Old Town Dump New Home to Westchester Bird Sanctuary
By Kevin Nevers
So where does a town dispose of the 7,000 pounds of trash generated every
day by its 3,500 or so residents? If it’s circa 1955 and the town is Chesterton, in a privately owned wetland west of South 11th Street, just across the street from what’s now the rear entrance to Westchester Intermediate School.
Repeat: in a wetland.
No problem. No questions asked. No squawks, no beefs, from IDEM.
Because--as Town Council President Jim Ton, R-1st, now remembers--“in the
Fifties ‘wetlands were wastelands.’” And this wetland was the town dump.
“Washing machines, household junk, kitchen garbage all went into the
wetland,” Ton says.
What must once have been a bustling, tidy little ecosystem became,
inevitably, a choked, stagnant no-go zone for all manner of wildlife starved of
food sources and deprived of nesting habitat. Native vegetation withered and
was replaced by colonizing invasives like cattail, phragmities, and canary
reed. Now perhaps only 10 to 15 percent of the property provides suitable
habitat for common wetland and woodland species.
It’s unclear when exactly the dumping stopped; 1965 is a good guess. It’s
also unclear why exactly the property owner authorized the town to dump
there in the first place, or whether he was compensated for the use of it. In
any case, at some point 19 acres of the site, immediately south of Washington
Ave. and east of Griffin Lake, passed into the hands of the Duneland YMCA.
And then, 14 years ago, the Porter County Parks Foundation (PCPF)
acquired it from the Y. The original plan was to develop “an educational area
for local schools,” PCPF member Tim Cole says, with a hike/bike trail
crossing the site and connecting to the Westchester-Liberty Trail via the
Rosehill Estates subdivision.
Not a bad plan, all things considered, but it “lay unmoved for nearly 15 years,” Cole says.
Then PCPF Member Dick Maxey had an idea, an ambitious, even audacious one. First: bury the old dump under new fill, eradicate the invasives, promote the growth of native wetland vegetation, and control the water level. Then: wait for the birds come.
And that was the genesis of the Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
Raising a Sanctuary from a Dump
In a remarkably short period of time--Maxey and Cole first broached their plans to the Chesterton Town Council only three years ago--PCPF has managed to take a mere pie-in-the-sky and bang it smack into the oven, beginning with its purchase in 2013 of an additional 20 contiguous acres on South 11th Street. Not only did that acquisition double the size of the property, more important by far it made the original, not-quite-landlocked holding easily accessible to the public, with ample room for parking, picnicking, and the construction of observation platforms.
Maxey himself, in the meantime, has proved an indefatigable promoter of the Sanctuary, outreaching to IDEM, DNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Town of Chesterton; partnering with Purdue University Northwest’s Department of Biology; and banking scads of financial and in-kind contributions from a deep and diverse network of volunteers and friends.
The earliest phase of the old dump, just off South 11th Street, has been buried--with IDEM’s blessings--under four feet of fill. A parking area graveled and graded. An impressive gabion retaining wall of limestone built at the dump’s margins, to filter runoff from the parking area into the wetland. Great swaths of cattail and phragmities uprooted. A fine 24’ x 32’ shelter erected. And two trails--one flanking the wetland to the north, the other to the south--are currently under construction, the northern one so far extending all the way to the site’s western boundary at Lake Griffin.
“When we first started this project,” Maxey says, “we got out here and looked at it and we thought ‘We’re nuts, this is crazy.’ But once we got into it, we began to see what it could be. We had a vision of a finished product.” None of which is to say that the Sanctuary is anywhere close to being a finished product. There are, not to put too fine a point on it, moving parts inside this project’s moving parts.
For example: a drainage ditch dug years ago by the original property owner needs to be broken open--under a permit obtained from the Army Corps--to “let the water run laterally out into the wetland,” Maxey says. Mud flats, absolutely crucial for attracting migratory shorebirds, need to be developed at the site’s west end. Native vegetation needs to be planted and scrub trees and buttonbushes removed. The northern trail needs to be embanked on either side and the dump remnant which it traverses in-filled with 12 to 14 inches of dirt.
This year alone, Maxey estimates, $50,000 in funds and in-kind still need to be raised, to finish the walking trails and build a two-tier observation platform.
It’s All About the Birds (And the Birders)
For Ken Brock, Northwest Indiana’s Dean of Birding, the prospect of a new shorebird habitat in the Dunes is exciting. Wetlands per se are common enough in the region (although easily accessible ones aren’t). Distinctly uncommon are reliable--that is to say, water-level controlled--mudflats. Migrating shorebirds will fly hundreds of miles for a good mudflat.
“The Sanctuary could become a prime stopover for the 36 shorebird species that transit Indiana regularly,” Brock says. “Many of these birds migrate from the Arctic to South America. Almost all are required to stop for food and rest along the way. But human development has greatly diminished sites for the migrants to land. Thus, the sanctuary could fill a valuable ornithological need as well as providing a superb birding site.”
So: restore a wetland, and the birds will come. As will the birders. Just ask the innkeepers and restaurateurs of Linton, Ind. For years now they’ve been catering to the flocks of birders who regularly visit Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife Area, a five-minute drive from Downtown Linton. Goose Pond was once a ditched, tiled, diked, and ultimately failed farmland. Now its restored wetlands are arguably the finest overall avian habitat in Indiana--with scores of extraordinary sightings over the last 15 years--and birders from across the Midwest know it.
Maxey has something like that in mind--though on a smaller scale--for the Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary. The Dunes are already a birders’ destination, of course. But the Dunes are in the Dunes. The Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary is, as Maxey notes, right here, in town. “This will be a tourist attraction, something Chesterton will be proud of.”
Lorelei Weimer, executive director of Indiana Dunes Tourism, gets it. “Birding is one of the key niche markets we’re going after,” she says. “What’s especially exciting about the project is that it will bring birders out of some of the more remote sites in the Dunes and right into Downtown Chesterton.”
“I knew about the Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary when it was just a concept,” Weimer adds. “And I’m so impressed by the vision of the Parks Foundation to take this property--which at the end of the day had no real value--and turn it into a birding destination. That was really forward-thinking on their part. And what they’ve been able to do on a shoestring budget is amazing.”
Bird sanctuary is sweat equity community project.
There’s no mistaking the fact that the site of the Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary used to be a dump.
On either side of a newly built trail skirting the wetland’s north edge lie strews of Chesterton’s secret household history: a tire or two, a rotor, rusted lengths of corrugated pipe, and all manner of vintage medicine vials, food packaging, and formerly garish plastic containers not seen on store shelves in half a century.
Dick Maxey, a member of the Porter County Parks Foundation and the Sanctuary’s guiding light, has salvaged a couple of pristine Mason jars from the site and, on one occasion, a “mint condition” piece of white porcelain, stamped “Chesterton China” on the back.
And the stuff is still all there, underground: a municipal midden, out of sight and long out of mind. The dump’s earliest reaches, located just yards off South 11th Street--in later years the Street Department was forced to venture ever further to the west for virgin dumping grounds--Maxey describes as having once been a “lake.” How deep down does it actually go? Maxey has no idea. But it’s buried now beneath four feet of fill.
But the site’s peculiar past means that restoring the wetlands isn’t simply a matter of regulating water levels. (Maxey does that easily enough, by means of a weir. Open the weir--allowing the natural east-to-west flow to run into Peterson Ditch--to lower the water level. Close the weir to raise it.)
In fact, the project is a little like a military operation in scope. There’s embanking to be done, dredging, hauling, grading, in-filling, landscaping, eradicating, sowing, planting, and cultivating. There’s work for carpenters, equipment operators (and mechanics), biologists, ornithologists, gardeners, and good old-fashioned ditch diggers. And there’s an enormous need for material: dirt, stone, seed, fuel, saplings.
To date, Maxey’s proved hugely successful in enlisting corporate, institutional, and private support for the Sanctuary, in the form of cash, in-kind services, and put-your-back-into-it sweat equity.
From Cargill; Phoenix Services LLC; C&E Pipeline Service; T&M Tire; Chesterton Feed & Garden; David’s Lawn Care; Indiana American Water Company; Harris Welsh & Lukmann; Harley-Davidson of Valparaiso; Pinkerton Oil Company; and Phillippe Builders Inc.
From Chesterton/Porter Rotary; Indiana Dunes Tourism; Indiana Audubon Society; the Porter County Master Gardeners Association; and the Park View Place and Griffin Lake homeowners associations.
From Sylvia Graham; Jim Biggs; Greg Ward; Kathleen Zelkowitz; Dianne O’Connell; Sally Gibbs; Pat Carlisle; David Heller; Liz Zube; Larry and Linda Kilander; and the Harold McCarron, Robert Dunbar, and Donald Randolph families.
And from Jeff Larson and his CHS building trades students, who constructed a 24’ x 32’ shelter on the property; Eagle Scouts Joshua Watkins, who built four benches for the site, and Josh Williams, who erected 20 bat- and birdhouses; and Liberty Intermediate School’s sixth-graders, who’ve dedicated themselves to flower-planting.
So the Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary is, in the best sense, a community project, with an astonishing degree of buy-in already.
But a great deal of work is yet to be done, most of the funding received to date has been used, and Maxey is now hopeful of recruiting the next phase of backers.
For more information on how to become part of the Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary, visit the Porter County Park Foundation’s website at pcparksfoundation.com and click on “How You Can Help!” Or shoot an e-mail to email@example.com
Or just show up at the Bird Festival and Habitat Improvement Day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 8. The Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary is at 1050 S. 11th St. in Chesterton.