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Five-year plan to restore Hatcher Park and Marshalltown Marsh

Photo caption: Map of Hatcher Park and Marshalltown Marsh

Help is coming from conservationists to reclaim Gary’s land and water systems

Earth Day 2023’s cold and sleet couldn’t stop Audubon Great Lakes and its partners’ announcement of changes coming to Hatcher Park and its neighbor, Marshalltown Marsh.

Combined, the 300 acres of park and wetlands, bordered by east 21st Avenue and I-65 are among some of the degraded areas in Gary. Hatcher Park’s 20 acres are no longer a place for recreation. The pavilion is just a shell. Rainwater and debris fill the swimming pool. Nature has reclaimed the football and baseball fields.

Marshalltown Marsh, wetlands fed by the Little Calumet River, is now 280 acres of muck. Native vegetation that helped the marsh absorb rainwater and prevent flooding has been replaced by non-native plants or invasive species that don’t have absorption and filtration capacities.

Another result is a loss of habitat for native wildlife that depend on the wetlands to survive. The invasive species are fast growing and have pushed out native vegetation that provided areas to nest and feed for birds, small animals, and pollinating insects.

Coming on Earth Day 2023, the announcement of a 5-year plan to restore the park and marsh shows that healthy nature leads to healthy human communities. Audubon Great Lakes is a member of the Little Calumet Conservation Collaborative, along with the Wetlands Initiative, the Nature Conservancy, Lake County Parks & Recreation, City of Gary, the Gary Parks Department, the Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission, NIPSCO, Urban League of Northwest Indiana, and Green Spaces, Brown Faces.

Community engagement has been the focus for Jennifer Johnson, Program Associate, Wild Indigo Nature Explorations at Audubon Great Lakes. Johnson is the outdoor educator and coordinator for the program that helps communities of color connect with their local natural spaces. Johnson has met with block club members in Marshalltown and with other Gary groups about the need for the park to be restored. Last year, Wild Indigo held a tree planting with Bethune School.

“What I like about this space is there are so many things to uncover that are good,” Johnson said. “And I learned that Gary residents care about their environment.”

The Collaborative envisions Hatcher Park as the gateway for Gary and northwest Indiana residents to hike, bike, and walk trails connecting over five miles of restored prairies, woodlands and wetlands along the Little Calumet River in Gary.

Removing invasive species and clearing land in Hatcher Park has already started and will continue for at least 5 years. Engineering and design work at the park and marsh will begin in June, ending in February 2024.

Daniel Suarez, Conservation Manager for Audubon said, “We can tell the quality of the habitat in wetlands by the absence or presence of marsh bird species.”

Over the last 5 years, Audubon Great Lakes has worked on 400 acres of wetlands along the levees of the Little Calumet River – monitoring marsh birds and replacing invasive species with native vegetation.

Audubon has worked on wetlands south of I-94 between Martin Luther King Drive and Georgia Street; wetlands south of I-94 on Grant Street next to the Commission’s pumping station; wetlands south of I-94 between Grant and Chase Street; and the Highland Heron Rookery near Cline Avenue.

Suarez said wetlands can sequester more carbon than a forest.

Another goal of the project is to re-meander the Little Calumet River back to its original flow through the marsh. Currently, the river runs in an unnatural straight line through the site. Natural wetlands have very gradual elevation changes, Suarez said, allowing plants to establish on its banks. The water can stay in the marsh longer and help provide a higher quality habitat.

Indiana State Rep. Ragen Hatcher joined the celebration at the park, named after her father, Gary Mayor Richard G. Hatcher. Rep. Hatcher said her father lived in Marshalltown when he first came to Gary.

Two Saturdays this summer, June 24 and July 22, have been set by Wild Indigo for restoration days at Hatcher Park. They are invitations for volunteers to join the cleanup and opportunities to get community feedback.

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