“Ecological restoration is like surgery,” an avid birder shared with me as I stood with her and her fellow birders who walk North Pond each Wednesday morning, discussing the North Pond Restoration Project. “It’s painful, ugly, and it takes time to heal. But when it does, the system is balanced and healthy.” I’m paraphrasing here a bit, but that’s the gist of what she said. From our vantage point that morning standing on the historic casting pier, her analogy hit home; trees had been removed, the shoreline was exposed, and a big earth-moving machine was digging up material from the pond bottom and spreading it on the bank.
We are in the midst of North Pond’s restoration, and it isn’t necessarily pretty. But like surgery, our vision is on the outcome: a healthy North Pond for this and future generations; generations of not just people, but birds, turtles, trees, frogs and hundreds of other plants and animals that will call North Pond home. As a person who’s undergone a surgery or two, I can attest to my colleague’s analogy. I will also add that no amount of pre-surgery consultation or preparation from the doctor can adequately prepare you for what it looks and feels like after the fact. Understandably, the removal of trees and the presence of large earth-moving machinery has caused concern, questions, and downright anger from some. This is understandable. Change is hard, especially in the thick of it.
Some park-users and neighbors may remember the first restoration of North Pond over 20 years ago. Many of North Pond’s beloved natural areas were planted during that project. At the time, the idea of ecological restoration in a city park was nascent and there was uncertainty and concern from the community. Like now, the project looked worse before it looked better. During the initial restoration it was known even then that North Pond would need to be dredged eventually, but due to cost and complexity that part of the project was deferred.
Twenty-plus years later, it is time to finish the work we started to ensure North Pond’s long-term health. North Pond has been on life-support for some time. Without help, the Pond will slowly fill in and degrade to a point where it will be a shadow of its former self and be inhospitable to the beautiful creatures, we see there every day.
One need only to look at other examples in Chicago’s parks: Horner Park, South Pond, Wooded Isle, Big Marsh, and Montrose Point. Just like North Pond, these special places underwent their own restoration projects and looked worse before they transformed for the better. Today, many would say that the short-term pain was worth the long-term gain to improve these natural areas. I encourage us all—myself included—to keep the future in mind. There is another side to this story, and it is worth the wait to get to the ending. Once there, I am certain we will all be thankful for the North Pond Restoration Project as we bask in the beauty of a healthy, balanced ecosystem for us and many generations to enjoy, and for hundreds of plants and animals to call home.
In closing, I want to assure our community that the current plants and animals at North Pond are of utmost importance during the restoration. We will continue to do all we can to ensure the health and vitality of North Pond’s residents. While change can be difficult, I encourage all of us to watch as the process transpires this summer and fall. The healing will begin quickly and the resilience of nature, coupled with a healthy foundation, will bring a wider variety of plants and animals to the pond.
-Doug Widener, Executive Director, Lincoln Park Conservancy