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.

Openlands Launches New Online Paddling Guide

Start paddling northeastern Illinois’ waterways!

Openlands’ new paddling website, Paddle Illinois Water Trails, is a comprehensive guide for canoeing and kayaking in the Chicago region. Covering over 500 miles of Water Trails across 10 of northeastern Illinois’ waterways, this new guide provides rich information about paddling, including step-by-step trips along each trail. The site contains trips and resources for everyone, from first-time paddlers to seasoned boaters.

The guide provides in-depth information on each waterway, including important notes about water safety, interactive maps, and multiple, in-depth trip descriptions. Each trip description includes information on skill levels, trail length, directions, and equipment rental locations if available. Interactive maps display launch sites, dams, and the paddling difficulty level along the trail. Paddlers can also leave comments and share their paddling tips on individual trail pages.

Visit the guide now!

Building School Gardens Workshops Prepare CPS for Spring

Maintaining a school garden year after year is a challenge, and Openlands is proud that over 90% of our Building School Gardens schools are still using their school gardens, some of which are over ten years old! Through Building School Gardens, approximately 33,000 students are directly impacted by the school gardens each day in addition to the hundreds of teachers, parents, and community members.

Openlands continues to support 58 Chicago Public Schools each year through garden team consultations, stewardship days, and additional education programming like Birds in my Neighborhood® and Eco-Explorations. One of the most impactful ways we help our school gardeners is through Building School Gardens workshops.

Held throughout the year at Building School Gardens schools, these workshops give teachers and garden team members tools that help them to maintain the garden, and to use the schoolyard as a part of class lessons, and it provides garden teams with a networking opportunity. Openlands uses an annual survey to drive the content of workshops, but a typical year-long schedule includes training on building and maintaining a garden team, stewarding a school garden, curriculum connections, and garden tours.


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In the fall of 2016, Building School Gardens met at Webster Elementary’ s new garden to share STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) lessons. In the winter, Franklin Fine Arts hosted a workshop on Art in the Garden, where participants learned how to make stepping stones. This spring, Tonti Elementary hosted a workshop on Vegetable Gardening Basics, and shared a lesson on Poetry in the Garden. The Tonti workshop was a smashing success, and teachers requested that we offer it in Spanish, which will happen on May 8 at Tonti. In addition to the Vegetable Gardening workshop in Spanish, Building School Gardens will coordinate a plant divide at Mark Sheridan Academy on May 20, and a training on Stewarding the School Garden at Palmer Elementary, at a date yet to be determined.

In the 2016-17 school year, over 20 Building School Gardens schools have been represented at these workshops. Several of these schools have had a very high level of participation among their garden team, and will therefore receive small stipends from Building School Gardens as an award for their efforts.


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Openlands also visited the entire staff at McPherson and Webster Elementary to provide a separate training on How and Why to Teach Outdoors. For some teachers this comes naturally, but we have found that for the others that don’t generally think about using the garden – or that don’t even know about the garden – but a special workshop on the topic can help increase the use of the outdoor space for learning.

Building School Gardens staff are beginning to create the schedule for next year’s workshops. Content will ultimately depend on survey responses from teachers, but we expect to touch on education activities related to trees and birds.


For more information on future Building School Gardens workshops, please contact schools@openlands.org.