CHICAGO (CBS) — A fierce debate is raging, of all places, within Chicago’s bird watching community.
The Chicago Park District is making a nationally-renowned bird sanctuary easier to access for people with disabilities. But as CBS 2’s Tim McNicholas reported, it is causing a rift among birders.READ MORE: Illinois House Passes Legislation To Repeal Parental Notification Abortion Law
The Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary is a place where more than 300 species have fluttered their wings. And now, the Park District plans to install a wheelchair-accessible path – which has some birdwatchers chirping.
“The construction will be very disruptive to the birds,” said birdwatcher Janet Pellegrini.
“If you do pavement here, there’s not going to be any birds here,” said birdwatcher Dave Hadzic.
“I’m opposed to the path being installed in a natural habitat,” said birdwatcher Paul Bortin.
The asphalt path will be an eight-foot-wide loop through the sanctuary. The Park District’s website says construction could start any time after Tuesday, June 1.
A spokesperson said they will wait until spring migration is over.
“It’s not really clear why this had to be eliminated,” Pellegrini said.
Pellegrini, who is also an Environmental Protection Agency scientist, argues damage was already done when the park district cut down several trees and branches for the path.
“If you want everyone to see the birds, including handicapped people, you should maintain the reason the birds come here in the first place,” she said.
The plan is supported by at least two local birding groups – the Chicago Audubon Society and the Chicago Ornithological Society. Edward Warden is president of the latter.
“We do believe it will be done as responsibly as can be done,” Warden said. “We want to make sure that as we move forward – planning our outdoors, planning our park spaces and trying to make these areas equitable for all – that were including that in part of the planning.” warrenREAD MORE: CBS 2 Investigation Leads To Thousands Of Tossed Tickets: "Evidence Was Clear"
Critics say people in wheelchairs can already use the wood chip path. But Warren sees it differently.
“Even if it’s possible, that doesn’t mean that’s easy or accessible,” he said, “and I think that’s an important distinction to make.”
As for those chopped trees, the Park District said there were 24 – and they’ll all be replaced.
But even as construction starts, the debate will not fly away anytime soon.
“it’s going to upset the natural balance here,” Borton said.
Park District spokeswoman Michele Lemons released the following statement about the decision to build the accessible path:
“The Chicago Park District recognizes the importance of Montrose Point as valuable habitat for many bird species. It is one of the many gems in our park system’s nationally recognized Natural Areas program. It is also one of our most popular locations for bird watching, and attracts hundreds of bird species and thousands of visitors during migration season. The primary intention of ecological management at Montrose point is to provide critical habitat for birds. Vegetation also dramatically shapes visitors’ experience, sense of safety, and the overall aesthetics of Montrose Point. This master plan recommends a balanced approach to ecological management that will result in world-class bird habitat; healthy, native vegetation; and create a safe, welcoming environment for Montrose Point visitors.
“In 2020, the Chicago Park District received a grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to make improvements to existing features including new signage, a new entryway, an accessible trail, and habitat improvements. The accessible trail is one of several improvements called for in a comprehensive master plan for Montrose Point that was completed with extensive stakeholder and public input in 2015. The trail is supported by many of our partners in conservation efforts, including Chicago Audubon, the Chicago Ornithological Society, and The Nature Conservancy.
“The Chicago Park District stands by our efforts to provide inclusive access to Chicago’s most popular birding location. The removal of 24 trees for the trail work was completed in November of 2020, and all trees will be replaced as part of the project. In most cases, the trail improvements will narrow the existing trails, which have grown to 15-20 feet wide due to heavy foot traffic in areas near popular views. Construction of the trail improvements will take place this summer once spring migration is complete.”
McNicholas also raised some specific points with Lemons that were brought up by critics of the path, including that the initial 2015 plans for it differ drastically from the new plans and did not call for asphalt.
“The Master Plan does not specify asphalt for the accessible path,” Lemons wrote. “The current design is based on the construction drawings that were developed under a subsequent grant from IDNR, and those plans clearly recommend asphalt paving for the primary loop trail. This detail was shared at the public meeting held in 2017.”
McNicholas also asked whether the new trees that will replace the 24 that came down will be newly-planted or fully grown and transplanted.
“Any trees planted will be new trees,” Lemons wrote. “Please note that habitat restoration for any disturbed area will include more than just tree planting.”
McNicholas noted further that some birders are concerned the asphalt will draw bikers and skateboarders, which could create disturbances – despite the fact that such activities are not allowed. Lemons said there are plans to prevent that from happening.
“There will be improved signage clearly indicating that bicycles are not allowed,” she wrote. “Also, the main entrance will have a maze-like entrance which will be difficult for a bike to maneuver through. Secondary entrances will have new bollards.”MORE NEWS: Chicago Hauntings: Ghosts, A Portal, And A Devil Baby At Jane Addams' Hull House
You may recall the birds in the Montrose Harbor and Beach area have made headlines before. The Park District recently expanded a protected area of the dunes there by three acres to help out a pair of endangered birds called piping plovers, who made Montrose their nesting space.