Whenever she gets the chance, Anne Holcomb takes the homeless youth she assists in her role at a Chicago nonprofit to the South Shore Nature Sanctuary, a 6-acre lakefront site with paths that bring visitors up close with a variety of trees, plants and flowers.
She says that many of the young people she works with have never seen Lake Michigan, despite having lived in the city their entire lives. Most have never even spent time in nature, she said.
On Tuesday, Holcomb organized a field trip to the sanctuary with a group of homeless youth. She brought along a beekeeper and a naturalist to help teach the group about the wildlife found at the site.
Toward the end of the visit, Holcomb brought the group to a circular seating area and asked the youth to close their eyes and sit in silence for five minutes. Afterward, a teen in the group described how he was able to hear birds chirping and water splashing, something he had never experienced in such a tranquil way.
“It was just so incredibly peaceful,” Holcomb said, “and everybody enjoyed it so much. They didn’t want to leave.”
The sanctuary, which sits adjacent to the South Shore Cultural Center, is at the center of the debate over the $30 million project led by pro golfer Tiger Woods to upgrade and merge the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses.
Current plans call for breaking up the sanctuary to make way for a hole that would offer clear views of the downtown skyline, serving as the “money shot” for televised tournaments. Woods’ design firm, TGR Design, has pledged to keep 3.5 acres of the sanctuary in place. Even with that smaller footprint, Woods’ plans would increase the amount of natural space on and around the new golf course to 11 acres – including the sanctuary – said Louise McCurry, president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council.
But environmental advocates and some regular visitors say the sanctuary should be left alone. Brenda Nelms, co-president of the advocacy group Jackson Park Watch, said current plans for the golf course would eliminate or alter existing baseball fields, a dog park and parts of the picnic area next to South Shore Beach, in addition to the sanctuary.
“It seems to us that there should be a possibility of improving the golf courses without destroying facilities that are used by others,” Nelms said in August on “Chicago Tonight.”
Earlier last month, Ald. Leslie Hairston, whose 5th Ward includes the sanctuary, was ridiculed after saying that the sanctuary has been “dead for some years” because of a lack of maintenance.
Hairston’s comments prompted the advocacy group Environmentalists of Color to hold a press conference disputing her claims. Advocates and others who frequent the sanctuary also responded by posting photos taken at the sanctuary on social media to prove that it is not in fact “dead.”
On Thursday, Hairston said she stands by her comments.
“I do,” she told WTTW News. “The perennials which were planted there have been strangled, the roots have been strangled by the invasive species. They are dead, and they cannot get any light.”
Like many natural sites, the sanctuary has dealt with invasive plants. The Chicago Park District, which manages the site, recently removed a section of shrubs that were overgrown and competing with native plants, according to a sign posted within the sanctuary. Native species will be planted in October to replace the removed plants.
Hairston, who supports Woods’ plan, said she visited the sanctuary last week but could not say whether she observed any signs pointing to a lack of maintenance or upkeep.
“I was not looking for that,” she said. “I walked in and I walked out. There have been times when I’ve been there where there has been trash and debris. There’s been times where there has been less than that.”
Hairston’s comments describing the sanctuary as “dead” were confusing to Susannah Ribstein, who co-chairs the Park District’s Community Stewardship Program for the sanctuary. On the third Saturday of the month from March through October, volunteers spend a few hours looking after the sanctuary.
“Sometimes there’s work to do like pulling weeds, picking up trash,” Ribstein said. “If there’s nothing to be done, sometimes we just hang out.”
Ribstein said the only time when trash is a problem is the start of spring, when volunteers and Park District workers have to clean up trash and debris that blows into the sanctuary from the golf course and lake during winter.
“Over the course of the summer, there’s usually not much trash to pick up because the Park District keeps it clean and people generally pick that stuff up,” she said.
Established in 2002, the sanctuary consists of dunes, wetlands, woodlands and prairies, with a boardwalk and walking trails weaving throughout the site. One path takes visitors through a meadow filled with asters, sunflowers and milkweed, which attract a large number of butterflies.
The west side of the area features a sand dune “inhabitated by grasses that can handle the spartan conditions of living on shifting sands,” according to the Park District. Nearby benches and stone seating rings offer clear views of the habitat and the city’s skyline.
Pockets of woodland found on the sanctuary’s south end serve as an important resting for birds passing through Chicago, making the site one of the best locations in the city to spot migrating birds.
“I see all of the care and work day in and day out over the years,” Ribstein said about the sanctuary’s upkeep by volunteers and the Park District. “To have somebody make a comment as though they are existing in a different reality than me and everyone else that I talk to is confusing.”
The future of the golf course project appears uncertain. The Park District signed a 10-year agreement with the nonprofit Chicago Parks Golf Alliance in 2017 to raise money for the project and oversee its construction, but most of the fundraising goals and timelines have not been met.
Hairston and McCurry said the project will provide the sanctuary with a much-needed upgrade, including an accessible pathway leading to the site and reinforcements for eroding shoreline that threatens to wipe out the sanctuary altogether.
“They’re going to bring it up to where it needs to be, and that’s a good thing,” Hairston said about the sanctuary. “This is not something to argue about. Everybody wants the same thing. We want a well-maintained nature sanctuary, and that’s what we’re trying to get through.”