Wildlife in Chicago & Fracking in Southern Illinois: Ecological and Human Connections

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Back in October, before winter had taken an early grip on the Chicago region, my students and I took a canoe ride on the North Branch of the Chicago River between Argyle Street and Montrose Avenue. We paddled through the flotsam and refuse of human life—miscellaneous garbage bobbing on the surface; chunks of wood and metal from the many deteriorating (and illegal) docks protruding from the water’s edge; and the ubiquitous plastic grocery bags, which catch on the branches of trees when the river’s current suddenly rises during a combined sewage overflow event, then slowly deteriorate in a dirty sort of flaking process enabled by wind and the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

North Branch of the Chicago River. Note the plastic bags hanging from the tree branches, and the large sewage/stormwater outfall pipe underneath the bridge. (Photo: M. Bryson, Oct. 2013)

More encouragingly, though, during our paddle we caught sight of several heron species native to Illinois, including both a male and female black-crowned night heron, which along with its cousin the green heron loves to fish along the spillway in West River Park. This commendable city parkland, where the meandering North Branch converges with the North Shore Channel (itself sluggish and swollen with wastewater effluent from the upstream sewage treatment plant), provides splendid public access to the river, both for on-shore fishing or launching canoes. My students were impressed by the scene—several had never seen either heron species previously—and even the veteran birders in the group relished an intimate and rather prolonged encounter with the aptly named black-crowned.

Fast-forward two weeks to the first weekend of November. Instead of kneeling in the bottom of a canoe, alternately scanning the waterline and the sky, I was sitting at a roundtable discussion forum on water at the Great Lakes Bioneers environmental sustainability conference hosted by Roosevelt University, where I teach in the Sustainability Studies program. The only wildlife immediately present here were human beings (and, to be sure, their resident microscopic biota) passionately engaged in debating ideas about and brainstorming solutions for some of most pressing environmental challenges here in our urban communities: food justice, waste reduction, energy and water conservation, neighborhood cohesion and resilience, sustainable economic development, green infrastructure creation, environmental justice, and—last but hardly least—climate change.

As grateful as I was for my students having seen the black-crowned night herons on the river—the birds’ presence a symbol of the waterway’s insistence at behaving like a living ecosystem rather than a mere combined sewage overflow-absorbing waste sink—I was thrilled to have these same students two weeks later seated around a small table during the Bioneers water discussion/workshop session with noted scientist, poet, environmental writer, and activist Sandra Steingraber. In both her comments during that afternoon session, and later that evening during her stirring keynote presentation, Steingraber artfully described the interconnectedness and fragility of our freshwater ecosystems, particularly groundwater; pointedly critiqued our country’s continued reliance upon fossil fuel combustion that powers our energy needs yet is having damaging impacts upon our climate; and urged us here in Illinois to engage in debate about and resistance to the rapidly expanding practice of horizontal hydrofracturing, or fracking—an “extreme fossil fuel extraction” process which is well-established now in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and other states, and set to begin operations here in southern Illinois within months.

This brings me in roundabout fashion to the central issue in this essay: namely, what does the imminent prospect of fracking here in the Prairie State have to do with encountering wildlife here in the Chicago Region? In other words, how is biodiversity here in our heavily urbanized northeastern corner of the state linked with fossil fuel extraction 350 miles south in what Illinoisans north of Interstate 80 imprecisely (and sometimes dismissively) refer to as “Downstate”?

One answer I’d humbly offer involves the recognition of the connections, many and various, that exist between these otherwise quite different parts of our state. The first is political: although we inhabit quite different cultural and natural communities along the longitudinal axis of Illinois’ geography, our tax dollars collectively support state agencies charged with protecting and managing our natural resources—most notably, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Our votes elect government representatives who this past summer decided overwhelmingly in favor of allowing the controversial practice of fracking to commence here in Illinois, despite vigorous grassroots environmental opposition to that bill by many who would have rather seen enacted a state-wide fracking moratorium.

Another connection is ecological, specifically concerning the vulnerability of water resources and the process of climate change. While the city of Chicago has benefitted during the past couple years from the closing of several old coal-fired power plants (the heavily polluting Fisk and Crawford Stations on Chicago’s Southwest Side and the State Line Station in nearby Hammond, IN), and despite the fact that Illinois derives a significant percentage of its electricity from nuclear power (itself problematic for other reasons), the state’s impending investment in fracking represents continued and ever-greater dependency upon fossil fuels for its short-term energy needs.

Though natural gas, admittedly, burns “cleaner” than coal and its combustion emits lesser amounts of greenhouse gases, its extraction via fracking is highly energy- and water-intensive: millions of gallons of high-pressure water laced with sand and a chemical cocktail are injected underground to shatter shale formations in order to extract trapped bubbles of natural gas. The resulting wastewater that comes back up to the surface is heavily polluted and represents a highly problematic disposal challenge. The assurances that the violent methods of fracking pose little danger to groundwater resources is far from adequately studied or settled, as noted in this 2012 report from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Wisconsin frac sand mining operation, aerial view. (Image: istockphoto.com)

These important ecological concerns about fracking’s viability and safety notwithstanding, the combustion of any fossil fuel emits GHGs to the atmosphere, which in turn drives the process of climate change. Even as Chicago continues to work on mitigating its own greenhouse gas emissions through its Climate Change Action Plan, its adaptation strategies detailed here include the recognition that the Chicago Region’s climate is warming, and that natural resource managers must take this trend into account when planting trees, managing local plant communities, and preserving appropriate habitat for urban and suburban wildlife. What fellow creatures we encounter on canoe rides and forest preserve hikes may well change in coming decades. As noted by the conservation organization, Chicago Wilderness, in “Climate Change Impacts on Regional Biodiversity“:

Climate change will also impact the region’s animals. For example, a number of bird species will experience significant changes in their range. As many as 44 species of birds that currently breed in Illinois may no longer breed in the state by the end of the century. We could lose such familiar species as the tree swallow, black-capped chickadee, white breasted nuthatch, house wren, gray catbird, red-eyed vireo, yellow warbler, ovenbird, scarlet tanager, chipping sparrow, Baltimore oriole and American goldfinch.

Some research has suggested that climate change may also negatively impact pollinator species like bees, butterflies and bats. As temperatures change, plants may open earlier in the year, before bees emerge or butterflies leave their chrysalis. This could make it harder for animals and insects to remain in our region if they missed their primary food supply because the plants changed to a different schedule. Also, in general, many kinds of pest insects, like mosquitoes, prefer warmer weather. Warmer weather earlier in the year may result in greater damage from insect pests.

A third connection between Chicago and southern Illinois is recreational. While Chicago and its suburbs constitute the highest-profile cultural playground of the Land of Lincoln—and, as readers of the City Creatures blog well know, its abundant and diverse natural resources constitute a remarkable urban wilderness for exploring the natural world — the forests, canyons, rivers, and wetlands of the southern quarter of our state collectively house a stunning diversity of species and ecosystems. Illinois’ only national forest, the sprawling yet somewhat fragmented 280,000-acre Shawnee, not only encompasses much of this diversity, but also is vulnerable to oil and gas extraction through fracking, as a good percentage of oil, gas, and mineral rights within these federally-managed lands are owned privately.

Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest. (Image: theshawneenationalforest.com)

To be sure, Shawnee National Forest might as well be in another state (or country) for most people in the Chicago region, as relatively few have visited that part of Illinois. But right here about an hour’s drive from the city limits is another parkland of immense natural beauty, cultural significance, and economic vitality: Starved Rock State Park, which at 2.2 million visitors per year is by far the most heavily visited state park facility in Illinois and one of northern Illinois’ most outstanding natural features. Many of these visitors come from Chicago and its suburbs, and they encounter eagles patrolling the river, enjoy stunning views of water-formed canyons and eroded bluff formations, and find quiet in the deep woodland trails that lead away from the crowded river bluffs and their observation platforms.

Though never a pristine wilderness area due to its proximity to the busy industrial waterway of the Illinois River, the traffic of Interstate 80, the twin cities of LaSalle-Peru, and nearby working farmlands, Starved Rock is now adjacent and vulnerable to sand mining operations in its immediate vicinity. The recent controversy over the county- and state-approved Mississippi Sand LLC mining operation, which is set to start silica sand mining just past the eastern border of the park despite grassroots opposition by many local citizens, poses potential air and water quality hazards to surrounding communities. Just as crucially, it also signals the onset of a disruptive industrialization of the parkland’s adjacent lands, a change that some local citizens worry will deter people from visiting Starved Rock in the future, hurt the local economy, and diminish the area’s overall quality of life. Silica sand is, of course, a vital component of the fracking process. Silica-rich deposits in central Wisconsin are now being feverishly mined to supply the exponentially growing fracking industry; Starved Rock appears to be next in line.

Sand mining operations in LaSalle County, Illinois. (Image: Chicago Tribune)

Thus the silica buried in north-central Illinois, a natural resource coveted by and utterly necessary to the fracking industry, represents a threat to the identity and conservation of the state’s most visited and celebrated parkland. It also constitutes an indirect yet profound link between, on one hand, urban citizens’ yearning for contact with wildlife and wild landscapes and, on the other, the resource-intensive extraction of fossil fuels from our state’s allegedly protected lands.

So what’s the upshot of all this? Perhaps that the many and various wildlife encounters we have here in our city and suburban neighborhoods are much, much more than spirit-lifting and senses-pleasing meetings of the animal/human world. Though laden with meaning and joy unto themselves, those experiences are embedded in a large and complex web of connections—a web that is at once ecological, political, and social.

Black-Crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) stalking along the edge of a pond in India

Thus it is that even as I remember the pleasure of seeing a black-crowned night heron skim the waters of the Chicago River’s North Branch, I simultaneously consider the impacts of climate change upon the present and future biota of our city parks and neighborhoods; the role of fossil fuel production and combustion in accelerating climate change locally, regionally, and globally; and the contested political processes by which oil, gas, and mining companies create opportunities to extract raw materials from our state lands in order to profit themselves, in the process further driving the warming of our planet.

As we head into the cold clarity of December in Chicago, I know that the readers of and contributors to City Creatures will seek out contact with the urban nature around us, in all its many forms — from busy city parks to the open lakefront to secluded forest preserve trails to the homey confines of back yards. But once you come in from the cold and sip your tea or hot chocolate to warm up, consider firing up your computer and checking out the IDNR’s draft regulations on fracking here in Illinois. Right now, and only until January 3rd, this critical document is open for public scrutiny and comment—it represents the only chance Illinois citizens have for providing input to and critique of a game-changing shift in the state’s fossil-fuel production economy—a shift with far-reaching consequences not just for the areas to be “fracked up” Downstate, but also for the biota and climate of Chicago and its neighboring communities.

  • Michael Bryson

    Michael Bryson is Professor of Humanities & Sustainability Studies at Roosevelt University and a Research Associate in Science and Education at the Field Museum of Natural History, both in Chicago, Illinois.

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