What WOTUS Rollbacks Mean for Clean Water

By Molly Kordas, Openlands Staff Attorney

On June 22, 2020 the Trump Administration’s new definition of “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) will become effective, concluding a highly controversial four-year process to repeal and replace the Obama-era Clean Water Rule (CWR).

So what does “WOTUS” mean?

The Clean Water Act (CWA) was passed “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” But what exactly did Congress mean by “the Nation’s waters”?

This is the crux of the WOTUS issue: In the context of environmental laws founded upon essential cooperation between federal and state governments, which waters did Congress intend to be governed federally? And what constitutes “water?” Is it simply rivers, lakes, and streams that we can see flowing year-round, or did Congress intend to recognize that all water is connected?

Properly defining the scope of the CWA is vital to giving effect to the Act’s protections and achieving its purpose. “WOTUS” has been revised many times in attempts to clarify which waters are regulated under the CWA. But in that first rewriting of the Act in 1972, Rep. Dingell said that the bill “define[d] the term ‘navigable waters’ broadly for water quality purposes” and that the term “clearly encompasses all water bodies, including their main streams and their tributaries.” And Rep. Jones said that Congress sought to “proclaim to all Americans that Congress has the will and the leadership to save our priceless waters from the degradation that is fast destroying them.”

In short, Congress saw pollution wreaking havoc on waters across the country: Rivers were on fire. Public health was under threat from cancerous pollutants and toxic poisons. Congress responded with a comprehensive law, resolving to make all our waters “fishable and swimmable” by 1983 and to eliminate all discharges of pollutants in our waters by 1985. This was an ambitious goal then, and one that continues to drive us today; but it is a difficult balance between federal and state responsibility.

Why is this new rule such a big deal?

For decades, the scope of the CWA has been debated and litigated, resulting in a messy patchwork of federal law. Several administrations have attempted to clarify the scope of the CWA, all of which proved controversial. The 2015 CWR led to three years of litigation, many arguing the CWR expanded the scope far beyond what Congress intended. In response, the Trump Administration almost immediately ran in the opposite direction, repealing the rule and replacing it with the narrowest definition of WOTUS in nearly 50 years.

A 2017 executive order required agencies to review and rescind the CWR and revise the rule “in a manner consistent with the opinion of Justice Scalia in Rapanos.” Justice Scalia’s narrow interpretation of the CWA in that case, however, differed significantly from Justice Kennedy’s opinion which formed the basis of the Obama Administration’s CWR. Given President Trump’s passionate advocacy for deregulation, it is not difficult to understand why he chose Justice Scalia’s interpretation as the guiding principle for the new rule.

Traditionally, the WOTUS definition includes standard categories. The Trump Administration removed the category of “interstate waters” in its entirety and made significant changes other categories, two of which are:

The new rule eliminates the CWR’s “significant nexus test” which determined WOTUS status of adjacent waters and tributaries based on their ecological nexus with another WOTUS. The definition also excludes any tributaries with only ephemeral flow, or waters that flow only in response to precipitation. This excludes many headwater streams, which sustain the health of the entire downriver system, making up roughly 50% of total stream miles in the U.S. 

The rule also excludes wetlands lacking a “direct hydrologic surface connection” to another WOTUS. Wetlands provide habitat for more than 40% of Illinois’ threatened and endangered species. They also control flooding, prevent erosion, and remove sediment, nutrients, and toxic chemicals from runoff water. Furthermore, geographically isolated wetlands without a surface connection remain hydrologically connected and perform many of the same functions as adjacent wetlands.

This new rule has left many wetlands and headwater streams unprotected and vulnerable to degradation and destruction. Excluding categories of waterbodies essential to water quality from the definition is dangerous and out of step with the entire purpose of the CWA. While we have certainly not seen the end of this debate, it’s important that the environmental community looks further into the future, and these questions are particularly relevant now as we celebrate American Wetlands Month in May.

What do we want the future to look like? Is it still our goal that all waters be fishable and swimmable? We can’t afford not to. Advocating for a more permanent legislative fix, that listens to scientists, could finally renew our nation’s commitment to a clean, resilient, and healthy environment for all people.

You can learn more about WOTUS and Openlands work advocating for its protection through this webinar.

Seven Wetlands to Visit in the Region to Celebrate American Wetlands Month

May is American Wetlands Month, a time to recognize and celebrate how vital wetlands are to our region. Wetlands are among the most valuable, but least understood of all natural resources. They provide habitat for many species, especially migrating birds that use them to rest, raise their young, and feed. Much of the wetlands in our region have been destroyed, but there is a growing effort to restore and preserve these ecosystems, both for the plants and animals that inhabit them and our future climate resilience.

Wetlands benefit people by replenishing and cleaning water supplies, and reducing flood risks. They provide recreational opportunities and are beautiful habitats to witness and enjoy. Looking to experience some of our region’s wetlands, but don’t know where to start? We have seven recommendations of natural areas with protected or restored wetlands that offer opportunities to enjoy and learn about their importance.

Before you go out – remember to wear a mask, practice social distancing, take only pictures (and tag us by using #DiscoverYourPlace), and leave nothing but footprints at any wetland you visit. Search more locations to get outside with Openlands Get Outside Map.

1. Deer Grove East Forest Preserve (Cook County)

Openlands partnered with the Forest Preserve of Cook County to restore Deer Grove East as part of a multi-year O’Hare Modernization Mitigation Account project. The result is now home to expansive prairie, vibrant wetlands, and towering oak woodlands, sitting just an hour outside of downtown Chicago. The eastern most portion of Deer Grove Forest Preserve was first parcel of land that the Forest Preserves of Cook County purchased in 1916 and we are proud to have led its restoration.

2. Lockport Prairie (Will County)

Sitting on the banks of the Des Plaines River, Lockport Prairie is home to wetlands, and a globally rare ecosystem: the Dolomite Prairie. The natural area is habitat for numerous endangered species like the leafy prairie clover and Hine’s emerald dragonfly.

3. Dolton Prairie (Cook County)

Dolton Prairie, also known as Dolton Avenue Prairie, is a remnant wet prairie just south of the border of Chicago in Calumet City. The prairie is an excellent example of a high quality natural area and a very rare example of pre-settlement wet prairie landscape, once common in the Calumet region. The regional Cal-Sag Trail is accessible immediately north of Dolton Prairie and offers great birding in the area.

4. Volo Bog (Lake County)

Volo Bog is special for many reasons, one being its quaking bog. Over 10,000 years ago, during the end of the last Ice Age, a chuck of retreating glacial ice lodged itself deep in the ground at what is now Volo Bog. Several thousand years later the remnant lake began to fill with salt and vegetation, creating the wetlands present today. Volo Bog is technically known as a quaking bog because vegetation floats atop the open water. Over time, the absence of waves will allow the plant life to slowly expand further onto the water, eventually covering the entire site. Remember to check their website to see if the boardwalk is yet open, as repairs are ongoing.

5. Somme Woods (Cook County)

From east to west, the Somme Woods and Preserves in Northbrook progress from shaded woodland to sun-dappled savanna and finally to wide-open prairie. But several decades ago, this natural distribution of ecosystems wasn’t so easy to discern, having become shrouded by dense thickets of invasive buckthorn. Pioneering habitat restoration efforts led by volunteers started here in the 1970s and continue today.

6. Rollins Savanna (Lake County)

One of Lake County’s largest forest preserves, Rollins Savanna offers a 5.5-mile gravel trail with bridges and boardwalks that wind through wetlands, groves of large oaks, and open prairies teeming with wildflowers and native grasses. The bird observation area consists of a stone path that provides access from the existing preserve trail system to a raised platform. This observation deck is a gathering space that offers a clear view of the grassland and wetland.

7. Indiana Dunes State Park (Porter, Indiana)

Indiana Dunes State Park features a wide variety of habitats, including beach, sand dunes, black oak forest, wooded wetlands, and a button-bush marsh. Together, these areas contain some of the most diverse flora and fauna in the Midwest. The Indiana Dunes area also is renowned throughout the Midwest for its birding.

You can search more regional wetlands to discover at Openlands Get Outside Map, as well as other ecosystems and amenities that are safe and enjoyable for you. Again, please remember to wear a mask, practice social distancing, take only pictures (and tag us by using #DiscoverYourPlace), and leave nothing but footprints at any wetland you visit.

Stay tuned to our blog next week for important information on our work in wetlands advocacy and rollbacks to Clean Water Act.

Speak at Public Meetings on Flooding in Lake County

Residents in Lake County are encouraged to speak at one of the upcoming meetings hosted by Lake County Stormwater Management Commission regarding flooding in Lake County, IL.

As you know, Lake County is experiencing stronger and more frequent rainfalls. To better protect its residents and businesses from this, the Lake County Stormwater Management Commission (SMC) is now re-evaluating its regulations for new developments. The Commission also seeks to share helpful information with a greater number of property owners, and hear their concerns and suggestions. 

Please speak at one of the upcoming meetings the Commission is hosting on this topic. If you want stronger protections from flooding, this is the time for elected officials to hear from you.

We encourage you to share your story of how flooding has impacted you, and ask for stronger flood protections designed to handle the future storms being projected for Lake County. Please take up to three minutes.

Tuesday, July 16 | 2pm
Highland Park City Hall
1707 St. Johns Ave, Highland Park, IL

Wednesday, July 24 | 10am
Barrington Village Hall 
200 S. Hough St, Barrington, IL

State Representative Sam Yingling and Lake County Board Member Terry Wilke are hosting a floodproofing and rainfall information meeting where Lake County SMC will be the presenting agency. 

Thursday, August 8 | 6pm
Round Lake High School (Theater) 
800 High School Drive, Round Lake, IL

Learn more…

New Green Schoolyard Opens at Cook Academy

On Tuesday, September 5, Cook Academy in Chicago’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood celebrated the start of the school year by opening their brand new Space to Grow campus. “We were in desperate need of a playground,” said Cook Principal Dr. El Roy Estes, “but we also gained a park.”

Space to Grow is an innovative partnership led by Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands to transform Chicago schoolyards into vibrant spaces to play, learn, and be outside, while helping neighborhoods reduce urban flooding. Cook is now the 12th schoolyard transformed through Space to Grow.

The new campus at Cook utilizes green infrastructure to reduce local flooding in the community and to create new opportunities for environmental education and outdoor learning. The schoolyard, once an expansive asphalt lot, now includes gardens, native plants, new trees, walkways and seating areas, two half-court basketball courts, a turf field, a running track, and playgrounds for younger students as well as for middle school students.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson returned to Cook, her own grade school alma mater, for the ceremony. “I remember when I used to walk down the halls as a Cook Elementary student. I’m excited to see students enjoy their new space to learn and play,” said Dr. Jackson. “I want to acknowledge the importance of these projects: they pick schools that need extra support and transform the schoolyards from asphalt to what we see now, making the schools safer.”

We are excited to see how the school community will grow with a new place to gather, learn, and steward. Openlands wants to thank all the partners involved in helping complete this vision for Cook: Chicago Public Schools, Metropolitan Water Reclamation of Greater Chicago, Chicago Department of Water Management, Alderman Howard Brookins Jr, the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, GCM Grosvenor, and certainly the students, parents, faculty, and staff of Cook Academy.

Take a look at our photos from the day below!


For more information on Space to Grow, please visit SpaceToGrowChicago.org.

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.


Erosion model

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.

Davis Elementary Opens New Space to Grow Schoolyard

On Tuesday, June 19 — the last day of school at Chicago Public Schools — Nathan S. Davis Elementary officially opened their redesigned Space to Grow campus. Space to Grow is an innovative partnership led by Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands to transform Chicago schoolyards into vibrant spaces to play, learn, and be outside, while helping neighborhoods to reduce urban flooding. Located in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, Davis is now the tenth schoolyard transformation completed through Space to Grow.

Davis Elementary and Openlands first partnered together in 2011 through our Building School Gardens program, and at that time, two school gardens and outdoor classroom facilities were installed. But before its Space to Grow redesign, the schoolyard at Davis wasn’t much of a community asset: the school’s turf grasses were worn down by the regular recess activity and the surface track needed to be repaved. The schoolyard did not drain well after rain and storms, making it difficult for plants and gardens to thrive, and a new playground was at the top of students’ wishlists.

After gathering input from community members, the Space to Grow team came up with a plan for the school. The new features at Davis Elementary include outdoor classrooms, new rain gardens and native plants, as well as three new age-appropriate playgrounds. A stormwater management system is integrated across the campus which can capture 150,000 gallons of rain. The new campus also now includes a turf field, basketball courts, and surface track to promote physical wellness for students and community members.

“This space is open to all of you – families and students – on the weekends and after school, and we invite you to use it and enjoy it,” said Davis Elementary’s Principal Rocio Rosales-Gaskin. “We ask that you help us care for and steward it, so it can become a green asset for the community.”


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Space to Grow schoolyards like Davis are designed as welcoming green spaces not just for students and teachers, but also for the parents and residents of the surrounding community. Students, staff, parents, and community members are invited to participate in the inclusive planning process, allowing for the unique needs and vision of the entire school community to be communicated and addressed in the design.

“We know that all of you here today – parents, neighbors, community partners, teachers, and staff and your dedication administration in Ms. Rosales and Ms. Negron – are key ingredients to a healthy and successful school, and I want thank you all,” Senior Vice President of the Healthy Schools Campaign Claire Marcy said. “You not only helped design the schoolyard, but have all committed to use and maintain this beautiful new space. You are the heart of Space to Grow!”

Although each design is unique, every schoolyard supports the program’s three main goals of managing stormwater, creating outdoor classrooms and gardens, and providing health and wellness opportunities. Schools in the program all have recognized needs when the planning begins, such as lack of neighborhood green space, inadequate playgrounds for students, and regular local flooding, but from the beginning of the process we work closely with the communities to ensure the project meets their unique needs and has community champions.

“It is so wonderful that the Nathan Davis students and community can connect to nature right here at your school,” Openlands President and CEO Jerry Adelmann said. “Your new schoolyard features not only this amazing new playground and field, but also a beautiful outdoor classroom and many gardens.”


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Alderman George Cardenas with Davis students

After first establishing our relationship with Davis through Building School Gardens, we are so pleased to see the school enhanced by their new Space to Grow campus. Openlands commits to long-term relationships with our Chicago Public School partners, working with students to see nature in a school garden, around their neighborhoods, and across landscapes. As our expertise in environmental education has grown over the years, we have developed new programs to help students recognize the nature around them and to engage entire school communities in conservation.

Davis Elementary is the first of six schools to celebrate new schoolyards through the program in 2018. We are currently assisting the school communities at Cook Elementary in Auburn-Gresham, Fernwood Elementary in Washington Heights, Eugene Field Elementary in Rogers Park, Morton School of Excellence in Humboldt Park, and Farnsworth Elementary School in Jefferson Park, and those schoolyards will open later in the year.

Partnerships like Space to Grow help our education programs continue to evolve, and help Openlands continue to listen, continue to engage, and continue to inspire the next generation of conservation leaders.


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The redesign would not be a reality without funding and leadership from Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Department of Water Management, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater·Chicago. And next fall, the schoolyard will have new edible gardens donated by Big Green Chicago (formerly the Kitchen Communtiy). We’re also honored to have the support of the philanthropic and corporate community including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, ArcelorMittal, Prince Charitable Trusts, Polk Brothers Foundation, The Siragusa Family Foundation, and the Central Indiana Community Foundation for this important work. Additional support was provided by a joint effort of U-Haul and the Conservation Fund to support community conservation in Chicago.


Space to Grow is an award-winning, innovative program led by Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands to transform Chicago schoolyards into vibrant outdoor spaces that benefit students, community members, and the environment. Space to Grow uses a unique model that brings together capital funds and leadership from Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Department of Water Management, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. For more information, please visit www.spacetogrowchicago.org.

Have You Discovered Volo Bog?

In the west of Lake County lies one of Illinois’ unique natural communities, Volo Bog. Managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Volo Bog State Natural Area contains a few trails for you to explore including a half-mile interpretative boardwalk and an approximately three-mile trail with views of the tamarck forests. In 1970, Volo Bog was designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve and in 1972 as a National Natural Landmark.

Over 10,000 years ago, during the end of the last Ice Age, a chuck of retreating glacial ice lodged itself deep in the ground at what is now Volo Bog. Several thousand years later the remnant lake began to fill with salt and vegetation, creating the wetlands present today. Volo Bog is technically known as a quaking bog because vegetation floats atop the open water. Yes, all the surrounding plant life and trees in the picture above are floating. Over time, the absence of waves will allow the plant life to slowly expand further onto the water, eventually covering the entire site.

As you explore this natural area, you’ll quickly transition between several types of habitats, including tamarack forests, marshlands, and shrublands. If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagrammer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find at Volo Bog! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.

Preserving Farmland and Cherished Family Memories in Support of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge

When Elena Spiegelhoff inherited the family farm in McHenry County, she wanted to protect the farmland and natural features she had known since childhood. The farm had been in her family since 1950, first in the care of her parents, and then her brother, Eugene. But Elena knew she couldn’t care for the farm forever.

Elena speaks with fond memories of this family home in Richmond: growing up, the family horse would plunge her into the Nippersink Creek on hot summer days, her grandmother would spend their summers working in her garden and using the farm house table for baking; Elena would climb to her hillside “secret garden” hidden among the oak trees that would produce the “best tasting melons in all of [McHenry] County,”; and she would walk the land as a kid in the company of her two dogs. How do you part with a place you hold so dear?

Elena wanted to ensure her family’s farm was preserved and that it can be a place for future generations to appreciate. Her deep love and respect of the land led Elena to a partnership with The Land Conservancy of McHenry County (TLC) and Openlands. Today, we are pleased to announce that we have permanently protected the land that Elena loves.


This was a prime opportunity for Openlands to support Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Hoffmann Farm, which honors the family name, is 153 acres sitting within the greater refuge area. In May 2018 we completed the process to protect the farm: first, together with TLC, we helped Elena place a conservation easement on her property before purchasing the protected land. We are now working with a sustainable farmer to keep the land healthy and productive in its new role as a native plant nursery.

Hoffmann Farm also presented an opportunity to preserve some local history as well as high quality natural resources. Elena’s brother Eugene was an avid fan of model trains and formerly operated a small model train on the farm for local residents to enjoy. While that service is no longer running regular trips, Elena wanted to make sure her brother’s legacy wasn’t paved over as a mall or subdivision, and portions of the old model train tracks now remain on the land.

The oak-hickory woodland that served as a backdrop to so many childhood adventures has been protected and we will help that ecosystem thrive. Finally, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service structured Hackmatack around the many small waterways that comprise the Nippersink Creek watershed, and Hoffmann Farm straddles half a mile of some of the most pristine waters in the creek’s North Branch, providing substantial support to habitat and wildlife in the region.


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Hoffmann Farm is one of five sites Openlands is currently working to protect in support of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Like the farm, these projects are the result of partnerships with willing sellers or private landowners who place conservation easements on their land. As Openlands continues to protect new areas within the greater refuge area, we are interested in exploring multiple land-use strategies to protect natural resources, promote a culture of conservation, help the region thrive, and ensure working agricultural lands remain healthy and productive. Red Buffalo Nursery will now operate on Hoffmann Farm, providing native plants both for purchase and to assist with landscape restorations throughout the region.

Agricultural conservation easements, like the easement at Hoffmann Farm, can ensure that farmland remains protected. These practices lead to healthier soil, cleaner waters, and a better home for wildlife. Openlands is excited to work with small and new farmers for the benefit of local communities and our region’s sustainable agriculture.


While it took some time to protect her home, Elena Spiegelhoff stood by this vision, and we cannot thank her enough for sharing her love of the land with us. We are honored to assist landowners like Elena who share our passion for land conservation. Many thanks to our partners at the Land Conservancy of McHenry County, to Grand Victoria Foundation and the Natural Resources Conservation Service for their vital support, and to the early leadership in this project provided by Liberty Prairie Foundation and Food:Land:Opportunity, an initiative of the Kinship Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, funded by the Searle Funds at the Chicago Community Trust.

For more information on Openlands’ regional land conservation work or on Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, please contact land@openlands.org.

Explore Your Lakes and Rivers Returns This Summer!

Openlands’ popular Explore Your Lakes and Rivers paddling series is back this summer! Explore Your Lakes and Rivers is designed to acquaint local residents with the water trails surrounding them in the Chicago and Calumet areas. Whether for river cleanups, educational opportunities, or just for fun, these paddling events have brought families out on the water across the area.

Openlands facilitates paddling events and workshops around the region at local parks, along the region’s water trails, or in county forest preserves. These workshops are open to the public, free of charge, and are often coupled with volunteer and stewardship opportunities such as a park cleanup or river cleanup. With the assistance of several partners, canoes and kayaks are provided and first-time paddlers are encouraged to join us!


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Openlands has a series of workshops and paddling events set for summer 2018! Mark your calendars with the dates below and be sure to email paddle@openlands.org so we can keep you up-to-date as we finalize plans for these trips.

Join us on Saturday, June 2 for our first event of the year, our annual cleanup of the Little Calumet River launching from Kickapoo Woods! We will be removing trash and debris from the Little Calumet River from our canoes, and free canoe and kayak lessons will be offered to volunteers. The section of the Little Calumet that flows through Kickapoo Woods is a shallow stream, great for beginners and families with children. It is also a great place to see wildlife such as turtles and great blue herons.

This summer we will also host a series of paddling events on Lake Michigan! Enjoy the trail by paddling on Lake Michigan in large, guided, beginner-appropriate voyageur canoes, and learn about opportunities for recreation, education, and stewardship along Illinois’ northern Lake Michigan coast!  All events include beginner-friendly paddling experiences and other family friendly activities. People of all ages, skill levels, and abilities are welcome – bring your family and connect to Lake Michigan! Learn more…

  • Saturday, June 30, 11am – 4pm, North Point Marina, 701 North Point Drive, Winthrop Harbor, IL 60096
  • Sunday, July 1, 11am – 4pm, Illinois Beach State Park, enter on Wadsworth Road, 1/5 mile east of Sheridan Road, Zion, IL 60099
  • Friday, August 3, 1 – 7pm, Waukegan Harbor, 55 S. Harbor Place, Waukegan, IL 60085

Be sure to sign up to receive Openlands’ newsletter for information on upcoming paddling events!


Chicago_River_Group

Ready to explore the Water Trails of Northeastern Illinois for yourself? Visit Openlands’ online paddling guide and start exploring these waterways this weekend! Like Explore Your Lakes and Rivers events, the guide is designed to be inclusive for first-time paddlers, and is a free and open resource for the public.

The online guide contains step-by-step trip descriptions for non-motorized boating on over 500 miles of trails on 10 of the region’s waterways. The website can help you plan your next paddling trip by providing information on important features of each waterway, locations of water trail put-ins and take-outs, trip length and difficulty, and equipment rental locations.

The website also provides easy-to-use, interactive maps for each trail, indicating launch sites, dams, and skill levels along the trail. To make your trip as enjoyable as possible, the guide also notes trail extensions, shorter alternative trips, and opportunities to view wildlife and landmarks. Paddlers may also leave comments on each waterway page to share their paddling tips.

With the guide’s help, you’ll be prepared to visit some of the highest quality aquatic habitat along the Kishwaukee River, paddle on Little Calumet River through Kickapoo Woods, and take the Fox River to Silver Springs State Park. Openlands’ guide has detailed resources and trips for everyone, even if you’ve never paddled before.

With trails on Nippersink Creek winding through Glacial Park, to trips on the Chicago River in the heart of the city, northeastern Illinois’ Water Trails are waiting to be explored.

Use the guide to start planning your trip now!


Paddling events are all open to the public and we encourage you to join us at the next paddling day, even if you are a first-time paddler! For more information on Explore Your Lakes and Rivers, please contact paddle@openlands.org.

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

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

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

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


Blazing Star

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

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

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


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