So where does a
town dispose of the 7,000 pounds of trash generated every day by its 3,500
or so residents?
If it’s circa 1955
and the town is Chesterton, in a privately owned wetland west of South 11th
Street, just across the street from what’s now the rear entrance to
Westchester Intermediate School.
Repeat: in a
No problem. No
questions asked. No squawks, no beefs, from IDEM. Because--as Town Council
President Jim Ton, R-1st, now remembers--“in the Fifties ‘wetlands were
wastelands.’” And this wetland was the town dump. “Washing machines,
household junk, kitchen garbage all went into the wetland,” Ton says.
What must once have
been a bustling, tidy little ecosystem became, inevitably, a choked,
stagnant no-go zone for all manner of wildlife starved of food sources and
deprived of nesting habitat. Native vegetation withered and was replaced by
colonizing invasives like cattail, phragmities, and canary reed. Now perhaps
only 10 to 15 percent of the property provides suitable habitat for common
wetland and woodland species.
It’s unclear when
exactly the dumping stopped; 1965 is a good guess. It’s also unclear why
exactly the property owner authorized the town to dump there in the first
place, or whether he was compensated for the use of it. In any case, at some
point 19 acres of the site, immediately south of Washington Ave. and east of
Griffin Lake, passed into the hands of the Duneland YMCA.
And then, 14 years
ago, the Porter County Parks Foundation (PCPF) acquired it from the Y. The
original plan was to develop “an educational area for local schools,” PCPF
member Tim Cole says, with a hike/bike trail crossing the site and
connecting to the Westchester-Liberty Trail via the Rosehill Estates
Not a bad plan, all
things considered, but it “lay unmoved for nearly 15 years,” Cole says.
Then PCPF Member
Dick Maxey had an idea, an ambitious, even audacious one. First: bury the
old dump under new fill, eradicate the invasives, promote the growth of
native wetland vegetation, and control the water level. Then: wait for the
And that was the
genesis of the Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
Raising a Sanctuary
from a Dump
In a remarkably
short period of time--Maxey and Cole first broached their plans to the
Chesterton Town Council only three years ago--PCPF has managed to take a
mere pie-in-the-sky and bang it smack into the oven, beginning with its
purchase in 2013 of an additional 20 contiguous acres on South 11th Street.
Not only did that acquisition double the size of the property, more
important by far it made the original, not-quite-landlocked holding easily
accessible to the public, with ample room for parking, picnicking, and the
construction of observation platforms.
Maxey himself, in
the meantime, has proved an indefatigable promoter of the Sanctuary,
outreaching to IDEM, DNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers, and the Town of Chesterton; partnering with Purdue University
Northwest’s Department of Biology; and banking scads of financial and
in-kind contributions from a deep and diverse network of volunteers and
The earliest phase
of the old dump, just off South 11th Street, has been buried--with IDEM’s
blessings--under four feet of fill. A parking area graveled and graded. An
impressive gabion retaining wall of limestone built at the dump’s margins,
to filter runoff from the parking area into the wetland. Great swaths of
cattail and phragmities uprooted. A fine 24’ x 32’ shelter erected. And two
trails--one flanking the wetland to the north, the other to the south--are
currently under construction, the northern one so far extending all the way
to the site’s western boundary at Lake Griffin.
“When we first
started this project,” Maxey says, “we got out here and looked at it and we
thought ‘We’re nuts, this is crazy.’ But once we got into it, we began to
see what it could be. We had a vision of a finished product.”
None of which is to
say that the Sanctuary is anywhere close to being a finished product. There
are, not to put too fine a point on it, moving parts inside this project’s
For example: a
drainage ditch dug years ago by the original property owner needs to be
broken open--under a permit obtained from the Army Corps--to “let the water
run laterally out into the wetland,” Maxey says. Mud flats, absolutely
crucial for attracting migratory shorebirds, need to be developed at the
site’s west end. Native vegetation needs to be planted and scrub trees and
buttonbushes removed. The northern trail needs to be embanked on either side
and the dump remnant which it traverses in-filled with 12 to 14 inches of
This year alone,
Maxey estimates, $50,000 in funds and in-kind still need to be raised, to
finish the walking trails and build a two-tier observation platform.
It’s All About the
(And the Birders)
For Ken Brock,
Northwest Indiana’s Dean of Birding, the prospect of a new shorebird habitat
in the Dunes is exciting. Wetlands per se are common enough in the
region (although easily accessible ones aren’t). Distinctly uncommon are
reliable--that is to say, water-level controlled--mudflats. Migrating
shorebirds will fly hundreds of miles for a good mudflat.
could become a prime stopover for the 36 shorebird species that transit
Indiana regularly,” Brock says. “Many of these birds migrate from the Arctic
to South America. Almost all are required to stop for food and rest along
the way. But human development has greatly diminished sites for the migrants
to land. Thus, the sanctuary could fill a valuable ornithological need as
well as providing a superb birding site.”
So: restore a
wetland, and the birds will come. As will the birders. Just ask the
innkeepers and restaurateurs of Linton, Ind. For years now they’ve been
catering to the flocks of birders who regularly visit Goose Pond Fish &
Wildlife Area, a five-minute drive from Downtown Linton. Goose Pond was once
a ditched, tiled, diked, and ultimately failed farmland. Now its restored
wetlands are arguably the finest overall avian habitat in Indiana--with
scores of extraordinary sightings over the last 15 years--and birders from
across the Midwest know it.
Maxey has something
like that in mind--though on a smaller scale--for the Westchester Migratory
Bird Sanctuary. The Dunes are already a birders’ destination, of course. But
the Dunes are in the Dunes. The Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary is, as
Maxey notes, right here, in town. “This will be a tourist attraction,
something Chesterton will be proud of.”
executive director of Indiana Dunes Tourism, gets it. “Birding is one of the
key niche markets we’re going after,” she says. “What’s especially exciting
about the project is that it will bring birders out of some of the more
remote sites in the Dunes and right into Downtown Chesterton.”
“I knew about the
Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary when it was just a concept,” Weimer
adds. “And I’m so impressed by the vision of the Parks Foundation to take
this property--which at the end of the day had no real value--and turn it
into a birding destination. That was really forward-thinking on their part.
And what they’ve been able to do on a shoestring budget is amazing.”
mistaking the fact that the site of the Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary
used to be a dump.
On either side of a
newly built trail skirting the wetland’s north edge lie strews of
Chesterton’s secret household history: a tire or two, a rotor, rusted
lengths of corrugated pipe, and all manner of vintage medicine vials, food
packaging, and formerly garish plastic containers not seen on store shelves
in half a century.
Dick Maxey, a
member of the Porter County Parks Foundation and the Sanctuary’s guiding
light, has salvaged a couple of pristine Mason jars from the site and, on
one occasion, a “mint condition” piece of white porcelain, stamped
“Chesterton China” on the back.
And the stuff is
still all there, underground: a municipal midden, out of sight and long out
of mind. The dump’s earliest reaches, located just yards off South 11th
Street--in later years the Street Department was forced to venture ever
further to the west for virgin dumping grounds--Maxey describes as having
once been a “lake.” How deep down does it actually go? Maxey has no idea.
But it’s buried now beneath four feet of fill.
But the site’s
peculiar past means that restoring the wetlands isn’t simply a matter of
regulating water levels. (Maxey does that easily enough, by means of a weir.
Open the weir--allowing the natural east-to-west flow to run into Peterson
Ditch--to lower the water level. Close the weir to raise it.)
In fact the project
is a little like a military operation in scope. There’s embanking to be
done, dredging, hauling, grading, in-filling, landscaping, eradicating,
sowing, planting, and cultivating. There’s work for carpenters, equipment
operators (and mechanics), biologists, ornithologists, gardeners, and good
old-fashioned ditch diggers. And there’s an enormous need for material:
dirt, stone, seed, fuel, saplings.
To date, Maxey’s
proved hugely successful in enlisting corporate, institutional, and private
support for the Sanctuary, in the form of cash, in-kind services, and
put-your-back-into-it sweat equity.
Phoenix Services LLC; C&E Pipeline Service; T&M Tire; Chesterton Feed &
Garden; David’s Lawn Care; Indiana American Water Company; Harris Welsh &
Lukmann; Harley-Davidson of Valparaiso; Pinkerton Oil Company; and Phillippe
Chesterton/Porter Rotary; Indiana Dunes Tourism; Indiana Audubon Society;
the Porter County Master Gardeners Association; and the Park View Place and
Griffin Lake homeowners associations.
From Sylvia Graham;
Jim Biggs; Greg Ward; Kathleen Zelkowitz; Dianne O’Connell; Sally Gibbs; Pat
Carlisle; David Heller; Liz Zube; Larry and Linda Kilander; and the Harold
McCarron, Robert Dunbar, and Donald Randolph families.
And from Jeff
Larson and his CHS building trades students, who constructed a 24’ x 32’
shelter on the property; Eagle Scouts Joshua Watkins, who built four benches
for the site, and Josh Williams, who erected 20 bat- and birdhouses; and
Liberty Intermediate School’s sixth-graders, who’ve dedicated themselves to
So the Westchester
Migratory Bird Sanctuary is, in the best sense, a community project, with an
astonishing degree of buy-in already.
But a great deal of
work is yet to be done, most of the funding received to date has been used,
and Maxey is now hopeful of recruiting the next phase of backers.
information on how to become part of the Westchester Migratory Bird
Sanctuary, visit the Porter County Park Foundation’s website at
pcparksfoundation.com and click on “How You Can Help!” Or shoot an e-mail to
Or just show up at
the Bird Festival and Habitat Improvement Day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Saturday, April 8. The Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary is at 1050 S.
11th St. in Chesterton.