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

Invenergy Helps Restore Land and Water in the Chicago Region


Openlands is pleased to announce our newest corporate member, Invenergy! Invenergy is a leader in environmentally responsible development of clean and renewable energy, and Openlands is tremendously pleased to share news of their support for protecting lands and waters and for building a conservation community in the region.

Openlands protects the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region to ensure cleaner air and water, protect natural habitats and wildlife, and help balance and enrich our lives. One major way Invenergy is assisting Openlands achieve our mission is by providing support for restoration of natural areas. Restoration is the process of returning the land to a healthy state for nature, wildlife, and people. Decades of urbanization and development coupled with ordinary human interaction with the land have reduced the health of many natural areas, but we can correct that through restoration.

Invenergy is providing vital support to Openlands as we gear up for 2018: with their help, Openlands will continue to build an 11,500-acre wildlife refuge along the Illinois-Wisconsin border; we can better restore ecologically-significant natural areas; and we will make sure these special places are accessible to all people.


Building Habitats across a Regional Landscape

Along the Illinois-Wisconsin border, Openlands is working to build Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2012. Hackmatack aims to restore and connect a landscape carved by glaciers over the centuries. It includes large blocks of grasslands, wet prairies, and natural stream watercourses. As land is protected for Hackmatack, the refuge will offer growing opportunities for wildlife viewing, hunting, fishing, photography, environmental education, and more.

The diverse habitat found in the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge area is home to over 100 species of concern that were identified during the 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ecological assessment within the greater Hackmatack area, including bald eagles, bobolinks, lake sturgeon, and the eastern prairie fringed orchid! The landscapes of the region are living remnants of the last Ice Age, and the streams that wind through the refuge are some of the purest waters in Illinois.

Over time, Hackmatack will become a mosaic of protected lands that provide habitats large enough for wildlife to thrive, recreation and education opportunities for people, and economic support for local communities.


Data-Driven Conservation

In addition to protecting landscapes on a large scale, Openlands leads strategic restorations of natural areas that have substantial potential to provide havens for migrating wildlife and to improve natural resources. Openlands will often assess projects based on how restoration will impact the site’s hydrology — the way water interacts with land at a natural area. Wetland areas in particular are often highly prioritized for restoration.

Focusing on water in restoration projects makes sense: not only does it help manage our most precious natural resources, but it can also substantially reduce local flooding and reduce pollution in our water. Wetlands both provide excellent habitat for birds and animals, and their unique soils and plants can also store massive amounts of stormwater, which means far less local flooding. The more stormwater we can retain on-site, the less of it runs off into streets and into basements. When streets and homes do flood, the stormwater becomes very polluted before receding into rivers and lakes. When that stormwater is held in wetlands, however, it is filtered as it returns to rivers, and cleaner rivers mean more migrating wildlife and cleaner water for communities downstream.

Data and monitoring of sites before restoration can help determine which projects can achieve the highest impact. For example, we are working to improve the hydrology of sites like Bartel Grassland and Bobolink Meadow, Deer Grove East Forest Preserve, and Messenger Woods. Each of these sites were chosen for their potential to hold stormwater and improve water quality in the Upper Des Plaines River Watershed (water which eventually reaches the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico).

A_Lavizzo indiana dunes 6

Connecting with the Land

Not to be left out of the equation is the connection between people and the land. Even in urban areas, nature is all around us, and Openlands works on a variety of levels to make nature can thrive — even in residential areas — and that people have opportunities to appreciate these amazing places.

Our Birds in my Neighborhood program introduces Chicago Public Schools students to the common birds of the region through a research project and field trips as a way to foster greater appreciation of both birds and the natural world. A single class lesson can inspire a group of students to become expert birders. In May 2017 for example, the students from Chicago’s Ruiz Elementary spotted 44 different species in one afternoon while on a field trip to a local park!

In the end, Openlands wants to make sure these special places are accessible to people from all walks of life. Invenergy’s commitment provides critical support to protecting ecologically sensitive areas and habitats, and Invenergy assists Openlands as we further our mission to connect people to nature where they live.

Invenergy is a leader in environmentally responsible development of clean and renewable energy. We are committed to being a responsible community partner with Openlands who shares our desire to protect the Greater Chicago & Great Lakes region’s natural habitats.

For more information on Openlands Corporate Membership, please contact

America’s Most Influential Environmental Protection Law

The White House has issued a plan for “rebuilding infrastructure in America,” but this proposal sacrifices the bedrock of environmental protection laws to polluting interests by gutting many provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA).

NEPA has been widely acknowledged as the most forward thinking environmental protection law in the world. Its passage and approval by President Nixon were a massive step forward for the environment, and more than 100 countries have used it as a model. For the first time, everyone from Federal land managers to private developers were legally compelled to conduct a uniform and full review of impacts to the environment for every development project. It compels scientific surveys to determine how developments impact wildlife, natural resources, pollution, and health of local residents over the long term. NEPA also requires the Federal Government, state and local agencies, private parties, and other partners to identify project alternatives that better coexist with the environment.

NEPA fundamentally changed the way we protect the places we love, and it has become the foundation for all environmental protections since, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Openlands has invoked NEPA in three instances as a last line of defense to save natural treasures, including the Kankakee River, the Fox River, and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Our success stemmed from the strength of the law, but that very strength is what the current administration looks to eradicate.


Under the infrastructure proposal, released on February 12, environmental reviews for projects would be consolidated under the agency that proposes them. This would create a system that merely rubber stamps controversial decisions like the Illiana Tollway and the Dakota Access Pipeline. The plan aims to eliminate the EPA’s ability to review the environmental impacts of a project under the Clean Air Act, an ability that has allowed the EPA to prevent harmful air pollution. It would allow some projects to opt-out of certain environmental protections altogether. And it would allow private developers to pay federal agencies to expedite environmental reviews of their projects, which is tantamount to bribery at the expense of public health and the environment. Going forward with any of these provisions would fundamentally weaken NEPA and erode the bedrock of our country’s environmental protections.

The infrastructure plan further attacks conservation policies by proposing that Federal agencies could sell off public lands without Congressional approval. It would allow the Secretary of the Interior to run pipelines through our National Parks and it would prevent the National Park Service or the Forest Service from determining whether conserved lands can be paved over for highway development. The plan seeks to decimate the EPA’s authority to enforce clean water protections by delegating many responsibilities to the states, which have far fewer resources to protect natural resources and reduce pollution.

Done correctly, infrastructure investment can provide secure jobs for American families and help to develop a low-carbon public transportation system. This plan from the White House comes nowhere close to these goals. Its proposals embrace the false choice that economic progress can only come at the expense of a clean environment, protected lands, and the basic rule of law – but we know the opposite is true.

Openlands is calling on Congress to remove all of these environmentally destructive proposals from the infrastructure plan before a vote, and to strengthen conservation laws to better protect our shared environment.

Have You Discovered Starved Rock State Park?

Starved Rock State Park is certainly a trek from downtown Chicago, but one that’s worth making. Recently voted as the top tourist attraction in Illinois, Starved Rock is a pleasure to visit year-round, with scenic waterfalls in the warmer months and stunning icefalls in the winter. The park boasts an extensive 13-mile trail system, it’s home to hundreds of old oak trees, and it is one of the best places in the Midwest to see the bald eagle population which overwinters along the Illinois River.

Starved Rock takes its name from a Native American legend: in the 1760s, Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa Tribe was killed by an Illiniwek while attending an inter-tribal council in southern Illinois. In a series of battles following the event, a band of Illiniwek sought refuge from a band of Potawatomi warriors (themselves allies of the Ottawa) atop a 125-foot sandstone butte overlooking the Illinois River. The Ottawa and Potawatomi laid seige to the rock, starving the Illiniwek above.

Stories like these are reminders that the lands protected today in our country are lands taken from the indigenous nations that lived here before us. We recognize that indigenous peoples across North America have looked to correct centuries of historical injustices by permanently protecting land through conservation – and that work extends to our home in the Midwest. Today we work to restore the land to health, to respect the land and the water, and to share these places with all people.

Enjoy your trip to Starved Rock, take some time to learn about the history of these lands, and respect that land wherever you go.


Starved Rock State Park is located on IL Route 178 (E 8th Road) in Ogelsby. Exit south on I-80 at Exit 81. The entrace to the park is approximately 10 minutes from the Interstate on the south bank of the Illinois River.


What Can You Do at Starved Rock?

  • Hiking: Starved Rock boasts an extensive 13-mile trail system, with many paths either paved or elevated on a boardwalk. These trails can be muddy and there are many staircases winding through the park, so be sure to wear sturdy shoes or boots. Download a trail map.
  • Camping: The Starved Rock campground has over 120 sites, complete with a supply store, electricity, and indoor plumbing in the restroom and shower facility. Weekend reservations fill up quickly, so be sure to reserve a site online. (There is also a lodge and cabins to rent.) Learn more…
  • Canyons: There are 18 canyons in Starved Rock State Park, 14 of which have running waterfalls and icefalls. St. Louis (pictured above), Wildcat, and French canyons all offer spectacular scenery.
  • Bald Eagles: Starved Rock is an excellent place to spot bald eagles during the winter. These eagles migrate along North America’s rivers, hunting for fish in the waters below. A dam on the Illinois River located near Starved Rock keeps the river from freezing over completely in the winter, making Starved Rock an ideal winter home for these iconic birds.
  • Guided Tours: The Starved Rock State Park Visitor Center offers a rich exhibit with great educational programs for all ages. There you can learn all about the exciting history and geology of this park, join a guided tour, or listen in on some of their programming. Learn more…
  • History: Starved Rock is intimately tied to both the indigenous history of our region and the history of the State of Illinois. Head to Starved Rock to learn more about how the Illinois River has shaped human history through the ages.
  • Discover! If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagrammer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find at Starved Rock! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.


Make a Day or Weekend of It!

  • Matthiessen State Park: If you’re making the trip to Starved Rock, add a stop at Matthiessen State Park. It’s a phenomenal cross-section of geological history, with a 5-mile trail system, plenty of recreation opportunities, and stunning scenery. Learn more…
  • Buffalo Rock State Park: This park is nearly 300-acres of woodlands and bluffs carved over the years by the Illinois River. You can pack a picnic, spend the night camping, connect to the I&M Canal Trail, and even see two bison! More info…
  • I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor: 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. Today, you can explore this history in the I&M Canal National Heritage Area.
  • Starved Rock Lodge: For those of you who love the outdoors and who love a warm bed, there is Starved Rock Lodge. The lodge offers a variety of accommodations for families and groups.
  • Explore the near-by towns: Starved Rock is situated between the towns of Ogelsby, Ottawa, La Salle, and Peru. Outdoor recreation and eco-tourism are estimated to contribute over $25 billion to the Illinois economy, and that spending helps the communities which surround conserved lands. Grab lunch in town or spend the night in one of these towns.

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

Have You Discovered North Park Village Nature Center?

Situated in the heart of Chicago’s north side is a quiet retreat from the bustle of city life. North Park Village Nature Center is a 46-acre natural area and education resource, offering multiple recreation opportunities and a variety of programming from the Chicago Park District.

The nature center is a great snapshot of Illinois’ native landscapes. Here you can wander through wetlands and tallgrass, forests, prairies, and even an oak savanna. The change in ecosystems is plainly apparent as you follow the trail, and the interpretive signage throughout makes North Park Village Nature Center a superb educational resource. Check it out for hiking and walking, birding, or a short field trip with your family!

North Park Village Nature Center is open seven days a week from 10am-4pm.

Getting There

North Park Village Nature Center is located in the North Park Village Campus, 5801 N. Pulaski Rd., Chicago, Illinois 60646.

You can take the CTA Blue Line to the Irving Park stop and transfer to the Pulaski bus (#58) or take the Red Line to Bryn Mawr stop and transfer to the Peterson bus (#84).


What Can You Do at North Park Village Nature Center?

  • Hiking: North Park offers a trail looping through natural areas that is approximately one mile long. Pass through a few times or try a slow stroll to take in all the different sights and sounds.
  • Birding: This quiet retreat is an excellent place to spot birds common to our region and those species that migrate through. You can view a list of recent sightings here, and if you’re curious to try birding for the first time, we have some tips.
  • Volunteer Stewardship: You can help restore the woodland, wetland, and prairie communities in the nature preserve. Activities include planting native species and invasive species control, and the volunteer program runs throughout the year. Learn more…
  • Peterson Park: Adjacent to North Park Village Nature Center is Peterson Park, operated by the Chicago Park District. Peterson Park offers sports fields and community programming. Learn more…
  • Discover! If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagrammer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find at North Park Village Nature Center! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.


Make a Day of It!

  • LaBagh Woods: The nearby LaBagh Woods is one of Forest Preserve of Cook County’s best places to visit. Located within the City of Chicago, LaBagh Woods is a great place to enjoy trails, go birding, and find some massive ancient oak trees!
  • North Branch Trail: Just south of North Park Village Nature Center is the southern end of the North Branch Trail, a 16-mile mixed use recreation trail paralleling the Chicago River. View the map…
  • American Indian Center: stop by the American Indian Center (AIC) at their new location in Albany Park. The AIC is an excellent organization working to provide a community resource for American Indians of Chicagoland and to faciliate dialogue among all peoples. Learn more…
  • Albany Park: spend part of your day exploring Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood. It’s a charming part of the city with a host of local businesses and a strong community feel. Learn more…

Openlands has helped to protect North Park Village Nature Center in Chicago by by engaging residents and fostering appreciation for the city’s natural areas. We hold the site’s conservation easement, and more recently we hosted our fall 2017 TreeKeepers course at North Park, which included a native tree planting in the natural areas.

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

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

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

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


About O.L.A.F.T.

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

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

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

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


Exhibition and Panel Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

Oak Ecosystems in the Chicago Wilderness Region

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

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

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

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


Foundations of a Landscape

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

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

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

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

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

oaks acorns

How You Can Help

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have You Discovered the Salt Creek Greenway Trail?

Have you tried enjoying the outdoors along a long-distance trail yet? Our region’s recreation trails are among the easiest ways to enjoy the area’s natural landscapes. Find peace and solitude or share an experience with family and friends while you run, walk, bike, or hike in natural serenity!

One of the region’s best known trails is the Salt Creek Greenway Trail, which spans two counties of forest preserves, offers access to the Salt Creek Water Trails, and provides excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.

Spanning 25 miles from Busse Woods in Elk Grove Village to the Brookfield Zoo, the Salt Creek Greenway Trail connects 12 communities and over 300,000 residents overall. The Salt Creek Greenway includes both a paved land trail and the water trail, the latter of which is featured in our Paddle Illinois Water Trails guide. Both trails connect through the Forest Preserves of Cook County as well as the DuPage Forest Preserves.

Whether by land or on the water, you will pass under shaded canopies, through open prairies and savanna, and through protected Illinois nature preserves along the Salt Creek Greenway Trail.

Salt Creek Woods Nature Preserve (2)


There are many access points along the route of the Salt Creek Greenway Trail. You can find the nearest land access point to you using this complete system map from the Elmhurst Park District. If you’re looking to paddle Salt Creek, our paddling guide lists the launch sites.

If you are looking to complete the trail from one end to the other, Busse Woods is located in Elk Grove Village. Enter on the south side of Higgins Road (Route 72), approximately 0.25 miles east of I-290. Access from Brookfield Zoo is North of the zoo along 31st Street, immediately west of First Avenue in Brookfield.

What can you do there?

  • Paddle the Salt Creek Water Trail: Salt Creek consists of four sections, each offering a distinct paddling experience as you wind through residential areas, forest preserves, and parks. Learn more.
  • Biking, running, and walking: The Greenway Trail is also composed of a series of paved trails winding through dedicated nature preserves, forest preserves, and local parks — all of which make for a pleasant stroll or a full day’s hike. The northern section of the trail connects to the Grand Illinois Trail via the Illinois Prairie Path.
  • Birding and wildlife viewing: As a migratory corridor for wildlife, the Salt Creek Greenway affords excellent opportunities for birding and wildlife viewing at places like Salt Creek Woods Nature Preserve (pictured above), Bemis Woods, or Busse Woods. First-time and new birders might find this post helpful.

Bemis Woods Boat Launch

Make a Day or Weekend of It!

  • Brookfield Zoo: The Salt Creek Greenway Trail conveniently ends near the Brookfield Zoo, which is open from 10am-5pm on weekdays and 10am-6pm on weekends. Tickets cost $19.85 for adults, $14.50 for seniors 65 and over, and $14.50 for children ages 3-11. Save a dollar per ticket when you buy online. (Please note: there is no direct access to the zoo from the water trail)
  • Bemis Woods Tree Top Adventures: Whether you’re looking for a challenge or a fun activity for kids, Bemis Woods Tree Top Adventures has something for you. Prices range from $28-58 per person, and the courses are open from April 1 to November 30.
  • Dorothy and Sam Dean Nature Sanctuary: This “passive park” in Oak Brook boasts a unique combination of ecosystems (oak savannah, wetland, pond, and prairie habitats live in close proximity in the Nature Sanctuary).
  • Wolf Road Prairie: Wolf Road Prairie is an excellent example of the original tallgrass prairie of Illinois, and boasts unique native plants and wildlife. It is also one of Cook County’s best spots for birding.
  • Songbird Slough: On the north end of the greenway trail, Songbird Slough is a 393-acre glacial kettle formation with excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. This unique prairie is not to be missed!
  • Illinois Prairie Path: This multi-use trail spans 61 miles across Cook, DuPage, and Kane counties and includes many Illinois recreated prairie restorations. Openlands helped to establish the Prairie Path as the nation’s first rails-to-trails conversion.
  • Discover! If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagrammer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find at the Salt Creek Greenway! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.

Conservation Policy Updates from the Federal and Local Levels

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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