Celebrating Environmentalist Lee Botts

The entire Openlands family was saddened to learn of the passing of Lee Botts, a one-time fellow Openlander whose impact on conservation in the Chicago region and throughout the Great Lakes was profound.

A native of Oklahoma who moved to the Chicago region in 1949, Lee was a leader in the effort to create Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (now Indiana Dunes National Park) in the mid-1960s. In 1969, she joined the staff of Openlands (then Open Lands Project), where she founded the Lake Michigan Federation as a special project. Lee was a strong advocate for Great Lakes issues, and her work at the federation helped lead to the banning of phosphates in laundry detergents in Chicago, the passage of the U.S. Clean Water Act, and a national ban on PCBs. Ultimately the federation became an independent organization and is now the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Lee worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and headed the federal Great Lakes Basin Commission. She later taught at Northwestern University, and she helped establish the City of Chicago’s Department of the Environment and the Dunes Learning Center at Indiana Dunes National Park. Not one to slow down, in her 80s she served as executive producer on the Emmy-nominated documentary, Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability, about the Indiana Dunes.

Our thoughts are with Lee’s family and friends as we remember her remarkable career.

To learn more about Lee’s great work or to share a remembrance, please visit this site set up in her honor.

(Photo: Lee Botts with Paul Labovitz, Superintendent of Indiana Dunes National Park, at the Openlands Annual Luncheon in 2014; credit: Chris Murphy)

It’s raining a lot more — and that’s a problem

Spring 2019 was one of the wettest ever in northern Illinois.  

The increased frequency of weather systems that cause sporadic, torrential storms are symptomatic of climate change in the Chicago region. Jim Angel, Illinois’ former state climatologist, recently stated that more intense storms and heavy rains that drop several inches at a time are becoming more frequent across northern Illinois.

According to the National Weather Service, three of the five wettest years on record in Chicago have occurred in the last decade, including 2018, which ranked fourth with over 49 inches of precipitation (the annual average is around 36 inches). And we are starting to see these weather patterns happen annually. During one 24-hour period in July 2017, Lake County, IL received over seven inches of rain. The Governor declared a state of emergency.  In 2018, Lake County was under flood conditions on six separate occasions. And this past May was the wettest ever for the month, surpassing the record set only last year. 

Our region – everything from rural towns to densely populated urban areas, farmland, housing, routes of transportation, and schools – was not built to withstand the “new normal” of seasonal flooding. For many of us, the impacts of flooding are felt during our daily commute, but for far too many of us, the effects are felt worst when water is pouring into our basements or when an entire year’s crops – and income – are lost to intense farmland flooding.

Farm fields in Illinois are currently so saturated that less than half of the typical crop of corn and soybeans, the state’s two largest crops, has been planted this year.

These are exactly the type of climate impacts on the Midwest we were warned about last year in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, and that means we need to get to work on implementing climate solutions.

The increased intensity of rain is forcing us to rethink how we can design our communities to not flood.

Photo (top), flooding in Suburban Burbank, 2014: Heather Charles/Chicago Tribune

Increases in rainfall prompted the Illinois State Water Survey to update Bulletin 70, which measures the frequency of rainfall and the intensity of rainstorms in Illinois. The Illinois State Water Survey found that infrastructure was up to 25 to 40% inadequate to handle current storms. Updating Bulletin 70 is important because it is the basis for engineers to size stormwater pipes, detention ponds, bridges above rivers and streams, nature-based solutions, and other infrastructure to handle expected rain and snowmelt. While this is a critical first step, it still leaves us vulnerable to climate change. It is critical to add the amount flooding will likely increase when building infrastructure to last over the next century. Otherwise, we are building to flood.

Photo: Brian Casella/Chicago Tribune

Over the last decade, agencies and communities have taken important steps towards requiring and incentivizing better stormwater solutions.  However, we know it isn’t enough.  For our region to be healthy, competitive and livable, it is essential to design lasting pipes, reservoirs and green infrastructure to accommodate our changing climate.  This means finding ways to systemize greater integration of green technology, such as permeable pavement, and natural features, such as rain gardens and trees, into public spaces. Nature-based solutions, combined with traditional infrastructure, can hold and slow substantial amounts of rain and snow melt to reduce the pressure on pipes when they are most full.  This can reduce basement backups and the amount that we release combined sewer overflows – sewage combined with rain – into our rivers and Lake Michigan.  Expanding and adequately maintaining both pipes and this “green infrastructure” means less damage, clearer streets, and cleaner water to drink, use and recreate in.

As our region continues to grow, more concrete and impervious surface will exacerbate the stress of climate change on our communities.  This pressure will demand, and hopefully inspire more, partnerships between agencies, communities, businesses and non-profits, to retrofit our communities with better technology.  Conscientious development and redevelopment won’t be enough.  We will need more programs, like Space to Grow, which transforms Chicago Public School campuses in disadvantaged neighborhoods that flood into vibrant green outdoor learning places that can hold upward of 750,000 gallons per storm event.  Likewise, farmers can implement practices on their land that not only provide healthy food, but also stabilize the health of soil and improve ecosystem services like flood mitigation. Learn more about low-impact and sustainable design.

Space to Grow and conservation practices on farmland are both great examples of how protecting existing landscapes can provide a multitude of ecosystems service benefits.  For example, restoring land to high quality prairie is proven to be an $8 to $1 return, mitigating flooding, sequestering carbon, and lowering temperatures in urban heat islands.  With increasing pressure to develop, it will be ever more important that our development and transportation infrastructure complements rather than erodes our finite open space. 

While good work is underway, we must step up our efforts to mitigate flooding and other climate change impacts for the sake of generation to come.

Photo: the Space to Grow schoolyard at Chicago’s Wadsworth Elementary

For more than 50 years, Openlands has advocated for protecting clean water and our region’s waterways. Learn more about our efforts to address climate change in the Chicago region.


This post was updated on July 12, 2019.

Restoration Is Complex, But We Shouldn’t Shy from the Challenge

Many of us don’t realize just how much natural beauty surrounds us in northeast Illinois or that even as the most populous part of the state, we are also home to the richest diversity of wildlife. A February 2018 story in the Chicago Tribune highlights the difficult reality of caring for all these special places. It is true that many ecological restoration projects amount to very little when conducted the wrong way or when inadequate resources are allocated for long-term care.

But none of this should negate the importance of ecological restoration. Restoration is the process of returning the land to a healthy state for nature, wildlife, and people. The Tribune article suggested one of the best ways to achieve this goal would be to prevent the sources of natural area degradation, but that’s just impractical: decades of urbanization and development coupled with ordinary human interaction with the land have reduced the health of natural areas, but we can correct that through restoration.

Success in these projects requires careful consideration of the sites we choose to restore, and it is imperative to involve local communities and volunteers in the process to foster greater responsibility and greater appreciation for the land and water. And when restoration projects are done correctly, the results speak for themselves.


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A recent study prepared by Stantec Consulting valued the return of two restoration projects managed by Openlands for the Forest Preserves of Cook County. It shows that short and long-term gains from restoring natural, recreational, and cultural features of Forest Preserves produced financial benefits that are worth more than eight times their costs. We’ve also seen how restoring pre-European settlement wetlands can dramatically reduce water pollution and localized flooding, with less water running off into streets and into basements. Flooding is reduced, visitation increases, and the local economic benefits.

These restoration sites — Deer Grove East and Tinley Creek Wetlands —were chosen explicitly for their ability to impact the bigger picture, and while restoration ecology is a young science, it is informed by rigorous data, showing us which sites hold potential for high quality restoration even in the face of a changing climate.

If we, as conservationists, continue to toil away on restoration projects without seeing how all the pieces fit together and without reaching out to the communities who live nearby, we will continue wasting our resources. Here, where the Great Lakes meet the Great Plaines, it is our collective responsibility to care for these landscapes and to protect what’s left for the benefit of people and nature.


As part of the O’Hare Modernization Program, Openlands managed the restoration of five sites in the Des Plaines River Valley. Following restoration, several of these sites were enrolled in the Illinois Nature Preserve System. For more information, please contact Land@openlands.org.

Conservation Policy Updates from the Federal and Local Levels

Last winter, Openlands promised to keep you, our constituents and supporters, up-to-date on news and policy proposals impacting conservation in our region. Conservation issues remain in the headlines and in the forefront of political discussions, and below we have updates on issues from transportation to clean water, how these issues are unfolding, and how you can help.

First, recognize what we have accomplished: all signs suggest that your advocacy for the Great Lakes was a success, as funding has been included in federal budget proposals for the next fiscal year. That means $300 million will still support regional and international efforts to clean, restore, and protect the Great Lakes. We expect a congressional vote on a federal budget in December, but it may come sooner — we will alert you to any actions impacting conservation.

In the last several weeks, we have also learned more about the White House’s proposals to reduce protections for 10 National Monuments. Openlands adamantly opposes any effort to curtail protections for conserved federal lands. If enacted, these changes will likely require legislative action. Our neighbors in the West supported us when we sought federal protections for landscapes in Illinois, so we are calling on our state’s elected leadership to show them the same support by opposing any changes to the National Monuments.

And while the White House, the EPA, and the Department of the Interior may be dominating the headlines, state-wide and local decisions are impacting our environment on a daily basis.


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Regionally, Openlands, along with our conservation partners, local farmers, and farm organizations, helped to defeat a transportation proposal which would have threatened the vitality of clean water resources, natural areas like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, and precious farmland in our region. In late August, the federal Surface Transportation Board rejected a plan from Great Lake Basin Transportation, Inc. to build a 261-mile railway line that neglected to consider the region’s existing plans for sustainable growth. Openlands believes transportation and infrastructure projects should not jeopardize our natural resources — and this proposal plainly ignored the negative impacts on the environment.

In Will County, Openlands is advocating at all levels for growth to complement and enhance Midewin and surrounding natural and agricultural landscapes. Our ongoing efforts to support Midewin include advocating for smart growth in the area. For instance, Openlands and our partners worked with Will County to adopt a freight plan that calls for consciously locating roads and development to preserve the natural and agricultural heritage in the Midewin area.

The devastation wrought by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria has given new urgency to our projects to control stormwater and to reduce urban flooding. We are moving forward with solutions to make our region more resilient in order to face a changing climate. For example, our ecological restoration projects and our Space to Grow partnership aim to manage stormwater more effectively. Flooding this past July in McHenry, Kane, and Lake counties—only the most recent flooding event here—are but a glimpse of what we may face as climate change makes storms larger and more unpredictable. The catastrophic flooding in Houston caused by Hurricane Harvey underscored the human and ecological devastation that occurs when massive amounts of rain fall within a limited period of time on a major metropolitan area.


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We have also been working with several aldermen in Chicago to form an Urban Forestry Advisory Board. Trees shade nearly 17% of Chicago, and convey a wide range of economic, social, and environmental benefits to residents. However, Chicago’s urban forest faces a growing list of threats — both natural, like the Emerald Ash Borer, and  those human-made, such as lax enforcement of tree protection laws. This advisory board will convene public and private stakeholders to brainstorm and implement workable solutions to Chicago’s most pressing forestry problems. We are aiming to introduce a City Council ordinance soon, and we will need your support to help it pass.

Openlands has kept a very close eye on the planning for the future of Chicago’s Jackson Park. We have advocated for an update to the 1999 plan for Chicago’s south parks, and we are pleased that an update is being prepared. All summer, however, the Chicago Park District promised more specific information on the future of these parks, yet at the most recent public meetings, we were once again given nothing new and were told everything is preliminary. Without data, the Park District, nor the city, nor its residents can make informed decisions about our parks.

In the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Openlands has been assisting in the implementation of the Next Century Conservation Plan, which aims to protect an additional 20,000 acres and restore 30,000 acres. Openlands has contributed research that identifies sources of political support among Cook County residents and which documents the overwhelming financial benefits of restoring natural areas in the Forest Preserves. We have recently completed the restoration of Deer Grove East, and we continue to work in partnership with the county board to support funding for some of Cook County’s most beloved places to get outside.


From our founding, Openlands has worked to connect people to nature. These are the issues we are keeping an eye on at the moment, and we know that with your engagement, we can succeed. Openlands remains committed to building community at the local level through education, empowerment, and access to nature. We remain committed to inclusion, public participation in decision making, and science-based actions. And we remain committed to protecting open spaces and natural resources for generations to come. We promise to continue updating you as policy issues impact our region and on ways to make your voice heard.

Partnering to Protect our Region from Storms and Floods

The catastrophic flooding in Houston caused by Hurricane Harvey underscores the human and ecological devastation that occurs when massive amounts of rain fall within a limited period of time.

Although not in danger of a hurricane, Chicago, built on a swamp and land partially reclaimed from Lake Michigan, is hardly immune from destructive storms and the stormwater they bring. Floods now impact our region regularly, and the storms that bring them have grown more unpredictable. So-called hundred-year storms have become regular occurrences in the Great Lakes region, and those we have seen are by no means the worst possible. Imagine the destruction if a low-pressure system dumped even a quarter of the rain on Chicago that Houston has seen.

All this water needs somewhere to go. Too often, that somewhere is basements, streets and highways, and our region’s natural waterways, including Lake Michigan, which returns to its former status of sewer during the most extreme weather events. Innovative programs and partnerships between communities, organizations, and government agencies, however, can offer solutions with benefits far beyond keeping stormwater out of basements.

One such partnership is Space to Grow: Greening Chicago Schoolyards, a program run by Openlands and Healthy Schools Campaign and funded by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Chicago Public Schools, and the Chicago Department of Water Management. Space to Grow leverages public investment to redesign CPS schoolyards with green infrastructure features that absorb high volumes of stormwater. Not only can parents and neighbors rest easier without concern for flooding, but students also enjoy new playgrounds, gardens, and outdoor learning spaces.


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Restoring portions of the open space in our region to the wetlands they once were can also keep stormwater out of sewers and basements. Over the past twelve years, Openlands has conducted five restorations in the Des Plaines River Watershed in partnership with the Chicago District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Chicago Department of Aviation. Last year, a study led by Stantec Consulting, Inc. found that the restoration at two Forest Preserves of Cook County sites reduced the amount of water leaving the restored areas by 50 percent. That translates to 110 million fewer gallons of stormwater impacting homes and businesses surrounding the preserves during storms each year.

In addition to protecting lives and property from floods, an associated study found that wetland restoration efforts in Cook County yield a return on investment of more than $8 for every $1 spent. Construction costs, including jobs, as well as long-term benefits from increased visitation to the restored preserves, better flood control, and cleaner water account for this financial return on restoring nature.

Flooding this past July in McHenry, Kane, and Lake counties—only the most recent flooding event here—are but a glimpse of what we may face as climate change makes storms larger and more unpredictable. But our region is built on innovation, and we can find solutions to threats like flooding when we come together and work creatively. The images and videos from Texas, Florida and all-too-often what we see in our own basements and backyards compel us to invest in big, bold, multi-faceted solutions that will protect our homes, drive our economy, and make our region more livable.


For more than 50 years, Openlands has advocated for the health of our region’s waterways. From protecting the Great Lakes to restoring the Chicago River, we improve our water resources for generations to come.

At the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, Ravine Restoration Nearing Completion

Since the fall of 2011, visitors to the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve have explored nearly 80 acres of Lake Michigan shoreline and restored ravines. They are the regular users of the Preserve’s trail system and the supporters of our educational programs. And as much as we have worked to make the Preserve about people, we are also working to restore the site’s natural landscapes, native plant communities, and its unique ecosystems.

The Lakeshore Preserve is a dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve, meaning it is home to some of the rarest natural habitat in northeast Illinois and will remain open to the public in perpetuity.

The Preserve’s topography offers glimpses into the dynamic geological nature of the Chicago lakefront region. The steep ravines, each named for a former notable area resident, were formed by erratic lake levels and glacial meltwater after the last Ice Age, about 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. The high gravel and clay bluffs are also remnants of a bygone glacial era. Many original remnants of prairie, oak woodland, and shoreline plant communities still can be found within the Preserve’s boundaries. The site is also home to seven plant species on the state’s endangered and threatened lists, and it provides crucial stopover habitat to birds migrating along the Lake Michigan flyway.

Openlands has been actively researching and stewarding the Preserve’s rare natural communities since 2008. With the generous support of many donors, Openlands began to restore the Preserve’s sensitive ecosystems soon after the first phase of acquisition. The Preserve contains four distinct natural communities: lakeshore, lakeshore bluff, tableland, and lakefront ravine. Within these ecosystems lay many diverse subcommunities and micro-climates. It has been and still remains Openlands’ goal to restore these communities to pre-settlement conditions, or to the closest approximation possible. Much of that work has focused on the careful restoration of the Preserve’s three lakefront ravines.


Van Horne Ravine May 2017

Three Models of Restoration

Today, the Lakeshore Preserve is one of the few publicly accessible ravine ecosystems in the Chicago metropolitan region. Openlands assumed management of this site to ensure public access to the lakefront at a time when housing development threatened to privatize some of the last remaining stretches in Lake County. With that commitment, came the opportunity to restore three lakefront ravines, a topographic feature rarely found beyond the North Shore.

Van Horne Ravine (pictured above) is approximately 1,325 feet in length from the head of the ravine at Patten Road to its outlet at Lake Michigan. A small stream carries stormwater from Patten Road to the lake, meandering along the base of the ravine. Restoration of this ravine included the installation of a variety of best management practices to stabilize the base of a ravine and several side ravines.

The Van Horne restoration has returned the ravine to our closest approximation of its natural state. Our work reintroduced native plants, trees, and shrubs to contain the slope of the ravine and prevent erosion. Small pools and riffles were created along the ravine base to provide a natural habitat for aquatic organisms and plants. These techniques – native plantings, revegetation, and mimicry of natural hydraulic patterns and functions – allowed us to restore the ravine without artificial engineering.


OLP January 2018 (11)

Schenck Ravine, pictured here, is located in the southern section of the Preserve and is being restored to a semi-natural state, meaning that we have used artificial reinforcements to support the success of native plants as they stabilize the steep walls of this ravine. The Chandler Bridge, accessible from the southern end of the Preserve, affords a treetop vantage point for visitors to observe this restoration along with some of the Preserve’s best views of Lake Michigan.

This restoration removed nearly 10 acres of invasive and opportunistic trees and shrubs such as buckthorn, black locust, and cottonwood. Opening the ravine floor allowed the existing seed bank to germinate and was complemented by the reintroduction of native plants. The ravine’s wide mouth at the lakefront leads to cooler air moving into the ravine, which allowed us to plant native species. Restoration of Schenck Ravine also reintroduced riffles and small pools along the ravine base to mimic natural hydraulic flow of stormwater towards Lake Michigan. The goal is to restore the ability of small fish like mudpuppies and dice to easily navigate up the ravine to breed in these cool, small pools.


Bartlet Ravine July 2017

Bartlett Ravine, located at the north end of the Preserve, is the largest of the three. The road at the bottom of Bartlett Ravine was originally a cavalry pathway, and eventually it was used for Jeep training. However, Openlands realized early on that this road was helping to stabilize the ravine slopes. The restoration of Bartlett Ravine (pictured above) returned it to a state more common and traditional to what is found along the North Shore, meaning that we are using artificial methods to control stormwater and prevent erosion. Given the infrastructure in place since Openlands took ownership of the site, this is in some way the optimal condition as it maintains the integrity of the ravine while balancing the artificial structures in place, and it is a model for restoring other heavily developed ravines on the North Shore.

The restoration of Bartlett Ravine is nothing short of spectacular. What began as a place that was dark and barren, this landscape is today bright and thriving. An open tree canopy and rich soils unleashed the wildflowers, grasses, and sedges found in the ravine today. Bartlett Ravine is home to more than 150 varieties of native plants and trees, six of which are state-designated threatened and endangered species. Complementing the restoration is an ADA-accessible trail system and an innovative, art-based interpretive plan, which together offer a unique outdoor experience for visitors.


Bartlet Ravine Lakeshore July 2017

The Lakeshore Preserve and Water

While efforts to protect and restore these areas have increased significantly over the past twenty years, there is simply little precedent to guide restoration approaches. Further complicating this is the fact that the historical record lacks details regarding the original site conditions, and the ravines themselves are dynamic, shifting their composition in response to stormwater. However, we do know much about the hydrology of this region prior to European settlement. The ravine systems represent Illinois’ last remaining natural drainage systems in the Lake Michigan watershed. Whereas more than 650 square miles of Illinois formerly drained into Lake Michigan, today it is less than 90 square miles, the bulk of which sits in Lake County.

For many years, it was common practice to pipe water down into ravines from streets and homes. Over time, this caused damage to ravines up and down the lakeshore. The high volume and velocity of piped water created serious erosion and brought in invasive plant species that competed with native plant communities. This makes preservation of the ravine ecosystems ever more important.

Bartlet Mural Stormwater

Today, we are looking to keep stormwater out of the ravines. The necessity of restoring the ravines at the Preserve was a direct result of increased stormwater. With both people and wildlife living in close proximity to the ravines, Openlands needs to reinforce their slopes in order to prevent further erosion and a collapse. Green infrastructure installations above the ravines control flash flood conditions, both protecting the structure of the ravines and improving water quality before it enters Lake Michigan.

Rain gardens are found along the upland trail, engineered as depressions in the ground and designed to help stormwater infiltrate into the soil. This provides a functional and aesthetically-pleasing way to prevent stormwater from flowing over land or overwhelming existing sewer infrastructure. Thriving ravine ecosystems are phenomenally important to ensuring the health of Lake Michigan, as they provide pools and riffles that organically manage stormwater, reduce erosion, and serve as habitat for local fish.

Between our techniques to retain stormwater and our careful effort to restore the ravines each in its own way, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve offers three different models for communities across the North Shore to restore their own lakefront landscapes and protect the health of our Great Lakes.

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A Living Landscape

We hope the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve will not just be an oasis for the region’s residents and wildlife, but also that it can serve as a learning landscape, a laboratory to monitor systemic changes to our planet’s climate.

In and above the three ravines, we are regularly testing and sharing best management practices. We work with partners regularly to monitor species and beach erosion. And we are working with conservation organizations and municipalities to develop a watershed plan for the North Shore, both creating new stormwater management plans for some areas and revising older plans in other areas. A comprehensive watershed plan for the North Shore will help us and our partners complete projects to improve the health of Lake Michigan.

The three ravines themselves each harbor their own micro-climates, created by cool air moving off Lake Michigan and shaded under the tree canopy overhead. A change in wildlife found within these micro-climates sets off alarms to Openlands about planetary changes we face.

As our region’s climate changes, floods impact our lives more regularly, and the storms that bring them have grown more unpredictable. All that water needs somewhere to go, and too often, that somewhere is basements, streets and highways, and our region’s natural waterways, including Lake Michigan. The dramatic flooding in McHenry, Kane, and Lake counties during the summer of 2017 is symptomatic of the new reality northeast Illinois faces in a changing climate. Climate resilient landscapes like the Preserve, however, can retain these flood waters, mitigating the risk to homeowners and filtering stormwater before it enters clean water resources like Lake Michigan.

Here, where the Great Lakes meet the Great Plains, ensuring that our landscape is healthy and resilient is our great responsibility. Like you, Openlands is a part of this region and this planet. We work to directly address the negative effects of climate change, making our region healthier for nature and people alike. By managing stormwater, providing a haven for rare wildlife susceptible to changes in our climate, and creating a landscape that puts carbon back in the ground, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is a model not just for ravine restoration, but also for addressing head on the crisis of climate change.


Ready to discover the Preserve for yourself? It’s open to the public yearround, and easily accessible for anyone in the Chicago metropolitan area. For more information on the Lakeshore Preserve restoration projects, please contact lakeshorepreserve@openlands.org.

Protecting Our Great Lakes

The heart of an international region home to more than 50 million people is water. Beyond providing the basic necessity for life, the Great Lakes have shaped the geology, climate, economy, culture, and people of their surrounding region, and they are more than a point of pride for those residents. Plainly visible from outer space and an enduring reminder of the last Ice Age, the Great Lakes are the largest surface source of freshwater in the world.

But the Great Lakes are more than just five bodies of water: they’re the land and wildlife that surround the lakes, as well as the people and communities that depend on them. They provide drinking water to 10% of Americans, they support economies, transportation, and agriculture, and they have been declared a national treasure by Congress. These are our Great Lakes, they belong to everyone, and they are vital.

Updated: Congress has passed a budget that fully funds the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Learn more…


 

Understanding the Value of our Lakes

Each of us has our own impression of the Great Lakes, yet uniting those views is a common appreciation for these natural treasures.

The Great Lakes shelter more than 90,000 square miles of aquatic habitats, and they are surrounded by more than 200,000 square miles of terrain ranging from cities and towns to wetlands, forests, and farmland. The networks of parks, open spaces, beaches, and conservation areas offer home to hundreds of wildlife species, as well as numerous opportunities for people to experience the lakes. Restoring the natural landscapes of the region, such as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Illinois Beach State Park, offers a home to many species of concern while providing unparalleled opportunities for visitors to experience the region’s nature. Even small green spaces like Chicago’s Montrose Point can provide a natural retreat for both people and wildlife.

But the lakes are also the economic engine of the Midwest. They offer routes of transportation which support the regional economy, they provide clean drinking water, they support recreation and tourism, and they sustain the region’s agriculture. Over 1.5 million jobs are tied to the Great Lakes providing $60 million in wages. Outdoor recreation opportunities, such as paddling, fishing, wildlife viewing, and miles of trails, contribute billions to the US economy – recreational fishing alone accounts for over $4 billion.


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Openlands assisted with the Illinois Coastal Management Program.

Collaborating on Restoration

It is not without substantial collaboration that the Great Lakes can endure as a natural and national treasure. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, signed in 1972, was a major international step towards protection and conservation. The Great Lakes Compact signed in 2008 took another stride to preserving the water quality and ecological health of the region.

In 2010, the US Federal Government launched the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), the most comprehensive proposal to protect and restore the lakes to date. The GLRI aims to limit toxic pollution, such as mercury and PCBs, from entering drinking water sources and habitat for wildlife. It focuses on reducing runoff from developed areas and industrial sites while restoring the natural landscapes that surround the lakes, and the initiative aims to prevent invasive plant and animal species from threatening the region’s biodiversity. With support from the GLRI, Openlands has planted over 2,500 trees in the Chicago area over the last four years.

To date the GLRI has invested $2.2 billion in restoration projects, and a Brookings Institution study found that every dollar invested in Great Lakes restoration yields a two dollar return. Ten federal agencies have coordinated efforts for the GLRI including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Agriculture. Taken together, this level of coordination demonstrates not just the breadth of areas impacted by the lakes, but also the level of commitment required to preserve the Great Lakes.


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Lake Michigan

For more than 50 years, Openlands has been an advocate of the Great Lakes and we have led many regional initiatives to advance Great Lakes restoration. We assisted in the establishment of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (1965) and played a critical role in dedicating the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor (1984). Openlands provided leadership to the Steering Committee of Millennium Reserve and has helped implement numerous regional plans for Lake Michigan. Additionally, the Lake Michigan Federation (now Alliance for the Great Lakes) and Friends of the Chicago River were both founded as projects of Openlands.

Our commitment to the Great Lakes extends to our on-the-ground efforts to improve the health of Lake Michigan. We have restored the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, a mile of lakefront natural areas and unique ecosystems in Highland Park which feeds into to the Lake Michigan watershed. Our urban forestry and regional planning programs, such as Space to Grow, look to control stormwater pollution to Lake Michigan and better manage Chicago’s water resources. Yet people are the core of Openlands, so we ensure access to an open lakefront, and facilitate ways to connect students to the lake through Eco-Explorations and Birds in my Neighborhood®.


These are our Great Lakes, and they ask no less than a full commitment to their protection. Whether at Indiana Dunes, Montrose Point, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, or any of the 10,500 miles of Great Lakes coastline, connections to nature inspire greater appreciation for our natural treasures. Openlands will continue to protect and restore the Great Lakes, and ensure they continue to belong to everyone.

Chicago’s Urban Forest

Chicago’s urban forest is vital to the health and wellness of our city. Trees provide essential economic services, improve the quality of life for residents and wildlife, mitigate the threats of climate change to our region, and help to beautify our neighborhoods and parks. Preserving these community assets, however, requires constant attention, persistence, and investment.

There are over 3,500,000 trees in the City of Chicago, which capture harmful pollution and improve air quality. Pollution from coal- and gas-fired power plants and from industrial production has direct impacts on public health. In Illinois, asthma affects residents at a disproportionate rate (13% versus the 8% national average), so every resource to improve air quality — particularly trees which capture volatile organic compounds — is essential.

Green areas serve the societal well-being of communities as well. Shaded parks can encourage increased recreation, decrease ultraviolet radiation levels, provide a sense of place, and create opportunity for green jobs through tree care. Additionally, tree-lined streets and green neighborhoods have demonstrated reductions in crime compared to similar, barren neighborhoods.

As our climate changes, Chicago’s forest will play a critical role in mitigating the effects. Trees sequester and store carbon by absorbing CO2, the second most abundant greenhouse gas. Climate change will likely result in increased average temperatures for Chicago, yet trees provide natural climate control by reducing surface temperatures around buildings, further allowing a reduction in energy consumption. We also face an increased need to better capture rain water and prevent flooding, and trees function as natural water storage systems.


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Pollution concentrates disproportionately in communities of color and climate change affects low-income neighborhoods first, and Chicago has not been immune to this reality. Neighborhoods across the south and west sides lack access to green space and recreation opportunities, they experience increased urban flooding, and their residents live in proximity to major polluters. To address this injustice, Openlands’ urban forestry programs have always worked with and for the city’s residents.

Openlands believes we must engage and communicate with local residents who benefit most directly from the trees in their neighborhood. Our TreePlanters Grants facilitate community tree plantings, bringing neighbors together in the community goal of healthy trees. Our urban forestry team, with assistance from our trained TreeKeepers volunteers, have planted over 3,800 trees across Chicago since 2013, and we continue to care for our arboreal treasures which enhance the vitality and beauty of our region.

As a lead partner of the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, Openlands works to create a healthier urban forest, which provides the region with improved environmental, economic, and social benefits. Since 2012, Openlands has led the creation and implementation of the Next Century Conservation Plan for the Forest Preserves of Cook County, which improves access to the forest preserves for residents and leverages the economic benefits of forest preserves for communities’ benefit.

An effective urban forestry program maintains a healthy and expanding canopy that provides maximized benefits to its residents. Openlands works to protect the natural treasures that balance and enrich our lives, including our region’s urban forest, and we recognize the need to engage residents in care of these assets. Through education and engagement, Openlands hopes to raise greater awareness of the conservation issues that face our region.

For more information on Openlands’ urban forestry work, please contact trees@openlands.org or call 312.863.6271.

Raising Parks and Wetlands from Industrial Sites along Lake Calumet

On November 5, Openlands Greenways Director Ders Anderson joined local community leaders, and guided a tour of potential public access and ecological restoration sites along the shores of Lake Calumet. Easily accessible to the neighborhoods of Pullman and Roseland, Lake Calumet is the largest body of water in the city of Chicago; however, the shoreline has sat vacant, cut off from public access for decades.

As part of the Lake Calumet Vision Committee, Openlands has been working in partnership with the Southeast Environmental Task Force, the Alliance for the Great Lakes and Friends of the Parks to develop new parkland and recreation opportunities for local communities at this site. Representatives from Congresswoman Robin Kelly’s office (IL-2nd), Congressman Michael Quigley’s office (IL-5th) and the Chicago Park District joined the Lake Calumet Vision Committee along with leaders from the Active Transport Alliance, Friends of Big Marsh, the Metropolitan Planning Council and REI’s Outdoor Programs for a tour of the underutilized sites.

“When Lake Calumet came under management of the Illinois International Port District decades ago, the surrounding neighborhoods were cut off from their 100-year access to this water resource, and the shore has remained undeveloped since,” explains Anderson. The committee envisions future recreation opportunities for biking, jogging, paddling and sailing, as well as a new trail linking the Pullman National Monument to the new urban mountain bike Park at Big Marsh. The committee has engaged local residents both for their input and reaction to the proposal and found overwhelming support for access to the lake. When completed, the proposed park and recreation sites would restore public access to this neglected natural treasure.

lakecalumetmarsh

The creation of new parkland at this site would further connect the growing network of green spaces in south Chicagoland maintained by the Chicago Park District. Nearby Big Marsh is home to the recently opened 278-acre bike park, Chicago’s first eco-recreation destination, with Heron Pond, Indian Ridge, Deadstick Pond and Hegewisch Marsh located at the southern end of the lake.

But Lake Calumet is valuable for many more reasons than just the recreation opportunities. In 1980, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources listed Lake Calumet on its Illinois Natural Areas Inventory, which listed habitats within the state in vital need of conservation and which has served as a guide to land preservation to this day. However, despite the need for preservation of this aquatic ecosystem, little action has been taken to protect Lake Calumet.

lakecalumetwildlife

At the north end of the lake sits the 140-acre Square Marsh, which the committee hopes to see restored as a hemi-marsh. A hemi-marsh is an aquatic ecosystem, 50% of which is open water necessary for birds to identify the site as habitat, and the other 50% comprised of aquatic plants to provide wildlife with food and shelter. Along with the recently restored hemi-marsh at Big Marsh, the restoration efforts at Lake Calumet would provide a dramatic increase in habitat.

Conditions for restoration are ripe: water levels in Lake Calumet are ideal for wetlands restoration, the lake provides a variety of habitats to support an array of wildlife, and the water quality in the lake is believed to be improving thanks to local efforts to curb runoff from industrial sites. All totaled, the restoration site could support more than 500 acres of new habitat.

With everything moving in the right direction for a positive redevelopment of the shores of Lake Calumet, Openlands hopes to build on existing local support for the plan and realize this important project. “There is very strong local support for this project, it is consistent with the land use plan adopted by the City of Chicago, and Lake Calumet has long been identified as a site with major conservation potential,” explains Anderson, “What we need now is financial support and the will of our elected leaders to see it through, but I am confident they will do the right thing for the community.”

Photo Credit (all): Lloyd DeGrane

Have You Discovered the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve?

Just north of the City of Chicago sits a mile of lakefront beach and a series of unique ecosystems, which are home to a rich array of plants and wildlife. After 10 years of restoration work, the site has become a natural treasure, earning distinctions as a registered Illinois Nature Preserve and an International Dark-sky Preserve. This is the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

During the fall, this preserve is a beauty to behold. The changing leaves paint the bluffs and ravines in deep reds and vibrant yellows, accompanied by the more muted yellows, whites, and purples of goldenrods and asters. Birds hop around the trails and land in the trees, taking a break from their long fall migration. Small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks are also particularly active, gathering up nuts and seeds as they prepare for winter.

In spring and summer you can walk the beach, bring your binoculars to glimpse some rare birds, or take time to explore the rare ravines. The steep ravines were formed by erratic lake levels and glacial meltwater after the last Ice Age about 10,000 to 15,000 years ago! Even in winter the Lakeshore Preserve offers some unique perspectives to appreciate nature.

Then, of course, there is the lake. Visible from all points along the various trails, Lake Michigan provides a gorgeous backdrop for all of this land-based activity. You can walk along the shore, or you can walk the trails on top of the bluffs, almost 70 feet in the air.