DUNNING — A Far Northwest Side nature oasis is now under Park District jurisdiction, paving the way for improvements and revitalization, neighbors said.
The Dunning-Read Conservation Area, 23 acres of wetlands and woodlands along the city’s western border, was transferred from state ownership to the Chicago Park District last month. It was previously managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Improvements have begun at the area, which is in desperate need of maintenance. Dunning residents also formed an elected park advisory council to work with the district on restoration projects, cleanup events and engaging the community.
“I know the history about the place … [so] I want to see if we can get something done here,” said Brian Stevens, the council’s new president and a longtime volunteer.
The conservation area is on the grounds of the former Chicago-Read Mental Health Center, 4200 N. Oak Park Ave., and was once slated for development. Neighbors fought to keep it a nature area. It was managed by local organizations and maintained exclusively by volunteers.
Open to the public March to November, the site features a walking trail, a small rain garden, a pond and a plant nursery. It is home to coyotes, raccoons, garter snakes and other wildlife.
Volunteers and nature conservationists said the area has become difficult to access as maintenance has fallen off due to a lack of funding. They hope state funds and new ownership will lead to better trails, fences, signs and parking.
“If it looked like it was maintained, people would start using [the area] more,” Stevens said.
Park District spokesperson Irene Tostado said the agency is working with the community group to restore the woodlands and stone benches and update connecting trails with plants and fencing.
Agency crews are also removing weeds and non-native brush and trees with herbicide on stumps and roots, collecting and planting native plants and building a pedestrian woodchip walkway throughout the area, Tostado said. New signs, an information kiosk and a shelter are also being added.
“This is a long-term restoration project that will progress over the course of many years with a scope that will expand over time as resources allow,” Tostado said in a statement. “Visitors can still find wetlands, complete with prairie crayfish and numerous species of insects and birds, much like how the area looked over two hundred years ago.”
The ownership transfer was part of a land deal bill backed by Northwest Side lawmakers Sen. Rob Martwick and Rep. Lindsey LaPointe and signed into law last summer by Gov. JB Pritzker.
The legislation also allocated $50,000 in state funding to be used for area improvements, though it has not yet been released for use, said Alex Sobor, Martwick’s outreach director.
The Park District is using internal funding for the improvements until state funding becomes available, Tostado said.
Ed Bannon, a council member and longtime volunteer, is excited to have fresh voices join the council and see a renewed interest in environmental sustainability. The new leadership team and the Park District’s help is a “powerful combination,” he said.
Community involvement is “a beautiful grassroots thing — there are all kinds of people who are excited and want to get involved,” Bannon said. “If people want to do an event, there is nothing really stopping them.”
Erika Street Hopman, vice president of the advisory council, said she also wants to get the community involved in restoring the area and protecting the green space. The group members have hosted public meetings and want to get a feel for what neighbors want to see at the conservation area. Students from neighboring Wright College are also helping organize events and gather ideas for the area’s restoration.
The group plans to host an opening ceremony in the summer to celebrate the new ownership and get the community excited about improvements.
“It’s a natural ecosystem … for people to come close to that environment is really special,” Street Hopman said. “We need better maintaining of the area and natural species.”
Those interested in volunteering can reach out to the park advisory council’s secretary Jeff Daube at firstname.lastname@example.org
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