From far away, the Loyola Beach dunes might look like an overgrown weed patch, but hiding in those swaying grasses are five nearly extinct Illinois plants.
In Cook County, there are 100 threatened or endangered plants native to Illinois, according to the Illinois Natural Heritage Database. To have five of them in the 4-acre dunes is remarkable.
For the last 11 years, the Chicago Park District and volunteers from Rogers Park have cultivated these rare plants and cared for the dunes, which are hills of sand created by wind and water. This natural area runs along the pier at Loyola Park between Pratt Boulevard and Farwell Avenue.
The project started when Rogers Park resident and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee Ann Whelan spotted a state-endangered plant growing by the pier in 2003. She couldn’t give the name of the plant because she said someone in the neighborhood might try to take it from the dunes.
Whelan, who at the time was monitoring rare plants in the city as part of a volunteer project for the Chicago Botanic Garden, worried the plant would be ripped up by the machines the park district uses to clean the beach. As a result, she took matters into her own hands.
“I called them and said, ‘What are you doing? You’re ruining these plants!’” Whelan said.
Within a year, the park district had put up a fence around the area and secured a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to start restoring the dunes. Whelan just had to supply the volunteers to scatter seeds from native Illinois plants and remove non-native plants.
Now, Whelan’s list of volunteers has more than 75 people on it, although only about one to two dozen of them regularly show up for the monthly cleanup days. The Rogers Park community has also embraced the dunes, according to Whelan.
“People feel a lot of ownership toward it,” Whelan said. “In dry years, the neighbors will come and water the plants.”
Sand dunes, which are similar to prairies, once lined the southern coast of Lake Michigan. Shaped by the wind and waves, the tough, crisscrossing grasses and deep-rooted wildflowers protect the land from erosion as well as provide a habitat for birds, bugs and other wildlife.
In Chicago, dunes act as quiet spaces for the community as well as spots for education and scientific research. The Loyola Beach dunes represent just a few of the 1,400 acres of native habitats spread throughout Chicago, according to Zvezdana Kubat from the Chicago Park District’s Communication Department.
When in that type of urban environment, dunes face threats from both people and invasive species. Whelan and the other volunteers have to routinely pick up trash and pull aggressive non-native plants like cocklebur, sweet clover and lyme grass from the restoration site.
“It’s hands-and-knees work,” said John Lamping, who has been volunteering at the site for five years.
Lamping, a longtime Rogers Park resident, has a doctorate degree in the ecology of the south Great Lakes area. If Lamping spots people watching him while he works in the dunes, he’ll make an effort to talk to them, he explained.
“Most people view it with benign interest,” Lamping said of the Rogers Park community. “They just don’t know what it is.”
Each year, volunteers reseed the dunes. About 95 to 97 percent of the dunes are made up of native plants now, Lamping estimated. Roughly 80 percent of those plants were brought to the dunes either by wind or carried there by animals. There’s even a prickly pear cactus tucked away in the grasses.
The flourishing dunes are a temptation for specialty plant collectors, according to Whelan and Lamping. The incidents are few and far between, but occasionally neighbors dig up the rare plants.
It’s never still out on the sand dunes. Wind rips through the 4-foot tall grasses, which cover the roar of city life with their own low swish. As fall takes hold of the dunes, the leaves on the wildflowers and shrubs start to change along with the trees, giving the place a slow red glow.
“It transports you,” Lamping said. “When you’re there you feel completely disconnected from Sheridan Road, the concrete buildings and the sirens.”
But with ropes and fences surrounding both the dunes and the other anti-erosion projects the park district has started along Loyola Beach, the space looks closed off to some community members.
“It feels under construction rather than a beautiful, natural beach,” said Rogers Park resident Will Snyder.
When Snyder came to Chicago from Tennessee, he settled in Rogers Park because of the neighborhood’s effort to protect its natural spaces.
“I really wanted to live in a neighborhood that came together to try to make it better,” he said.
While he supports the dunes restoration, Snyder says he wishes it were easier to tell that it is an environmental project.
Still, the dunes are open to the public. Each day, several people walk through the sand and pebble path to the lake, often stopping to take photos or get a closer look at a wildflower.
“It engages people,” Lamping said. “They make their own discoveries.”
Over the years, Lamping and Whelan have seen people use the dunes for everything from ecological research to wedding photo shoots.
“People go to there for rites of passage, to grieve and to celebrate.” Whelan said of the space she helped create. “Any solace or joy it can give to people is really gratifying for me.”
Birders, naturalists and artists flock to the spot just like migrating waterfowl, nesting birds and dragonflies.
“If you’re quiet and just look, you’ll see things you can’t see anywhere else in the city,” Lamping said. “In its own quiet way, it’s magnetic.”