Lake Michigan Water Levels Impact Coastal Management at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve

If you’ve visited the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve recently, you might have noticed some changes happening along the lakefront due to high water levels in the lake. It’s called erosion, and we’ll be the first to admit that it’s pretty bad right now. Erosion is a natural process that gradually removes soil, rock, and sediment from wherever it’s been sitting on the land such as a beach or a riverbank. Erosion at the Lakeshore Preserve is so substantial at the moment that we even had to remove a lakefront art installation to prevent it from washing away into the Great Lakes!

Before we say any more though, please trust us that the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is still completely safe for you to visit. You can still enjoy the sights, sounds, trails, and art installations. We ask that you stay on the paved trails and be sure to keep your pets leashed and off the beach areas. If you’re an avid science geek, an expert geohydrologist, or even someone who just enjoys walking along the lakefront, we encourage you to visit the Lakeshore Preserve and see with your own eyes how the Great Lakes are shaping the surrounding lands.

You may have read in the news that water levels in the Great Lakes are at historic highs – while they’re not currently the highest we’ve ever recorded, it’s still pretty significant news. There is no easy answer for why that is, and it’s affecting shorelines in a number of ways.


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Water levels in the Great Lakes have historically fluctuated. Low levels in the late 1960s were followed by record highs in the mid-1980s. The water levels of the Great Lakes are pretty much determined by simple cycles of ice cover, precipitation, and evaporation. In the scheme of things, human withdrawal is actually rather insignificant. (Here’s a fantastic article explaining that in more detail.)

Ice coverage in the winter months is a significant determining factor of water levels. When there is more ice coverage, less water will evaporate from the lakes. As our climate changes, the Great Lakes region is predicted to experience greater fluctuations in winter temperatures: winters could be warmer-than-average or colder-than-average, or a week of low 20s followed by a week in the high 50s could become normal, all affecting ice coverage. For example, lake levels were lower between 2008-2010 than currently since the last few winters have been generally colder. The colder winters led to higher ice coverage, meaning less wintertime evaporation.

In terms of climate change, the region is also predicted to receive much more precipitation than normal, meaning water inputs to the Great Lakes will be higher. We cannot say one way or another how the stable cycles of evaporation and precipitation, cycles that have been steady for thousands of years, will be affected. Increased evaporation and precipitation could balance each other out – leaving the lakes at similar water levels to what has been historically observed – or one process could completely outweigh the other, causing a sharp rise or fall in water levels. While it would be inaccurate to use climate change as an explanation for the current lake levels, we can expect that in a changed climate we will generally experience more fluctuation in water levels as periods of evaporation outweigh precipitation and vice versa.


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The point is that the water levels in Lake Michigan have physical impacts felt up and down its shoreline. Along this part of the lake currents typically flow north to south. Since European settlement, the Illinois shoreline has been altered in a number of ways for a variety of reasons, all of which interrupt these currents in site-specific ways and regionally. The impact of various alterations, when combined with high water levels, can cause erosion even to reinforced areas like at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

Along the North Shore, we have many, many artificial alterations to the shore including hundreds of metal groynes jutting into the lake (pictured above). When they were installed much earlier in the 20th century, these groynes were intended to prevent erosion, but they were installed with an incomplete understanding of on-shore, near-shore, and off-shore conditions and currents, exacerbating the erosion we see today.

The Openlands Lakeshore Preserve does have many of these metal groynes, but also large revetment rocks and some of the latest coastal engineering strategies, all intended to reduce erosion. While we are working on a solution to stabilize the beach and toe of the bluff, erosion still persists. The significant erosion we see at the Lakeshore Preserve is occurring in places that have no erosion control or in areas where the water level is simply so high, it is washing away soils behind the control measures. It remains a fact of life that erosion is a natural process and it cannot be prevented altogether, no matter the strategy you try.


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With the traditional groyne solution, we see patterns of erosion that follow the southerly current (above in purple). As waves reach the shore (above in blue), sand and soil is carried away and is deposited immediately north of the next groyne (above in brown). This is called littoral drift. The satellite image above shows how wedges of beach have formed over time in between groynes. The immediate effect of this pattern is fragmentation of shoreline areas like the Lakeshore Preserve, Illinois Beach State Park, or other popular beaches of the North Shore.

If you’re a homeowner on the Lakefront, this may all sound rather concerning. There are a few things you can do: contact your city council and tell them you’re concerned about coastal erosion. There is significant attention being paid to the issue and support for North Shore municipal councils to develop a comprehensive plan for coastal areas, but statements of support from the public will aid the projects and implementation. Keep in mind that regional plans like this do take time, careful monitoring, and significant analysis to find the right solutions, but there are some more immediate steps you can take.

Try to prevent any man-made alterations to the shoreline on your property if possible. Finally, reducing runoff from rain and stormwater will help reduce erosion. Make sure that surface runoff flowing over your property is either captured by a rain garden, is diverted directly into sewers, or is piped down into the lake. Rain gardens are an excellent solution because they capture rainwater where it falls, preventing bluff and ravine erosion and keeping sediments and pollutants out of the Great Lakes.

View more resources for ravine homeowners and technical experts. We also encourage you to read through the excellent resources offered by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Coastal Management Program. Homeowners looking for initial recommendations can contact lakeshorepreserve@openlands.org.


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As a lakefront landowner, Openlands is also concerned about this erosion. The Lakeshore Preserve is home to several natural bluffs, and at the base of one of these – where there is no erosion control – we have been seeing some substantial erosion for the past year. As erosion has increased, the natural slope of the bluff has been affected and we expect this to continue until the bluff finds its angle of repose again. An angle of repose is the steepest angle the slope of the bluff can take while the soil remains stable. The picture above shows recent conditions: when the slope holds its natural angle, it should stretch to the waters edge with some beach to protect it and without that significant dropoff at the base shown above. The bluff here will find its slope again, but will continue to reshape higher up the slope and upland areas as it does. Once again, erosion is a natural process and below you can see its effects on two sites at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve over a year’s time.

Click on each of the images below to see the impact on the bluff from August 2017 – May 2018.

Click each image below to see the changes to the Lake Prism Art installation from May 2017 – May 2018.


We aim for the Lakeshore Preserve to function as a learning laboratory as a way to monitor changes in our climate and landscapes, and that it will serve as a model for communities and landowners along the North Shore. To that end, we have been working since the summer of 2018 with researchers from the Illinois State Geological Survey at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to monitor the erosion. Using drone footage and images, researchers will analyze erosional forces and sand migration over the course of eight months via a series of digital 3D models, which will map changes to the bluffs and beach. New studies like this are needed to build a more-complete and in-depth understanding of the natural forces at work.

As a component of the learning laboratory, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is the second site on the North Shore to receive this kind of study, and the data will be tested in several ways to provide local municipalities, agencies, and elected officials with the most useful interpretation to address their communities’ unique needs.


Changes like erosion are reminders that landscapes are alive, and that they can be altered by both humans and nature, so we need to be conscious of our impact and work to restore landscapes wherever possible. Again, we encourage you to visit the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve; it is a spectacular example of the ravine and bluff ecosystems unique to the North Shore and it is open to the public year-round. Begin planning your visit.

Open Land Art & Fact Team on Exhibit at the Hyde Park Arts Center

The Open Land Art and Fact Team (O.L.A.F.T) was created in partnership with artist Doug Fogelson to highlight and expose the tensions between the natural world and human impact. Established during Fogelson’s 2015-2016 residency with Openlands, O.L.A.F.T. took photographs and collected man-made as well as organic samples at several of our restoration sites.

The aim for this collaboration was to discern human impact and imprint on the land through small changes and remnants. Neither Fogelson nor Openlands wanted to simply photograph pristine landscapes, nor was the intention to show mass human destruction.

The result was a pseudo-science effort documenting human interaction with the landscapes of northeast Illinois, and those findings of O.L.A.F.T. are now on display at the Hyde Park Art Center until December 10, 2017. A panel discussion with Fogelson will accompany the exhibit on November 30 (more information below).


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About O.L.A.F.T.

O.L.A.F.T. was designed around the concept of the Anthropocene, the era of geological history in which human activity is the dominant influence on the earth and climate. During this time, it is even more vital to experience open spaces and continue to build a connection with the land, promoting further protection of natural spaces.

This effort spanned from 2015 to 2016, and team members visited eight of Openlands’ restoration sites in the greater Chicago region including the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, Deer Grove East, Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, Hadley Valley Preserve, Messenger Woods, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland, and Eggers Grove at Wolf Lake.

Samples and artifacts were collected from each of the sites and sorted into two categories: man-made and organic. This categorization highlights the dichotomies in the human mind regarding open spaces. Land is often seen either as untouched by society or belonging exclusively to man. The vision of this initiative is to show how human presence impacts nature, but also how the natural world around us impacts our urban environments.

O.L.A.F.T. hopes that this work inspires conversation about conservation, asking visitors to see themselves within nature and to envision the possibility of reinventing, or shifting the discourse on human relationships with the land.


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Exhibition and Panel Discussion

A large desk has been installed with a map depicting sites that were visited. The public can interact with the installation through photographs, research, and found objects sealed in plastic bags.

On Thursday, November 30, you can join Fogelson and several members of Openlands staff for a panel discussion of the exhibit. Finding Ourselves in Nature will discuss the work of O.L.A.F.T. in more detail. The free event is open to the public and runs from 6-8pm at the Hyde Park Arts Center (5020 S. Cornell Ave, Chicago).


Doug Fogelson studied art and photography at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia College Chicago. His photographic manipulations are included in notable public and private collections such as The J. Paul Getty Center, The Museum of Contemporary Photography, The Cleveland Clinic and exhibited with esteemed galleries. He has been recognized by publications including Art NewsPhoto District NewsArt Forum, and AfterImage. Doug Fogelson founded Front Forty Press, an award-winning independent fine art publishing company, and has taught in the Photography Department of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is an advocate for the fine arts and ecological sustainability.

O.L.A.F.T team members included Doug Fogelson, Jennifer Bronson, Connie Tan, Mary McCloskey, Jarred Gastreich, Courtney Kehrmann, and Anthony Lachus.


Openlands believes art in our open spaces gives voice to landscapes and offers a unique perspective to appreciate nature. You can explore this interaction further by visiting the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

Oak Ecosystems in the Chicago Wilderness Region

Maybe you know them from walking through your favorite forest preserve or from raking their leaves in the fall. Maybe you know them from memories of picnics beneath their shade, from playing under one in your neighborhood park, or from collecting and investigating their acorns as a kid just because you were curious. Oak trees are something many of us remember and cherish, and they are a towering icon across our landscapes.

Often referred to as the “king of trees,” oaks play a vital ecological role wherever they grow. Historically, oaks were dominant trees in the great wilderness of the American frontier — forests covered a million square miles of North America east of the Mississippi River at the time of European settlement.

But as the United States expanded westward in the 1800s, these great forests were cleared for their resources. By the turn of the century, the majority of the “old growth” forest in Illinois had been logged, and much of the original forest land was converted to towns, cities, and agriculture. In those places, “second growth” forests grew on the leftover land.

Though large portions of oak ecosystems have been cleared or depleted, Openlands has worked to preserve the remaining oaks in our area through restoration, preservation, and replanting.


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Foundations of a Landscape

Oak ecosystems, both woodlands and savannas, support high biodiversity because they are heterogeneous environments. Their open canopies create highly variable light levels and foster variability in soil moisture, pH, potassium, and organic matter. This heterogeneity allows numerous plants and animal species to find niches within the ecosystem. Yet you may be asking yourself, what does any of that mean?

It means that oak trees are important, and that they are keystone species in the Chicago Wilderness region. As a keystone species, they are essential to the foundations of an ecosystem due to the influence they exert on other wildlife in a given ecosystem. Managing and stewarding the health a keystone species, therefore, holds positive effects for the surrounding ecosystem.

For example, oaks provide a home to birds and insects, as well as food for numerous mammals. Further, the canopy of a healthy oak ecosystem has evolved to encourage the growth of native species at the surface level. If we focus our resources to conserve our oak trees, we can exert indirect, yet positive outcomes on the surrounding landscapes and habitats.

Over 250 species of birds migrate through our region during spring and fall migration seasons, and many of these birds prefer oaks over other native tree species. The variety of tall trees and small shrubs that grow in oak ecosystems provide essential stopover habitat for these birds as they travel across North America.

And the benefits extend beyond helping other wildlife. As a large, long-lived species, oaks are especially useful for climate mitigation via long-term carbon storage. Their vast canopies produce shade, which reduces urban heat island effects and can also reduce energy use in buildings, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As our climate continues to change and storms become more intense, we face an increased need to better capture rain water and prevent flooding, and trees function as natural water storage systems.

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How You Can Help

For all of these reasons, restoration and management of oak-dominated ecosystems is an essential goal in promoting biodiversity and managing wildlife in the Chicago region, but the conservation community needs your help to protect these delicate ecosystems.

There are several regional tree care programs you can join and support, including Openlands TreeKeepers®. As a TreeKeeper, you will assist Openlands in the care of Chicago’s urban forest and oak tree population, you can adopt trees in the City of Chicago, and you can take a leadership role in caring for Chicago’s parks (and their respective trees).

You can also join us at one of our community tree plantings or you can volunteer with your county’s forest preserve district to assist with restoration of natural areas. For instance, the McHenry County Conservation District has made oak ecosystem recovery a central aspect of their Natural Areas Protection Plan. Additionally, the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, a coalition dedicated to improving the health of our region’s forests, lists numerous ways to get involved with caring for trees.

If you’re looking for other ways to explore oak ecosystems in the region, there are several places you can start. At the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, many original remnants of oak woodland can still be found within the Preserve’s boundaries. Deer Grove Forest Preserve in suburban Palatine is home to a variety of ecosystems including some spectacular oak trees. You can also visit Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge to see some of the most impressive oak savannas for yourself.

For more information on oak ecosystems in the Chicago Region, see this report from Chicago Wilderness.


Openlands Forestry team has planted more than 4,000 trees across Chicago in the last four years. With the help of our TreeKeepers volunteers, we are the active stewards of Chicago’s urban forest.

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.


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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.


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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.


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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.

Eco-Explorations Takes Students Beyond the Classroom

If you visited the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve in Fort Sheridan during a weekday this autumn, chances are you shared the preserve with a gaggle of schoolchildren as well, but they were visiting for more than a leisurely stroll.

These students were trying their hand at being naturalists by recording their observations of the preserve. They observed seasonal changes and compared the microclimates of the ravine, shoreline, and bluff areas. In preparation for their visits, students modeled the process of erosion in the classroom so they could better understand the impacts of erosion on-site. These trips allowed students to engage with nature while also helping teachers to meet the science curriculum expectations of the new Next Generation Science Standards.

This outdoor classroom experience is part of Openlands’ Eco-Explorations program. Eco-Explorations brings third grade, fourth grade, and high school classes out to the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve for experiential environmental education. This autumn, over 500 students have visited the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve through Eco-Explorations.

For many students, these trips are the highlight of the school year. For some, it is the first time they have visited the Lake Michigan shoreline.

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Classes that participate in Eco-Explorations are from a Chicago school that has partnered with Openlands through Building School Gardens. Twenty classes are participating this year, and each one will return to the preserve in the spring to continue their observations, as well as to study the preserve’s rare plants and birds.

Openlands is committed to engaging the next generation of naturalists through programs such as these. Thanks to generous funding from the Grainger Foundation, Eco-Explorations is in its sixth year.

The Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is a public nature preserve and is open year-round free of charge. Plan your own visit.

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.

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!

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.