In 2013, Openlands celebrated its 50th anniversary, a major milestone in the organization’s commitment to conserve the natural resources of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region. 

Goose Lake Prairie
Goose Lake Prairie (c. 1969)

Openlands’ leadership and work have resulted in landmark and lasting conservation achievements, among them landscape-scale undertakings such as The Illinois Prairie Path, I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor, and the 19,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Openlands’ impact extends from local school and community gardens in Chicago to trail networks—on land and water—that link three states. Volunteer programs such as TreeKeepers have empowered a generation to care for the region’s natural resources. Most recently, Openlands was responsible for the creation of the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve at Fort Sheridan in Lake County and the establishment of the bi-state Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge in McHenry County, Illinois and Walworth County, Wisconsin.


  • 1963 Openlands Project (originally Open Lands Project) is established as a program of the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago
  • 1964 Illinois Prairie Path is created
  • 1965 Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is authorized by Congress
  • 1969 Goose Lake Prairie State Park is established and dedicated as Illinois nature preserve


  • 1971 Lake Michigan Federation (now Alliance for the Great Lakes) becomes independent from Openlands Project
  • 1974 Kennicott Grove acquisition begins with Openlands coordination
  • 1975 Friends of the Parks is established
  • 1977 Garfield Farm is donated to Openlands Project
  • 1978 Corporation for Open Lands (CorLands) is incorporated as land-buying affiliate of Openlands


  • 1980 Friends of the Chicago River is established as a program of Openlands
  • Openlands launches organizing effort to create Old Plank Road Trail
  • 1981 Openlands and Lake County Forest Preserve District establish Wetlands Demonstration Project on 450 acres to research wetland restoration strategies to create high quality Des Plaines River basin habitats
  • 1983 An Open Land: Photographs of the Midwest exhibit opens at the Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1984 President Ronald Reagan signs legislation establishing Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor
  • 1985 Openlands and the Illinois Prairie Trail Authority identify potential trail and greenway corridors in northeast Illinois
  • 1988 Openlands coordinates first Chicago Christmas Tree recycling campaign
  • 1989 CorLands acquires conservation easement for North Park Village natural areas


  • 1990 Openlands assembles first Chicago-wide inventory of vacant lots
  • Openlands’ 21st Century Open Space Plan is launched at benefit honoring Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley
  • 1991 TreeKeepers volunteer program is launched
  • 1992 CorLands acquires key landholdings for Old Plank Road Trail
  • Northeastern Illinois Regional Greenways Plan is published
  • 1993 Openlands receives first American Greenways Award from the National Geographic Society and The Conservation Fund
  • Great Perennial Divide is launched
  • Fort Sheridan is decommissioned, and Openlands advocates for protection of the site’s lakefront bluffs, ravines, and beach areas
  • Neighborhood Open Space Planning program is launched with a focus on underserved Chicago neighborhoods
  • 1994 Openlands-led Community Land Use Network completes implementation and produces the final report to streamline transfer of abandoned publicly-owned lands for productive uses, including affordable housing and community-managed green space
  • 1996 President Bill Clinton signs legislation to create Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie at the former Joliet Arsenal
  • NeighborSpace is incorporated
  • Chicago Wilderness coalition is launched; Openlands is a founding member. Streamleaders training program is launched
  • 1997 CorLands acquires Burnham Greenway
  • The Burnham Greenway Master Plan is published
  • 1998 Terry Evans photography exhibit, In Place of Prairie, opens at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of Openlands’ 35th Anniversary celebration
  • Openlands releases map and report, Losing Ground: Land Consumption in the Chicago Region, 1990-1998
  • 1999 Under Pressure: Land Consumption in the Chicago Region 1998-2028 defines the land at risk of development based on trends in land consumption
  • Building Urban Gardens courses begin


  • 2000 The Illinois Department of Natural Resources opens the Grand Illinois Trail with 200 miles of the planned 475-mile route completed
  • Governor Ryan and Mayor Daley announce a City of Chicago/Calumet Area Open Space Protection Initiative
  • 2001 Openlands, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, the Chicago Audubon Society, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers begin restoration of Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland
  • 2004 President George W. Bush signs legislation authorizing the transfer of 77 acres at the former Fort Sheridan site to a land preservation organization for permanent protection, beginning the acquisition process for the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve
  • 2005 Revealing Chicago: An Aerial Portrait photo exhibition opens at Millennium Park
  • CorLands begins wetlands restoration work at 5 public sites funded through the O’Hare Modernization program
  • Troubled Waters: Meeting the future water needs in Illinois is published as a joint initiative with the Campaign for Sensible Growth and Metropolitan Planning Council
  • 2006 Building School Gardens program is started
  • 2007 Greenways and Blueways Plan for Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission is published by NIRPC and Openlands
  • Northeastern Illinois Water Trails Map is updated and published
  • 2008 Deer Grove East restoration project begins
  • Restoration of the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve begins and interpretive plan is created
  • 2009 Eco-Explorations school-based educational program is piloted at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve
  • Before the Well Runs Dry: Ensuring Sustainable Water Supplies for Illinois is published as a joint initiative of the Metropolitan Planning Council and Openlands


  • 2010 Openlands partners with the Plants of Concern project at the Chicago Botanic Garden for ongoing biological monitoring at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve
  • What Our Water’s Worth (WOWW) campaign is launched by Openlands and the Metropolican Planning Council to educate the public on the value of their water
  • 2011 Openlands Lakeshore Preserve opens to the public. 85-mile Kankakee River Water Trail opens in Indiana.
  • Calumet Connections regional trail system is created with Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, South Suburban Mayors and Managers, and 11 surrounding communities
  • 2012 Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge is established; Openlands acquires the first property for the refuge
  • Openlands, Sierra Club, and Prairie Rivers Network file lawsuit in Circuit Court in Springfield, IL demanding judicial review of a permit for an open pit silica sand mine near Starved Rock State Park
  • 2013 Birds in My Neighborhood program is established
  • Openlands becomes an accredited land trust. Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is recognized as a Illinois Nature Preserve