Protecting the Very Best of Illinois’ Natural Landscapes

Illinois is where the Great Lakes meet the Great Plains; many of our landscapes are thousands of years in the making and contain some of the world’s rarest ecosystems. Often they stretch across state lines into Wisconsin and Indiana, and they do not respect political jurisdictions such as counties or townships. Nature needs advocates with a regional focus to see how the pieces fit together.

Our region in northeast Illinois presents a challenge: some of the most biologically diverse landscapes and habitats are situated among the most heavily populated areas in the Chicago metropolitan region.

How do we balance the needs to protect, preserve, and restore these natural areas while ensuring they complement the quality of life of the region’s residents? We dedicate them as an Illinois Nature Preserve.


Bobolink Meadow

The Illinois Nature Preserves are living museums, home to tallgrass prairie, oak savannas, sandstone bluffs, ravine ecosystems, and hundreds of rare wildlife species. Nature preserves offer a haven to plant and animal species listed as state- or federally-threatened or endangered — over 600 sites across the state provide safe habitat to 20% of Illinois’ conservation priority species. These are some of the only places in Illinois that many of these species can survive, let alone thrive.

As cities and urban areas expanded across Illinois in the post-war period, significant threats loomed to the native landscapes of Illinois. These threats of real estate development prompted the Illinois General Assembly to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC) in 1963.

To create a system of natural areas representative of Illinois’ landscape, the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act charges the Nature Preserve Commission to preserve existing natural areas, acquire new areas and endangered species habitat for protection and public benefit, and manage nature preserves to ensure their ecological health is passed on to future generations. INPC designations offer significant legal protections to natural areas in perpetuity. This commitment to preserve the state’s rare natural treasures made Illinois the first state to create such an innovative land protection program.

Today, the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission promotes the preservation of these significant lands, and provides leadership in their stewardship, management, and protection. The Commission has received international accolades and has become a national model, with more than a dozen states following Illinois’ lead in creating systems to protect critical open space.

In the summer of 2017, Illinois took a major step to help protect these places by enacting the Illinois Natural Areas Stewardship Act. The Natural Areas Stewardship Act allows nonprofit conservation organizations like Openlands to conduct needed stewardship and restoration projects on lands enrolled in the Illinois Nature Preserve System.


Deer Grove East

Passing the stewardship bill in Springfield was an important milestone, but it was just the beginning of a process to protect better the Illinois Nature Preserves. Now comes the meaningful work to restore and steward these landscapes for everyone to enjoy.

But the very best thing about these landscapes is that you can visit all of them. Illinois Nature Preserves are open to the public, they offer opportunities to experience wildlife unparalleled in Illinois, and they are often excellent destinations for outdoor recreation. Below are listed but a few of the many protected landscapes worth exploring in northeast Illinois:

No matter the season and no matter where you go, Openlands encourages you to explore the protected landscapes of our region. If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagrammer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find at a nature preserve! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.


Openlands has helped acquire, restore, and maintain more than 40 sites in the Illinois Nature Preserve system, such as Glacial Park, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, and Deer Grove East. For more information, please contact Land@Openlands.org.

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.


wolf lake

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.

IMG_7848

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.

Department of the Interior “Reviews” the National Monuments

Updated Information (December 8, 2017):

On December 5, the president announced plans to overwhelmingly reduce the protections and boundaries of two National Monuments in Utah — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Openlands adamantly opposes any effort to curtail protections for conserved federal lands, and we see this as a legal precedent to undo protections for conservation across the nation.

National Monuments protect ecologically unique areas, they enshrine our national history, and they preserve the heritage and culture of indigenous nations. Though no monuments are being rescinded, significant reductions represent a failure to consider these objectives.

Proponents of these reductions have lauded the action as a chance to transfer land to the State of Utah. Historically, when the Federal Government transfers lands to the states, 70% have been sold off resulting in deforestation, mining and pollution, and privatization. We unequivocally believe public lands ought to remain public.

But this issue is more than just an assault on the democratic rights instilled in public lands: the designation of these monuments was the result of decades of advocacy by native nations to protect their ancestral homes from development and to honor the health of these lands. This is an affront not just to those groups, but to all indigenous peoples who have looked to correct centuries of historical injustices by permanently protecting land through conservation – and that work extends to our home in the Midwest.

Openlands recognizes that the land we work to protect is land taken from the indigenous nations that lived here before us. Today we work to restore the land to health, to respect the land and the water, and to share these places with all people.

It is only right that we stand in solidarity with all people working towards this goal. 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.


On May 5, the US Department of the Interior announced their list of National Monuments that will be “reviewed” by the Secretary of the Interior and potentially reversed as directed in an April 26 Federal Executive Order. A National Monument designation permanently protects America’s finest landscapes and cultural areas for all to enjoy, and Openlands adamantly opposes any effort to curtail protections for conserved Federal lands.

The original Executive Order instructed the Secretary of the Interior to review only those National Monuments greater than 100,000 acres in size and designated since 1996. Particularly troubling to Openlands was the specific inclusion on Interior’s list of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in northern Maine, which is smaller than 100,000 acres. Unlike the other monuments under review, which were designated through the Antiquities Act on existing federal lands, Katahdin was created through a private land donation of 87,000 acres with the express understanding that the land would be protected in perpetuity by the National Park Service as a National Monument.

Openlands is a non-profit land trust, and private land donations are the types of conservation partnerships we often facilitate. We work with private landowners to acquire lands with high conservation potential, and we hold them in trust until a government agency can acquire and permanently protect the lands as a state park, as a National Wildlife Refuge, or as a National Tallgrass Prairie.

Were Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument’s status to be reversed, it would set a dangerous precedent for all other federally protected land across the nation that began with a donation from a land trust or other private landowner. We see this as a legal precedent to undo protections for all conserved federal lands, especially lands donated to the Federal Government for conservation.


On August 24, the US Department of the Interior announced their recommendations to reduce protections for an unspecified number of national monuments. The Secretary of the Interior disclosed that he is recommending changes to a “handful” of monuments, but has not publicly shared any site-specific information.

Our public lands need you to speak up now more than ever. Tell your senators and congressperson to protect our monuments.

Birds in my Neighborhood Explores Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

On Saturday, May 13, the students and families of Ms. Caponigro’s third grade class at Peck Elementary headed to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie for a Birds in my Neighborhood® field trip. Around 50 members of the Peck community spent the day spotting birds, searching for bison, and exploring the bunkerfields of Midewin.

Birds in my Neighborhood is taught by volunteers at Chicago Public Schools that have gardens created through Openlands Building School Gardens program. The goal is to acquaint students and teachers with the common birds in their garden, neighborhood, and city through in-class lessons and field trips. Each student is given a journal as an educational tool with prompts for writing about birds.

Ms. Caponigro’s third grade class learned about Chicago’s birds in the classroom, and had already completed two bird walks on school grounds and in Marquette Park. Saturday was an extra field trip, and one of the first Saturday field trips that Openlands has helped facilitate, and the result was spectacular.


Birds, Bison, and Bunkers

The field trip to Midewin started early at the Visitors Center where our friends from the Forest Service offered a brief overview of the area’s ecological and cultural history. Ms. Caponigro (Ms. Cap to her students) helped everyone in the group get acquainted with Midewin by translating the overview into Spanish.

“The Saturday field trip to Midewin was an amazing experience for our students and their families. To see such an expanse of nature and to learn about the history of the space along with identifying birds was something many of us will never forget,” explained Ms. Cap.

Openlands volunteers then led the students on a bird walk along the Explosives Road trail, and the families divided into two groups – one walk facilitated in Spanish and the other in English. Both students and families successfully spotted and identified many of the species using a bilingual guide provided by Forest Preserves of Cook County.

The third graders correctly identified a tremendous array of bird species including great blue herons, turkey vultures, eastern kingbirds, killdeer, blue jays, common yellowthroat, white-crowned sparrows, song sparrows, dickcissel, bobolinks, red-winged blackbirds, eastern meadowlarks, a scarlet tanager (pictured above), American goldfinches, red-tailed hawks, and more!

In the afternoon, the families had time to explore the retired US army ammunition bunkers that dot the Midewin landscape and after a lunch break, we headed up to Iron Bridge Trailhead in search of the bison herd. By the end of the day, most of the students were proclaiming it the best field trip ever.

Midewin is truly a breath-taking place to visit. At 19,000 acres, it is the largest open space in the Chicago region, it contains 22 miles of mixed use trails, and the biological diversity present is simply stunning. One student, speaking somewhat overwhelmed, expressed their disbelief not just at the number of bird species they saw, but that so many bird species even existed!


An Important Grassland Habitat

Massive open spaces like Midewin are vital for numerous reasons: they are home to some of Illinois’ last fragments of native prairie and they offer shelter to hundreds of species in need of conservation support. But research also demonstrates that positive experiences in nature with a trusted adult are an indicator of future environmental stewards, and this data drives our education work.

For Openlands, schools are the intersection of people and nature. Our Space to Grow partnership transforms CPS schoolyards into green campuses and gardens after seeking community input to address its needs, and schools are where we often gather communities for gardening workshops and to plant trees. Those trees and gardens become home to wildlife for students to learn about through Birds in my Neighborhood, and together, these communities foster new voices and new generations in the conservation movement.

When we forge new partnerships with schools, we listen to the needs of communities. For example, when Openlands began these Saturday field trips, we reached out to schools that we knew have an established interest in the nature of our region. Peck Elementary, located in Chicago’s West Elsdon neighborhood has been one of those inspiring schools. Peck was one of the first schools to sign up for Building School Gardens, and they were among the first schools to embrace a Birds in my Neighborhood curriculum. Ms. Cap has dozens of stories of her former students returning to her classroom to discuss birds, and her students have always appreciated the Birds in my Neighborhood class lessons.

“The bus ride back was buzzing with nature disscussions. Not to mention all the jealous comments on Monday from kids who didn’t attend,” said Ms. Cap.

Sharing these experiences with students demonstrates the value of conserved public lands, and furthers our mission to connect the residents of the Chicago region to the nature around them.


Peck Elementary_Iron Bridge

Peck’s field trip to Midewin was a tremendous success. Many thanks go out to our Birds in my Neighborhood volunteers, the Forest Service staff who helped with site orientation, and to the staff at the Midewin Visitors Center, who offered us their shaded outdoor lunchroom for our break.

Saturday field trips to Midewin are made possible by the generous support of BNSF Railway and US Forest Service – International Programs. And of course, we couldn’t make these field trips happen without the passionate support of teachers like Ms. Cap and our generous Openlands members.


Ready to discover Midewin for yourself? We have a few suggestions on where to start.

If you are interested in becoming a Birds in my Neighborhood volunteer, please contact schools@openlands.org. If you wish to support the program, please contact development@openlands.org or call 312.863.6261.

Have You Discovered Indiana Dunes National Park?

Just over an hour from the Chicago Loop lies Indiana Dunes National Park (IDNP). IDNP spans over 15,000 total acres, which include 15 miles of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline, and 50 miles of trails. The landscape of this area was shaped over 14,000 years ago by the last great continental glacier, and today includes dunes, oak savannas, swamps, bogs, marshes, prairies, rivers, and forests. The biological diversity within Indiana Dunes is among the highest per unit of any site in the National Parks system. Over 350 species of birds have been observed, 113 of which are considered to be regular nesters, along with more than 1,100 native plant species. In addition to these plant and bird species, Indiana Dunes is home to 46 mammals species, 18 amphibians, 23 different reptiles, 71 species of fish, 60 butterflies, 60 dragonflies/damselflies, and countless other vital species. 

Conservation efforts surrounding the Indiana Dunes and its unique ecosystems date back to 1899. The First World War halted protection due to a shift in national priorities, but in 1926 the site was designated as Indiana Dunes State Park. In 1966, the site was officially authorized as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Openlands played an integral role in this designation. In February 2019, Indiana Dunes was officially “upgraded” to a National Park. Today, extensive conservation work continues at Indiana Dunes in the forms of water quality monitoring, wetlands restoration, invasive species removal, and preventing shoreline erosion.

Indiana Dunes National Park is owned and operated by the National Park Service. Entrance and permit fees apply.

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.


QuinnJCawood
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.


LakeMichigan_Sunset2

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.

A Refuge in the Wild

It will come as no surprise that residents of the Chicago region all too often experience nature in fragments – at their local park, in a community garden, with a migrating sandhill crane passing overhead. But when we have space to run wild, and when nature has room to demonstrate a mighty vastness, it only takes a few moments before it speaks to us in a primeval and wordless language.

On the doorstep of Chicago, we have such a place in Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. The 11,500 acres of Hackmatack will soon offer the chance to explore and appreciate nature’s majesty on a whole new level. Here, we’ll be able to share our favorite activities with our families, kids will learn about and understand the value of nature, and this will be a place we can all fill with memories which will endure for lifetimes. All of this will be possible because this land is public, it belongs to all of us.

Updated: Congress has passed a budget that significantly increases support for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Learn more…


“I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.”
-Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Wide Open Spaces

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established the National Wildlife Refuge System, which has since grown into a system of over 560 conservation sites, today encompassing more than 150,000,000 acres of public land. The primary goal of the Refuge System is to protect and enhance habitat for wildlife, while providing public benefit, such as educational resources, recreation opportunities, and support for local economies.

Hackmatack, formally established in 2012, is the first such refuge within 100 miles of Chicago, making it accessible to the 12 million people who live within an hour’s drive of the refuge. As an urban wildlife refuge, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service aims to offer access and resources to America’s increasingly diverse population.

Outdoor recreation is estimated to contribute $646 billion to the U.S. economy every year, and the refuge is at the heart of that opportunity. In Hackmatack and its adjoining areas, runners and hikers will be able to explore miles of trails winding through sun-dappled burr oak savannas and prairies teeming with wildflowers. Cyclists can pause beneath its massive skies as they travel along the Grand Illinois Trail. Birders will be able to comb native grasslands for Dickcissels or restored wetlands for migrating Whooping Cranes. Fishermen and sportsmen can wade through some of the highest-quality headwater streams in the region. Kayakers and paddle boarders can slip slowly down the Nippersink Creek as it meanders through open fields, lush woodlands, and verdant flowerbeds. And photographers will be able to capture a unique landscape of glacier-carved ridges adorned with valleys of wildflowers and pierced with pristine streams, all lingering from the last Ice Age.

Public access to open space is the guiding vision for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, but the designation in 2012 was just the start of a long journey to build the refuge. We are currently restoring the first acres of Hackmatack, but public-private partnerships and local enthusiasm driving the vision forward.


Forging Partnerships

In March 2012, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its environmental assessment for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. The assessment recommended a version of the refuge that would link existing state, county, and federal conservation lands with newly acquired land and conservation corridors.

After gaining support from the public, the congressional delegations of both Illinois and Wisconsin, as well as from their respective governors, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar formally declared protected status for the refuge in August 2012.

Today, Openlands and our partners are in the process of developing four core areas in Illinois and Wisconsin that link existing conservation sites and create the necessary scale needed for wildlife to thrive, which translates to thousands of acres of protected wetlands and havens for recovering wildlife populations. While restoration work is concentrated in these cores, we are also working with private partners to link the cores via migratory corridors.

While Openlands is able to acquire new parcels from willing sellers andhelp restore them to be a part of Hackmatack, federal support for the refuge is critical. Federal land protection ensures that important resources are forever available to America’s future generations. It secures drinking water supplies, provides wildlife habitat, creates recreation opportunities, and maintains ecosystems that support agriculture, tourism, and other economic activity. These areas will be protected from pollution and continue supplying clean water to agriculture. These considerations drove the locals’ decision to seek federal protection as a national wildlife refuge.

This is a new approach to conservation and a new way to protect open space on the scale we need for wildlife to thrive. We have to tackle the challenge with our partners acre-by-acre, parcel-by-parcel to protect these places so everyone can share places like Hackmatack.


Hackmatack_rays

The open spaces of the American landscape have always been part of our national identity. Hackmatack is a dream built from the bottom up, drawing together the skills and talents of conservation non-profits, local business owners, sportsmen, and private citizens.

Foresight and planning for the Chicago Wilderness Region established many different and superb ways for people to be connected with and inspired by nature. Whether at the local park or forest preserve, or at vast open spaces like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, connections to nature are vital to all people. Chicago is the third largest metropolitan region in the country, but we lack equal access to America’s public lands. Cutting support of the National Wildlife Refuges will rob us of our right to enjoy America’s public lands.

The Waterway That Made Chicago

Please note: the following was written by Openlands President and CEO, Jerry Adelmann, who coordinated Openlands’ efforts to establish the nation’s first National Heritage Area along the route of the historic Illinois and Michigan Canal.


Throughout the 20th Century, the Chicago metropolitan region repeatedly distinguished itself as an innovator in the fields of urban planning and open space preservation. The 1909 Plan of Chicago and the subsequent creation of the Forest Preserves of Cook County are both acknowledged as global models of open space planning.

One of these trail-blazing efforts, which Openlands led, was the creation of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor in 1984—America’s first Congressionally-designated National Heritage Area (NHA) and the prototype for 48 additional heritage areas that have followed. NHAs tell stories about America’s past, while offering a place to enjoy nature through sightseeing and recreation. However,this innovative and wildly popular program is at risk.

In both 2017 and 2018, the White House attempted to eliminate all Federal support for the National Heritage Areas. Congress offers less than $1 million to local partners who maintain NHAs and ensure they are publicly accessible. Each federal $1 is leveraged by $4-6 in local funds. Luckily, due to sustained advocacy campaigns from organizations like Openlands, those funding cuts were beaten back both times.

NHAs are important to Illinois and one in particular, the I&M Canal Corridor, is important to me.

Photo: Canal Corridor Association (Canal Tourism Boat at LaSalle-Peru)

I&M Canal in Harpers Weekly 1871
I&M Canal at Bridgeport in Chicago as depicted in Harper’s Weekly, 1871

The Illinois and Michigan Canal: The Waterway that Made Chicago

One cannot overestimate the seminal role the Illinois and Michigan Canal (I&M Canal) played in the founding and early history of Chicago.  This pioneering waterway connected Lake Michigan at Chicago with the Illinois River 100 miles to the southwest at LaSalle-Peru.  First envisioned by the French explorers Pere Marquette and Louis Jolliet in 1673, the hand-dug waterway provided a critical connecting link between the Atlantic seaboard, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico. When the I&M Canal was completed it 1848, it positioned Chicago as a gateway to the West, and as America’s most important inland port and transportation hub.

Newer waterways were established paralleling the I&M, and this historic canal was finally closed for commercial use in 1933.  During the years preceding World War II, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) transformed the canal into a park of great natural beauty and unparalleled recreational opportunities in northeastern Illinois.  Miles of towpath were converted into hiking and bicycling trails; sections of the canal, its locks, and other related structures were rehabilitated; picnic areas and shelters were constructed along the canal’s banks; and state and local parks were developed on adjacent lands.

After the CCC was dissolved, however, most of the extensive improvements accomplished by this highly successful and popular project fell into disrepair.  In the late 1950s, the easternmost section of the canal was used for the construction of the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) and the State of Illinois was preparing to sell off the extension real estate holdings along the canal’s route for private development. As local interest groups along the canal looked to preserve their region’s cultural and ecological legacy, they turned to a newly-formed not-for-profit called Openlands


Operation Green-Strip

Operation Green-Strip

Openlands, one of the first conservation organizations in the U.S. to work in a metropolitan area, organized local leaders and grassroots advocates to launch a preservation campaign called “Operation Green-Strip.” These efforts culminated in 1974 with the establishment of the 60-mile Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail.

Sections of the canal north of Joliet were excluded as they were fragmented with development that precluded a traditional linear park, yet many of these northern communities were some of the greatest supporters for preservation.  Advocates kept coming back to Openlands asking for assistance to protect sections of the canal, important remnant natural areas, archeological sites, and other significant open space and cultural assets along the lower DesPlaines River Valley.

It is in the late 1970s when I entered the scene. A sixth-generation resident of Lockport, I realized that the future of the former canal headquarters was very much tied to a broader regional strategy along the route of the I&M. Collectively the resources of the historic canal towns and adjacent landscapes represented a rich chapter in the history of Illinois and the nation and, if coordinated, could serve as a catalyst to help revitalize this classic rustbelt corridor that was experiencing some of the greatest unemployment in the nation.

Working on a pre-doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, I became involved in volunteer projects to save some of Lockport’s historic buildings and unique natural areas, including the ecologically-rare Lockport Prairie. The Forest Preserve District of Will County suggested I contact Openlands with my ideas for a regional landscape-scale approach that would include recreational trails, revitalized waterfronts and historic downtowns, and protected natural and cultural treasures throughout the five-county region.

Openlands embraced the concept and provided critical leadership to move this concept towards reality. The Canal Corridor Association was established in 1982 as an independent not-for-profit, and in 1984 President Reagan came to Chicago to sign legislation that created the nation’s first heritage area, launching a national movement.


Reagan Signing IM Canal Legislation
President Reagan signing the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor legislation at the Hilton Chicago, August 24, 1984.

Enshrining our national heritage

National Heritage Areas combine ecological, cultural, and economic goals, and take a holistic approach to living, working landscapes. The overarching goal is to improve the quality of life for residents and visitors alike. They are “partnership parks” that leverage public and private resources, as well as civic leadership.

The role of the Federal Government is quite limited, but nevertheless crucial: federal designation elevates the significance of these areas as well as the social and cultural histories they represent. Modest funding and technical assistance over the years has supported region-wide coordination with wayfinding and interpretation. Hundreds of millions of private and public dollars have been reinvested in the I&M Canal region since its designation. Tourism and community economic development projects have added countless new jobs to these historic communities.

Positive outcomes like this are seen in the other heritage areas across the nation where modest federal support leverages reinvestment while addressing much need recreational needs and underrepresented stories in the American experience.

The I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor and future NHAs, such as two proposed NHAs in the Chicago region, the Calumet National Heritage Area and the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area, deserve full support from the Federal government.

Since its founding in 1963, Openlands has played a leadership role in most of our region’s innovative open space initiatives, including the creation of the nation’s first rail-to-trail conversion (the Illinois Prairie Path), the nation’s first national tallgrass prairie, and the first national wildlife refuge in the greater Milwaukee-Chicago area.

We will continue to support these projects, ensure their value is understood at every level, and most of all, defend the public’s right to access and enjoy them.


Updated: Congress has passed a budget that increases support for the National Heritage Areas. Learn more…

The Essential Role of Pollinators

Pollinator species – such as bees, butterflies, bats, and birds – may be small, but they play massive roles in our lives every day. From assisting in food production to providing ecological services, pollinators are central to many critical processes in the environment. Increased threats posed by habitat loss, disease, and climate change have contributed to the global decline of many pollinator species and made pollinator conservation all the more important.

Nearly all the plants in the world need to be pollinated in order to reproduce effectively, and pollinators assist in this among over 80% of the world’s flowering plants. These plants, in turn, sequester and store carbon by absorbing CO2, the second most abundant greenhouse gas. They improve air quality and can help filter clean water. The United States grows more than 100 crops that rely on or benefit from pollinators, which contribute an estimated $3 billion to the economy.


tinley1

In many cases, pollinators serve as keystone species, meaning they play an essential role in the foundations of an ecosystem. For instance, bumble bees pollinate fruit-bearing plants which not only support agriculture, but also provide the diet to numerous other species in a given ecosystem.

Despite their vital role, pollinators need conservation support. Climate change has imperiled half of all North American bird species and pollinator habitats are becoming fragmented or disappearing rapidly in the face of development. Excessive or careless use of pesticides can wipe out whole communities of pollinators.

Individual populations are at risk as well. North American populations of the monarch butterfly and the rusty patched bumble bee, for example, have experienced significant declines over the last 20 years, prompting the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to consider additional protection for these once-abundant species under the Endangered Species Act.

In Illinois alone, there are nearly 2,500 native pollinator species that support our flowering and food plant populations. Illinois also serves as an important migratory route for monarchs and other pollinators that need appropriate habitat to help them survive and reproduce as they travel.


comedgreenregionlogo2

Openlands and ComEd recognize the importance of the many programs, partnerships, and individual actions that residents of Illinois are taking to conserve pollinators, support their habitat, and protect pollinator-dependent plants and food crops. As a response to this growing awareness, ComEd has announced a special focus on pollinator conservation for the 2018 cycle of the ComEd Green Region grants.

Grants of up to $10,000 support open space projects that focus on planning, acquisition, and improvements to local parks, natural areas, and recreation resources. Grant recipients can use Green Region grants in combination with other funding sources to cover a portion of the expenses associated with developing and/or supporting their open space programs.

Across our region, pollinator-friendly projects incorporate habitat in public spaces, from new outdoor classrooms to natural area restoration to community gardens. ComEd’s commitment is helping communities recognize how everyone can play a role in protecting pollinators.


For more information on the grants program, please visit www.openlands.org/greenregion.

Photo (top): Brandon Hayes