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Conservationist makes home for native species

Sandy O'Brien created 15-acre wetlher property Hobart. | Phoprovided

Sandy O'Brien created a 15-acre wetland on her property in Hobart. | Photo provided

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Updated: June 20, 2013 2:31AM



“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtfully committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

— Margaret Mead

As the crow flies, Sandy O’Brien’s home is maybe a mile from the bustling intersection of Interstate 65 and 61st Avenue in Hobart.

The house isn’t visible from Liverpool Road and I didn’t spot her mail box when I pulled into the driveway.

I did spot an automobile with an Obama bumper sticker and an environmental license plate, a flat of native plants, and a three-acre pond teeming with pied-billed grebes, hooded mergansers, mallards, ring-neck ducks and a blue-winged teal. The terrain surrounding the far side of the pond had recently been burned.

I knew I was in the right place.

O’Brien, a conservationist with a degree in biology, is a shy, humble and unassuming person.

But when it comes to battling invasive species, the 54-year old mother of three is a warrior queen.

***

Born and raised in Hobart?

“No, I lived in the Aetna neighborhood of Gary until eighth-grade,” she said.

I recently interviewed former Chicago White Sox slugger Ron Kittle for this column; he was from the Aetna area.

“Ron was in some of my classes; I haven’t seen him since he became a major league baseball player.”

Did you graduate from Hobart High School?

“Yes, then Purdue (University Calumet in Hammond).”

I realize girls athletics hadn’t quite taken off in the early and mid-‘70s, but did you play any sports for the Brickies?

“No, I was the kind of person who made bad grades in gym.”

Nice spread you have here. How many acres?

“About 15, the pond is 25 feet deep. When it was dug, the clay went to the Gary landfill to provide daily cover between the layers.”

Are you an angler?

“My husband and I don’t fish much. We let the diving ducks do the fishing and once a year the osprey stop by. We also have kingfishers, green herons, blue herons and egrets that frequent the place — lots of wildlife.

“We’re part of Hobart Marsh, which is 1,000 acres of protected land. It’s a lot of wetlands interspersed with dry ground.”

Hobart Prairie Grove?

“I helped get it into the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore expansion bill that passed in 1992.”

Name a few of America’s most unwanted invasive species.

“In the wetlands, it’s definitely phragmites. You can probably add hybrid cattail right after that. In the woods, garlic mustard is one of the worst.”

Now that you’ve burned near your pond, what will pop up this spring?

“Prairie grasses, wild white indigo, wild bergamot, yellow coneflower, lead plant, beard tongue, prairie dock, compass plant, resin weed... .”

You have clients who want their private lands managed.

“Yes, I do burns and take care of their invasive species problems. Then, I plant native species. Native landscaping is getting to be more popular these days. People are realizing how important it is to support our native insects because our alien landscaping doesn’t. The native insects are what supports the native birds.”

Sandy, on our way home from Bloomington after doing a presentation of the documentary “Everglades of the North: The Story of the Grand Kankakee Marsh,” my co-producer Patty Wisniewski and I discussed the fact that unless a person is an American Indian living in this country, they are an invasive species.

“True. Humans have had an incredible impact on the planet to the point that we’ve almost ruined it.”

The Potawatomi and Miami lived in harmony with Mother Nature along the Grand Kankakee Marsh.

“Yes, and there wasn’t that many of them either.”

While researching for our film, I read where one of the first school teachers in Porter County was told by an elderly American Indian that they didn’t mind when a few whites moved to the area because they could trade with them and they could serve as interpreters. The aged Potawatomi also added: “But when the Europeans really commenced to coming, they came like the (passenger) pigeons.”

“The Native Americans set up the ecology of this area by annual fire. The native flora, and to some extent fauna, depend on that fire because that’s what we’ve always had here in Northwest Indiana. It’s a fire-dependent ecosystem — the prairies, savannas and the wetlands. They all burned unless they were underwater or sheltered by water.”

I’m sure you’re familiar with The Nature Conservancy’s Pembroke Savanna across the state line from Willow Slough. It is considered the best example of black oak savanna in the world. Sadly, only one-tenth of one percent of our black oak savanna survives on this entire planet. Why do you think it has thrived in Pembroke Township or Hopkins Park, Ill.?

“I don’t know, but I’ve always wondered why all that good stuff is still there.”

That area doesn’t have a fire department; it’s one of the most impoverished rural communities in the United States. Those folks burn their own garbage. Because of that, Pembroke Township has had accidental wildfires through the years.

“That’s why! It makes so much sense. It hasn’t changed since the Indians burned there. Wow.”

Urban sprawl?

“The sprawl cycle is very bad for nature because you keep developing further out while further in, it’s empty. At this point, 150,000 people have left the urban core and the first ring suburbs.”

First ring suburbs?

“The communities that are closest to Gary, East Chicago and Hammond. Highland, Griffith, Lake Station and New Chicago all have lost people. Hobart probably would’ve lost people, but we’ve got the new development going in the south part of town which kind of makes up for the old northern part of the city.

“It’s a bad cycle because you’re depopulating and not investing in the northern communities while spending tax money on new roads that wouldn’t be needed if the urban core communities were proper places to live. If people didn’t need to run away from the urban core communities and the first ring suburbs we wouldn’t need to be spending money on new infrastructure.”

Is anything being done about this dilemma?

“(The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission) has a recent long-range plan, finally. One of the priorities is restoring the urban core communities. Michigan City is one of those urban core communities that is taking advantage of the plan.”

I’d sure hate to see the area around the Kankakee River get swallowed up by sprawl.

“It could happen, and believe me, that Illiana Expressway is all about sprawl.”

Hopes for the future?

“I hope we can restore both our natural areas and our communities.”

Who could argue with that?

“The developers have been pretty much in charge of things, but they are starting to see opportunities in the urban core.”

***

Most of the natural areas she takes care of are done on a shoestring budget because they aren’t funded. But that doesn’t deter Sandy O’Brien and her small group of thoughtfully committed citizens. Folks who roll up their sleeves, walk the walk, and celebrate Earth Day 365 times a year.



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