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.

Protecting Chicago’s Second Shoreline

A wildlife biologist peers down at the Chicago River from the Washington Street Bridge. River otters are fastidiously building cones out of the remains of their breakfast on a ledge behind the Civic Opera House. Once completely gone from Illinois, the otters – along with over 70 kinds of fish, black crowned night herons, bald eagles, and scores of other wildlife – have returned to Chicago’s rivers. They share the waters at dawn with high school crew teams who clip along the surface.

Chicagoans have come a long way over the last forty years in how we see and value our second shoreline. Once considered open sewers, the Chicago and Calumet rivers have become vibrant natural attractions that are economic drivers and community assets. Offices and homes are now facing the river again, and the number of docks and boat launches is rising.


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Managing stormwater to help our rivers

One solution is the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s (MWRD) “Deep Tunnel” and reservoir project, which captures billions of gallons of rain. When storms overwhelm MWRD’s treatment plants, it has to flush the overflow of rainwater and sewage into our rivers and Lake Michigan. The 30-foot tunnels and giant reservoirs hold massive amounts of polluted stormwater until MWRD can treat it all. The quality of our rivers has also improved as MWRD has upgraded the technology at its treatment plants.

MWRD is also partnering with Openlands and other organizations to help communities capture rain where it falls. Through the Space to Grow program, Openlands and Healthy Schools Campaign are working with MWRD, Chicago Public Schools, and the City of Chicago’s Department of Water Management to transform underutilized schoolyards into lush gardens and safe playgrounds for students, families, and community members. Because of these new amenities, we have fewer basement backups, less stormwater flowing into our sewers, reduced flooding, and ultimately less pollution discharged into our waters. The program is gaining national recognition as a model for other cities to leverage public and private partnerships for a multitude of community benefits.


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Strengthening regulations

The State and Federal EPA are recognizing our progress in reclaiming the Chicago and Calumet rivers and are requiring stronger protections for people and wildlife that are on and in the water. Since so many people are enjoying our waterways, the Illinois Pollution Control Board (Board) has adopted regulations that require the MWRD to disinfect over 600 million gallons of sewage that it discharges each day from its North Side and Calumet treatment plants. Earlier this month, the Board took another giant step towards passing comparable regulations to protect the resurgence of fish and other wildlife by requiring power plants and other industrial users to remove more heat and pollution from its cooling water before returning it to our rivers. Openlands and our colleagues continue to advocate for the Board and the United States EPA to hold strong on these improvements so that our rivers can reach their potential.


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The work continues

This growing consciousness has sparked new plans for the future. The Calumet Stormwater Initiative is leveraging the vision and resources of Chicago’s south side communities to attract millions of dollars in public and private funding for a host of stormwater projects. As a result of ongoing collaboration between government agencies and non-profit organizations, the region is a strong candidate for up to $500 million in federal assistance to help communities become more resilient to the effects of flooding and climate change.

We still face challenges ahead. Openlands and our partners are already challenging requests by industry for permission to sidestep the new water quality standards. We are preparing for upcoming Board proceedings that will determine how much industry can continue to pollute our rivers with road salt, ammonia and other chemicals that are toxic to rebounding wildlife. In addition, Openlands has intervened in a proceeding where the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is considering whether to continue to allow the MWRD to use Lake Michigan Water to flush out our rivers.

Overall, we are seeing progress. At Openlands, we will continue to press for revitalizing our waterways and better connect the people of our region with these natural treasures.

Conservation Easements Create a Network of Protected Lands

Openlands envisions a Chicago region where all people can connect to a web of green. The conservation easement is a primary tool Openlands uses to partner with private landowners to create that network of protected land. An easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust that permanently limits uses and ensures that the land retains its conservation value, while keeping the land in private ownership. Easements can be used to protect any type of important natural resource from wetlands to forests and farms. Openlands has been using easements in its work since 1980 and in 2013 was accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, a program of the Land Trust Alliance.

“Working with private landowners to help build an interconnected system of natural lands is critically important in a place like Illinois, where more than 95% of the land is in private ownership,”  says Emy Brawley, Openlands’ Director of Land Preservation.  “There will never be enough public dollars to buy the land needed to create a resilient, interconnected landscape at the scale necessary for our region to thrive.”

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The purpose and terms of each easement are tailored to landowners’ desires for the specific property. For instance, an easement for agricultural land could allow for farming activity and the construction of barns and stables, but not energy development or building multiple houses. The flexibility of the easement agreement allows landowners to retain some value through productive use of the land, while the land trust ensures that it is protected for future generations. Easements are most often donated by the landowner, who then is eligible for a variety of tax benefits from the transaction.  The easement also lowers the real property and estate tax burden, which may allow owners to keep land within a family.

“In our area, conservation easements are an under-appreciated and economically-sensible land protection tool. In contrast to public ownership, they keep property on the tax roll, and the expense of managing the land stays with the private landowner, rather than being transferred to a government,” says Brawley.  “So, conservation easements provide many of the same benefits that come from publicly-owned land – habitat for animals, clean water and air, even recreational opportunities – at a fraction of the cost.”

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One area for which conservation easements are proving to be a key tool is our work supporting our regional food system. Food is one of the most tangible connections we have with land and Openlands’ goal to connect people to nature is being accomplished through this important work.

In 2014, Openlands worked with the Conservation Fund to accept a 198-acre conservation easement at Prairie Crossing, an acclaimed conservation community in Grayslake, Illinois. The property includes passive recreation areas with trails, open space areas, a Montessori school, and agricultural operations. The agricultural zone of the easement is used for small-scale farming, the operations of which the Liberty Prairie Foundation helps to support and manage.

Working in partnership with the Liberty Prairie Foundation, Openlands is also developing initiatives that connect new and beginning farmers with land. Thanks to funding from the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust, Openlands and its partners are conducting research that aims to strengthen the resiliency of our region’s foodshed by ensuring that important farmland is protected and that the next generations of farmers and stewards will sustainably manage it for productive use. A robust, sustainably managed regional food system generates economic, environmental, and public health benefits that flow to all residents.

Exelon Employees Volunteer at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve

On April 5, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve got a helping hand from a group of Exelon and ComEd employees, and their families. Ten dedicated volunteers spent the morning cleaning up 100 pounds of trash from the beach. “The weather was perfect, the team did such a great job, and everyone enjoyed themselves,” said Preserve Site Manager Aimee Collins.

The volunteer opportunity was one of many organized by Exelon as part of National Volunteer Week.


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The volunteer workday, which also took place last year, was just the most recent partnership between Openlands and Exelon. The Exelon Foundation funds Eco-Explorations, wherein elementary and high school students learn naturalist skills both in the classroom and at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve. Additionally, both Van Horne Ravine Overlook at the Preserve and the ongoing art education partnership between Openlands and Marwen are funded by the Exelon Foundation.

For more information on beach cleanups or to register your organization for a corporate workday, please contact development@openlands.org or call 312.863.6261.