Explore Your Lakes and Rivers: Mother’s Day at Ping Tom Park

Openlands’ Explore Your Lakes and Rivers series began on Mother’s Day at Ping Tom Park in Chicago’s Chinatown. This series of 11 paddling events is designed to introduce new paddlers from surrounding communities to the Chicago and Calumet waterways. The events also engage people with nature on the rivers in a way that is relevant and fun.

Openlands partnered with Wilderness Inquiry and the Ping Tom Advisory Council for this event. Wilderness Inquiry provided staff and voyager canoes through their Canoemobile program, allowing more people an opportunity to participate. While the Ping Tom Advisory Council helped to promote the event, arranged for Cantonese translation, and provided bathroom access to participants.

For the Ping Tom Park event, the community had the chance to enjoy paddling on the Chicago River, and to discover the wildlife of the park. The canoes were wheelchair accessible, providing increased access. Approximately 200 people from across the city and as far away as Wisconsin attended.

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Openlands’ Associate Greenways Director Laura Barghusen shows our paddling adventurers the birds they can see nearby.

The canoeing adventures started right away on the beautiful spring morning. With a mix of ages and experience levels, groups of eight set out on the water for 30 minutes at a time to explore and have fun. They canoed past birds that flew across and floated on the river. They had the chance to capture spectacular views of the park and the city’s buildings and bridges. All the new paddlers learned quickly and some even signed up for a second trip! By the end of the event, as many as 25 canoes travelled the river.

In the courtyards of Ping Tom Park, visitors enjoyed guided bird walks led by experienced Birds In My Neighborhood (BIMN) volunteers. BIMN is an Openlands program that trains volunteers to engage Chicago Public School students in bird watching in their neighborhoods. Each group had a checklist of birds often found in the area. They searched along the paths and between the varieties of trees in the park. In just half an hour, the five tours found most of the birds on their list, such as the American Robin, the Red-winged Blackbird, and the Black-capped Chickadee. They learned how to identify a few different bird songs and discovered other wildlife in the park as well.

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Paddlers venturing down the South Branch of the Chicago River.

Many visitors were in awe of how exciting it was to explore the river and the wildlife of the park. One mother even expressed how this was the best Mother’s Day she ever had!

Openlands has free and fun Explore Your Lakes and Rivers events through September! Join us and explore the hidden wildlife and natural treasures that are just waiting to be discovered in your own backyard!

Bison Return to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

On May 7, over 2,300 visitors welcomed the American bison back to the prairie an hour southwest of the Chicago Loop when Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie held the public celebration of the bison’s return.

The over 19,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is the first national tallgrass prairie in our nation’s history. Established in 1996, it is considered one of the most important conservation initiatives in Illinois of the 20th century and was established as a direct result of leadership and advocacy by Openlands. In addition to advocating for the former Joliet Arsenal to become Midewin, Openlands worked in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and other organizations to develop The Prairie Plan for the restoration of a unique prairie ecosystem. In 1997, Openlands helped organize the conference, “From Bison to Buffalo Grass,” which envisioned the return of bison as an integral part of prairie restoration efforts.

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Last fall, 27 bison were introduced to Midewin and this spring, nine bison calves were born.

In this video, Openlands President and CEO Jerry Adelmann comments on the creation of Midewin and the momentous occasion of bison born there.

Learn more about Midewin’s history and Openlands’ ongoing restoration work at the prairie here.

A Land Protection Success for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge

Spend an afternoon exploring the countryside of McHenry County, about 70 miles northwest of Chicago, and soon you will find yourself crossing one of the features that make this part of our region special: a lazy Midwestern stream. Dozens of these little waterways wind through the farm fields and sleepy villages that characterize the county’s quiet rural areas. These streams feed larger creeks such as the Nippersink and Piscasaw, which then flow into our region’s big rivers such as the Fox and Kishwaukee. Eventually, the tiny McHenry County stream you cross will reach the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico beyond.

In January of 2016, Openlands closed on the purchase of a 27-acre property in rural Woodstock that contains one of these important waterways. Known as the Perricone property, the site features part of a major branch of the high-quality Nippersink Creek along with remnant sedge meadow communities. Nearly a mile of the creek meanders through the property, offering critical habitat for native fish and mussels. In addition, nearby upland areas present excellent opportunities to restore native prairie habitat, support grassland and migratory birds, and create a buffer area along the creek to improve soil health and water quality.

The Perricone property is an important land protection project for several reasons. Chief among these is the property’s location within the boundaries of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. When Hackmatack was established by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2012, the refuge’s footprint was carefully outlined by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to include streams and creeks within the Nippersink Creek watershed. In addition to protecting part of this high-quality hydrological complex – home to several state endangered and threatened species – the Perricone property lays within a designated “core area” of Hackmatack. This is truly a strategic land protection accomplishment for the refuge.


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With generous funding from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, a critical match grant from the Full Circle Foundation, and help from our partner, the Nippersink Creek Watershed Association, Openlands purchased the Perricone property and will begin restoration work on the site later this year. In the near future, Openlands plans to transfer the property into the permanent ownership of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, where it will officially become part of the federal landholdings that comprise Hackmatack.

A few miles downstream from the Perricone property, this particular branch of the Nippersink Creek flows through another important Hackmatack project located in the same “core area” of Hackmatack: the Twin Creeks project. With the help of conservation partners including the McHenry County Conservation District and Ducks Unlimited, Openlands purchased about 100 acres of this platted, yet undeveloped subdivision – transforming the land into a beautiful complex of oak woodland, common areas featuring native wildflowers, protected creek corridor, and individual home sites. Federal grant funding through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act is being leveraged to complete restoration work along the creek.

The Perricone property and the Twin Creeks project are great examples of powerful partnerships coming together to create a large-scale project like Hackmatack. Openlands is one of ten organizations that have signed on to a partnership agreement guiding the selection and implementation of land protection projects for Hackmatack. As of January 2018, the partners have protected nearly 1,000 acres in the refuge boundaries. These successes have been accomplished by using innovative approaches that leverage limited partner resources, working with willing sellers, and helping conservation-minded landowners protect their properties with conservation easements.


Want to start exploring Hackmatack for yourself? The best ways to experience the refuge are through a visit to Glacial Park and by paddling the Nippersink Creek. You can also learn more about the landscapes protected at Hackmatack and read the story of how a small group of volunteers earned federal recognition of these special landscapes.

For more information on Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, please contact land@openlands.org.

#DiscoverYourPlace Photo Map

We at Openlands love that so many of you are getting outside to #DiscoverYourPlace. The social media campaign puts a spotlight on special outdoor and natural areas in northeastern Illinois, southeastern Wisconsin, and northwestern Indiana.

Many of you have gotten out to explore natural areas you didn’t know existed, while others are highlighting species and habitat that make our region special! These include many of the places Openlands helps to protect, restore, and create for people to connect to. So far, there have been over 300 photos of unique landscapes, vast open space, and special green areas in the Chicago region!

As the weather warms, we’d love to know, “Where are you enjoying the outdoors and discovering new and restored natural areas nearby?” Get involved by tagging your photos of parks, gardens, trails, preserves, native species, restored landscapes and more with #DiscoverYourPlace! Share your photos on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Check out this interactive map of some of our favorite #DiscoverYourPlace photos on Instagram so far! Do you see a place you haven’t heard of? How many of these places have you been to? Or maybe you’d like to highlight one of your favorite natural areas not represented below! Join us!

Click here for the interacative #DiscoverYourPlace map!

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Restoration at Openlands

Through restoration, Openlands connects the dots of nature. Our work brings sunlight to developing trees, fish and amphibians to streams, birds to the shore and canopy, and people to the land. Such is our mission, to connect individuals and communities to the natural world in which we all live.

Openlands Lakeshore Preserve

Visiting the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve for the first time is truly enchanting. As I walked out to the lookout on my first trip, the fog seemed to peel away from the water and I remember thinking to myself, “This is Lake Michigan.” I had seen the Great Lake many times before, but never like this. The melody of the gently rising and falling waves against the pale sand was truly hypnotic. It was quiet. There wasn’t a soul in sight, and yet life was all around. Shorebirds scuttled in the brush, mergansers paddled offshore, and I sat and watched.

Since the fall of 2011, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve has provided northeastern Illinois with rare access to nearly 80 acres of shoreline and ravine ecosystems. In December 2015, Openlands announced a 5 year project to reestablish lost habitat across the Preserve. With funding from the Grand Victoria Foundationand a partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we have spent the winter months removing an array of non-native and invasive tree species that have dominated the area and choked out native trees. The removal of these invaders allows native plant and tree species to flourish without having to compete for sunlight.

As the winter comes to an end, the spring phase of the restoration plan is set to begin at the Southern end of the Preserve, in Schenck Ravine. Thriving ravine ecosystems are phenomenally important, as they provide pools and riffles that organically manage stormwater, reduce erosion, and serve as habitat for local fish.

Lastly, we will also work to restore portions of the southern bluffs as well as the endangered marram grass which, when healthy, works to bind loose sand – a process that is essential in forming and maintaining the dunes that separate the bluffs from the lakeshore. Healthy dunes means more stable bluffs which, in this case, acts as a landing zone for hundreds of species of migrating birds.

As Openlands continues to restore the area, more and more people become connected to the land. This connection can already be seen throughout the Preserve, but perhaps, particularly, when walking through the shaded trails. Where the brush has been cleared, new trees and wildflowers are being planted ensuring that people will experience the enchantment I enjoyed on my first visit to the Preserve.

Deer Grove West

Like the Preserve, the Deer Grove West Forest Preserve was equally engulfing – literally the minute I arrived I spotted three, maybe four species of birds before I was even out of the car. As I ventured further into the area, the magnitude of restoration really hit me. Looking around, all sorts of dense brush was being cleared, giving way to new life. Previously, this brush was very obviously suffocating juvenile trees that were desperate for sunlight. These trees would soon find new life, which they would share with the birds, the frogs and with visitors like me.

Nearly 100 years ago, the Deer Grove preserve became the inaugural piece of land acquired by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. For years it served as an oasis for various species native to our region.

In 2008, Openlands partnered with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, City of Chicago Department of Aviation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and began the savanna, prairie and wetland restoration efforts on the eastern half of Deer Grove. Deer Grove East once again boasts several wetland areas as well as vast rolling prairies and open oak savannas.

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Finally, in 2015, we announced that Deer Grove West would be next – just in time for its 100th Anniversary. Over the next several years, a $3.15 million restoration plan will be implemented to restore a robust ecosystem, that, when finished, will support more than 300 species of native woodland plants, as well as a wide variety of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals.

Similar to the work being done at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, much of this focuses on clearing invasive species and reintroducing native plants. We will also be performing controlled burns. Burning is a natural process that has been a part of the Illinois landscape for thousands of years. It stimulates the development of native plants, which in turn provides healthy habitat for new life throughout the ecosystem.

Openlands Protects Important Bird Areas Near Chicago

This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty between the United States and Canada. In 1916, this landmark agreement made it illegal to hunt, capture, kill, sell, or even pursue migratory birds. (See the original 1916 treaty here: Convention between the United States and Great Britain for the Protection of Migratory Birds.)

To celebrate this treaty, Openlands wants to make Chicagoans aware of Important Bird Areas nearby. Important Bird Areas or IBA’s are internationally recognized places that are chosen for their unique role in providing habitat for birds. These habitats play a vital part in the lives of birds who are endangered or threatened, either by providing breeding grounds, pathways for migration, or places to spend the winter.

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White-faced Ibis at Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland

Through environmental policy and advocacy, habitat protection, and land acquisition and restoration programs, Openlands has positively impacted IBA’s around Chicago. Just south of the city, we’ve helped to establish natural areas like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and save places like Goose Lake Prairie State Park. We’ve restored vital wetlands and other habitats at Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland and Illinois Beach State Park, and have used our policy wing to advocate for several additional sites. We fought for the Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance that keeps our lakefront protected for migrating birds along the Mississippi Flyway.

Here is a list of Important Bird Areas Openlands has helped to protect:

Notably, Openlands and the Forest Preserves of Cook County have worked together since 2001 to expand over 900 acres of continuous grassland habitat at Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland in southern Cook County. Bartel Grassland was an existing IBA on its own, but in September 2015, Audubon Chicago Region approved adding the Tinley Creek Wetlands restoration areas to Bartel. This more than doubled the overall acreage for this Important Bird Area.

In the end, Openlands wants to make sure these special places are accessible to people from all walks of life. Through our Birds in My Neighborhood Program, we are able to engage Chicago Public School students with nearby nature areas. The program has taken educational visits to Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland, introducing these children to a rare and unique world of nature and experiences they will never forget.

We hope you venture out and find an Important Bird Area near you!

As the Illiana Expressway still clings to life in court, we make no small plans

The January 11 Daily Herald article by Marni Pyke asks if the proposed Illiana Expressway will get a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from the Rauner administration. In this piece, Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, is broadcasting a great message to both IDOT and the Governor.

One of the main reasons why the federal court invalidated the first environmental study for the proposed tollway was because IDOT used wildly inflated population and traffic projections that were out of sync with the county’s actual growth and our region’s collective vision in GO TO 2040.  Even under its amped up best case scenario, we would spend over a billion dollars on a road that, at its height, hardly anyone would use.  It’s money we can’t afford to squander.  The project would divert tax revenue away from needs in the area, our region, and across the state.

Rather than throwing good money after bad to triage a study of a flawed, bloated and unnecessary road, IDOT should support others in Will County that are focusing on solid win-win solutions, like fixing I-80 and I-55 to move trucks efficiently onto our interstate highway system and away from areas of conflict.  Late last year, the Will County Board took the significant step of removing the proposed tollway from its legislative agenda.  That should be a sign that the support for this project has evaporated, and we need to move forward with something better.

Through efforts like Will Connects 2040 and other studies, we hope that the recent federal funding for freight and highway improvements can open opportunities for smart long-term solutions that protect the globally significant natural assets in the area, like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, while accommodating industrial growth.  We have a lot at stake.  Compressing truck traffic into rural communities and driving them through the heart of Midewin will further compound and exacerbate rather than alleviate problems.  We are already seeing tragic losses from truck accidents with local residents.  Misdirecting traffic onto 53 will also inject light, noise, and pollution into some of the rarest and most coveted habitat on earth.  We don’t need to make this sacrifice.  We have an unprecedented opportunity to involve all interests to benefit everyone involved. With what’s at stake, it’s important that we get it right.

Stacy Meyers, Staff Attorney at Openlands

Openlands Celebrates Volunteers

Over the past year, thousands of generous individuals volunteered their time to help protect Chicagoland’s natural and open spaces. From planting trees, to adopting and monitoring water trails, to accompanying students on educational bird walks, their tireless efforts contributed to a hugely successful year.

Last week, Openlands hosted a reception at David Weinberg Photography in order to celebrate and recognize our wonderful volunteers. “Without their contributions, we truly couldn’t do what we do,” said President & CEO Jerry Adelmann at the event.

Volunteers were recognized for their involvement in programs such as Space to GrowTreeKeepers, and Birds in My Neighborhood, as well as for the seemingly less glamorous task of stuffing envelopes and writing handwritten personal letters to our donors.

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The numbers behind their involvement are impressive:

  • Last fall, students, teachers, staff, administration,  parents, and community members all came together in rain or shine to help plant 30,000 plants in four Space to Grow schoolyards.
  • Openlands raised nearly $300,000 from handwritten letters to our donors, which directly supports our general operations for the organization each year.
  • Last year 5,060 volunteers dedicated 35,567 hours of work to forestry activities.
  • Birds in My Neighborhood’s dedicated corps of over 50 volunteers mentored 725 Chicago Public School students on a quest to learn more about the birds (and nature) in their own community.

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The hard work and dedication of our volunteers is what keeps Openlands thriving. We can’t thank them enough! And many thanks to David Weinberg Photography for hosting the event.

West Side Birding Story

As a new staff member at Openlands, I’d love to share with you the game changing environmental outreach happening in Chicago’s urban neighborhoods. This was my first year as a volunteer with Birds in My Neighborhood® (BIMN), an Openlands’ program that engages elementary school students at Chicago Public Schools that have gardens created through our Building School Gardens initiative. Birding volunteers like myself are trained as classroom ‘birding’ teachers and paired with wonderful schools, often in underserved areas. In three visits, we aim to open the eyes of students and teachers to the abundance of nature that exists all around them.  During the first visit, we conduct a classroom lesson with the children and provide them with their very own BIMN journals to research a bird of their choosing. During the second visit, we take our first bird walk around the school premises. The last gathering culminates with a field trip to a local nature area where we find new and interesting birds. What an amazing experience!


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Openlands board member Dean Fischer and I were paired with Ms. Gorzen’s 4th and 5th grade class at Suder Montessori Magnet Elementary School in East Garfield Park (a neighborhood on Chicago’s west side.) For our first visit, we asked the class what they already knew about birds and what they would like to learn during our time together. You would be amazed at how much these kids knew! “What’s another thing you know about birds?” I asked. “The male Bird of Paradise does an elaborate courtship dance for the female Bird of Paradise” one child answered, followed by a host of similar responses. At the end of our time, our students were pumped about ornithology, and excited to research their bird of choice in their new BIMN journals!

When Dean and I returned for the second visit, the kids were thrilled to see us again and eager to share their research and drawings. Ms. Gorzen happily exclaimed, “It has been a task trying to pull them away from their journals all month!” Check out this stunning piece of artwork in a students journal:

We then packed our birding check lists and quietly ventured to the school gardens to see what we could find. It was the end of April and spring migration was in full swing. A group of girls huddled around me to observe my actions. I was able to teach them how to identify birds looking at their shape, size, field marks, colors, and habitat. They caught on quickly!

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“Up there,” one girl whispered. “I see a small one in the tree with black and white stripes on its head, a little yellow, and a white chin.” “That’s a special one that’s not on our check list,” I replied. “A white throated sparrow.” As a parting line, Dean announced to the class, “Each of you are now ‘Citizen Scientists’. Now that you know how to identify birds,” he said, “you can collect data to help protect our environment. You are smart and have an awesome responsibility ahead of you.” “Cool” the class responded, feeling a part of something special.

On May 28, we embarked on our final field trip to Humboldt Park.  A vibrant green space nestled within the city, Humboldt Park boasts a diverse habitat of trees, lagoons, and fields – all prime birding real estate. Our species list included Common Terns, a Black Crowned Night Heron, Barn Swallows, Chimney Swifts, Gulls, European Starlings, Red Winged Blackbirds, and more. The class stood in awe as we watched a Garter snake slide in front of us and up a fence.

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At the end of the trip, we settled in the grass for lunch, basking in the glory of our perfect spring day. A beautiful moment arose when a student, who we were told had barely spoken a few words at a time all year, burst into joyful song, amazing his teachers and peers. A volunteer from Audubon Chicago Region, our BIMN partner, took some time to flip through a Sibley’s Field Guide with a child who had been diligently researching the Peregrine Falcon.

I want you to know that you make this possible. Often with underserved communities in the city, you see children hunger for nature since it is generally not within their grasp. Because of your support of Openlands’ programs, we are able to feed that hunger, ignite a passion for the abundant world of nature around them, and nurture the environmental stewards of tomorrow.

“Now that I know about this park with all these trees and ponds,” a young girl said at the end of our trip, “I’m going to tell my mom to bring me here. She’ll tell all her friends, and they’ll put it all over Facebook, and soon everyone will know about this place.”

-By Tasha Lawson

Young People Explore Nature in the Calumet Region

Connecting young people to nature where they live is vital to creating our planet’s future stewards. This year, Openlands offered three very different opportunities for kids and young adults to get outside in the Calumet region, a unique, bi-state ecosystem in the Lake Michigan basin composed of over 15,000 acres of river systems, parks, trails, rare dune and swale, and savanna.


calbiodiverRich habitat for all kinds of species characterized the Calumet before the region was settled and industrialized. Openlands worked with Valparaiso University students from 2013-2015 to see what kinds of aquatic life and stream habitat are present in the headwaters of several Calumet region streams that drain into Lake Michigan. We found some surprises, including rare native lamprey and tiny young-of-the-year coho salmon. The stream habitats were beautiful and unusually high-quality because we focused the work in natural areas managed by conservation oriented organizations. In addition to interesting fish and reptiles we also found some very distinctive aquatic insect larva. These including caddisfly larva that use pieces of stick to make cases in which they live,  making them look like tiny sticks that walk. The health of headwater areas, or the area where streams begin, is very important to the health of the entire stream system and the water bodies into which the streams drain.  In addition to seeing what life the headwaters support, we noted any conditions that could be addressed to make the headwaters healthier, for example, areas where road salt might be degrading water quality or areas where habitat for aquatic species is partially cut off from the rest of the stream by barriers like culverts that fish may have difficultly swimming through.

Since 2014, Openlands has also been connecting Calumet residents to nature in their communities through birding trips. In 2014, Ms. Mack’s 4th grade class from Lavizzo Elementary participated in Birds In My Neighborhood®, and was among a select group to visit Lake Calumet for a birding adventure highlighted by the appearance of two bald eagles.

BIMN1In 2015, in addition to a return to Lake Calumet, her class took a field trip to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the northeast edge of the Calumet region – only a 40 minute drive from the school. Birds In My Neighborhoodvolunteers escorted students and their families on a day trip to West Beach and the Douglas Environmental Education Center at Indiana Dunes. For all but one father, this was the first time any of the students or family members had visited the Dunes. The students were excited throughout the day as they played games and practiced using binoculars to find birds. By visiting a new place to practice birding with parents, grandparents, and cousins, the students had a positive and memorable experience in nature. In 2016, Openlands hopes to create similar opportunities for weekend bird walks for Birds in My Neighborhood families. We hope to make what one young lady referred to as “the best field trip ever” a recurring event.


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Openlands has also been partnering to offer explorations of calumet waterways via canoe and kayak since 2014.  On June 13, we partnered with the Forest Preserves of Cook County to offer paddling at Fishin’ Buddies’ Beaubien Woods Celebration.  About 250 mostly local Calumet residents paddled, many for the first time, and explored Beaubien Woods’ Flatfoot Lake from canoes, looking for evidence of beaver presence on the lake, including searching for lodges and gnawed trees and learning a little bit about the history of the landscape.  It was a beautiful day and Flatfoot lake was literally sparking.  One of the participants said that the paddling was the “jewel of the festival.”

These recent Openlands efforts are part of our robust history of connecting the people of the Calumet Region to nature by increasing public access to open space, empowering community groups and local governments to care for the region’s natural resources, and promoting a regional culture of conservation by developing an interconnected network of protected and productive green ways, water trails and open spaces.