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The Chicago (Ill.) Park District’s ambitious plan to reclaim land once used as a dumping ground by steel manufacturers recently received a major boost in the form of a $900,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, according to WTTW.

The funds will bankroll a slew of infrastructure projects at Big Marsh Park, 278 acres of wide-open space in the South Deering community on Chicago’s Southeast Side. Planned additions to Big Marsh, already home to a 40-acre bike park, include a primitive camping area with 12 tent platforms — a first for the park district — as well as a wildlife observation platform offering panoramic views and a fully accessible trail that, at approximately three miles, will circumnavigate the park by incorporating stretches of boardwalk over Big Marsh’s previously unpassable namesake marshes.

“Some of the work we’re doing here is similar to state parks and national parks,” said Matt Freer, assistant director of landscape for the Park District.

That’s quite a turnaround for Big Marsh, which rivals Grant Park in acreage, and its neighboring parks including Indian Ridge Marsh and Hegewisch Marsh. Though these and other wetlands dominate South Deering geographically, heavy industry and landfills long dominated the area in every other way. Big Marsh, abutting Lake Calumet, was heaped high with slag, a waste product of steelmaking that remained behind even after the factories were shuttered.

In the past decade, the Park District, with assistance from state, federal and private partners, has made significant strides toward transforming this wasteland into a wetlands ecosystem where plants and wildlife can thrive. The region’s parks are also being designed with an eye toward what the Park District calls “eco-recreation,” best demonstrated by Big Marsh’s bike jumps and the unique rock climbing wall in Steelworkers Park, built out of an old concrete ore wall (and financed by U.S. retailer REI) — the sort of features that might entice people to check out more of the area beside the Horseshoe Hammond Casino.

“It’s using recreation to bring folks to the parks,” Freer said, “and then highlighting the natural assets that are there.”

At Big Marsh, the planned multiuse trail will connect the “eco” and the “recreation,” linking the bike park on the south end with more natural areas on the north.

“There’s Three Finger Pond — that’s kind of a nickname but it seems like it’s stuck — that’s wonderful for bird-watching, but you can only get there with a certain amount of bushwhacking,” said Paul Fitzgerald, executive director of Friends of Big Marsh. “New trails will allow people to really explore the park.”

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