish long term legal protection. The INPC dataset contains locations of lands enrolled in Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC) land protection programs including Nature Preserves, Land and Water Reserves, and Natural Heritage Landmarks in the SSMMA region.


The main fields of interest in the associated attribute table are defined as: managed area name = INPC name inpc_number = INPC number. Please be aware that the Natural Heritage Database cannot provide a conclusive statement on the presence, absence, or condition of significant natural features in Illinois. The Department of Natural Resources can only summarize the existing information known to us at the time of a request. This report should not be regarded as a final statement on the areas being considered, nor should it substitute for field surveys required for environmental assessments.

Figure Fifteen: Foillage in Calumet Region

           Cook County Forest Preserve Districts

Figure Sixteen: Calumet Wetlands
This section contains a listing of all Cook County Forest Preserves in the southern suburbs.

           Cook County and Will County Forest Preserve Resources

This map represents resources for both Cook and Will County Forest Preserve Districts.

Figure Seventeen: Cook and Will County Forest Preserve Maps

         Seasonal Bird Migration 

Figure Eighteen: Waterfowl in Calumet Region.

  Spring Bird Migration  

Figure Nineteen: Spring Bird Migration maps

  Fall Bird Migration

Figure Twenty: Fall Bird Migration Data

Figure Twenty One: Torrence Avenue Bridge over the Calumet River


This section contains links to other webpages or projects having to do with the ecology of Southern Cook County and Northern Will County.

This plan is being conducted by Hitchcock Design Group. The plan is supposed to promote sustainable economic development and stormwater management practices in the Lake Riverdale area.

This website is the online home of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.  Information about all nature centers and district properties are located on this website.

This website is the online home of the Will County Forest Preserve District. Information about all nature centers and district properties are located on this website.

This website contains a Green Infrastructure map of Cook and Will Counties.

This website is for a PBS special that aired about the southwest suburbs of Chicago. It contains some data and links about the natural environment of the south suburbs of Chicago.