Have You Discovered Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore?

Just over an hour from the Chicago Loop lies Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (IDNL). IDNL 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. 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 Lakeshore is owned and operated by the National Park Service. Entrance and permit fees apply.


Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore has multiple points of entry, but the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center is located at 1215 North Indiana State Road 49 in Porter, Indiana at the intersection of I-94 and Indiana Route 49.  Standard park hours are daily from sunrise to sunset, and winter hours are daily from 8:30am to 4:30pm. The park is closed on all major holidays.


What can you do at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore? 

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore offers year-round recreation opportunities, including beach-going, swimming, birding, camping, fishing, paddling, hiking, horseback riding, picnicking, cross country skiing, snow shoeing, and more!

  • Visitor Centers: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore has two visitor centers within the park. The Indiana Dunes Visitor Center, also known as the Dorothy Buell Visitor Center, contains a bookstore, brochures, art, an activity room, and additional parking. The Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education offers interactive exhibits and access to the Miller Woods trail system.
  • Beach Access: With 15 miles of Lake Michigan lakefront, the park is able to offer a variety of water based activities. There are a handful of parking lots allowing beach access as well.
    • West Beach: Located at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, West Beach is the only beach with life guards. In additional to water based recreation, West Beach offers access to the West Beach Trail System and breathtaking views of Lake Michigan from the dunes.
  • Hiking: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore offers 50 miles of trails throughout the park along 14 different trail systems. Trails range from a casual stroll to an all day adventure. Some of the most popular systems are listed below:
    • Heron Rookery Trail System: This network of trails follows a portion of the Little Calumet River and is a birder’s paradise. Once a nest ground for Great Blue Herons, the trail is now a popular site for a variety of bird species.
    • Great Marsh Trail System: Another great hike for bird enthusiasts, this trail offers views of the largest wetland complex in the Lake Michigan watershed and hosts a multitude of bird species.
    • Glenwood Dunes Trail System: A popular trail system for hikers, runners, cross country skiers, and horseback riders. This trail is just under 7 miles, but can be linked with other trail systems for over 15 miles of recreation.
  • Historical Buildings: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore hosts a variety of National Historical Landmarks and other significant structures including the Bailly Homestead, Chellberg Farm, and the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair Century of Progress Homes.
  • Geocaching: Geocaching is an interactive activity that involves using a Geocaching app or GPS to find hidden containers. Geocaching at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore can be found at the Chellberg Farm/Bailly Homestead Trail System.

Make a Day or Weekend of It!

  • Dunewood Campground: Just under 1.5 miles from Lake Michigan lakefront, this camp ground within the park offers 66 campsites with restrooms and showers. There is a $18 per night camping fees, and all sites are first come, first serve with no advance registrations. Leashed pets are welcome.
  • Lake Michigan Water Trail: Experienced kayakers are encouraged to paddle along the Lake Michigan Water Trail, and experience the dunes and national lakeshore like never before!
  • Upcoming Events: Check out the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore calendar for upcoming events such as gardening at Chellberg Farm or ranger led hikes.
  • Old Lighthouse Museum: Just 20 minutes from the park, this museum is located in the harbor of Michigan City, Indiana. The lighthouse is open Tuesday through Sunday from 1-4pm during the season.
  • Wolf Lake Trail System: As you head back to the Chicago area, you can spend some time enjoy the open spaces and trails around Wolf Lake.
  • Discover! Indiana Dunes is an excellent outlet for camping and recreation, but it is also one of the most biologically diverse areas in the country. Enjoy your time and discover something new at IDNL. If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagramer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.

Openlands Director of Neighborhood Programs Leads Urban Conservation Plan

On April 18, Openlands Neighborhood Programs Director, Elvia Rodriguez Ochoa, was recognized for her successful completion of the Chicago Conservation Corps Leadership Certificate Program. The Chicago Conservation Corps (C3) recruits, trains, and supports a network of volunteers who work together to improve the quality of life in city neighborhoods and schools through environmental service projects. The training includes 20+ hours of sustainability-focused study and execution of a final project. Elvia choose to present two Spanish-language workshops on vermicomposting for families in Pilsen and Little Village. Participants were assisted in creating a home for the worms which they took home at the end of the workshops.

Elvia was one of three members of Environmentalists of Color (EOC) that were recognized that evening. EOC is an interdisciplinary network of leaders of color who are passionate about an array of critical environmental issues, ranging from habitat conservation to environmental justice.

“My goal in participating in these networks is to increase opportunities for Openlands to serve as a resource and to partner with groups across the Chicago area,” explains Elvia. “I especially like introducing people to Openlands and the variety of work that we do.”

El Paseo Community Garden Credit Pilsen Alianza Verde
El Paseo Community Garden, Photo: Pilsen Alianza Verde

Elvia leads Openlands’ longstanding focus on pollinator conservation in community gardens, which encourages gardeners to plant pollinator-friendly plants like common milkweed to support monarch butterflies. For instance, the Hoxie Prairie Garden on the southeast side is an excellent example of a pollinator-friendly habitat garden while El Paseo Community Garden in Pilsen combines both food growing and pollinator support.

One recent garden project Elvia has supported and which ties together her work with C3 is the Phoenix Garden in South Lawndale. Funded through a grant by the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and building on substantial community engagement facilitated by the US Forest Service, the Phoenix Garden will combine art, restoration, community gardens, and even high school class lessons.

The new garden, located at Little Village Lawndale High School, will facilitate unique student art projects, help the environmental science program develop outdoor lessons in restoration, and create habitat for monarchs. Elvia will support both Enlace, a community organization based in Little Village, and the North Lawndale Greening Committee as they take charge of summer stewardship at the garden. This partnership will engage neighbors in both the North and South Lawndale communities in a neighborhood-wide pollinator conservation. The US Forest Service has done tremendous work with El Valor, another community agency, to raise awareness of best practices to support monarchs, and the new garden will offer a place for residents to release any monarchs they raise in their household gardens into a healthy habitat at the school.

Morrill Elementary Community Garden

The communities around Little Village Lawndale High School have a history of championing community-sourced solutions for the challenges they face, and this garden is designed around leveraging community knowledge to achieve great conservation potential. “When Openlands facilitates dialogue between neighbors then sits down and listens to community needs, we achieve our most successful partnerships,” says Elvia.

Developing this natural area around the school into the Phoenix Garden started as an idea from residents and students. “I’m excited we can support connecting people to nature while helping Monarchs on the school grounds,” explains Elvia. “Whether with community gardens, Space to Grow, or Building School Gardens, when we engage people normally not included in these kinds of discussions, we find some of the best solutions for urban conservation.”

Explore Your Lakes and Rivers Returns!

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.

On Friday, April 28, we held our first paddling event of the year at Ping Tom Memorial Park and explored the South Branch of the Chicago River. With the rain staying away for the afternoon (and the sun shining for a while) paddling groups were able not only able to explore the Chicago River for the first time, but for many, this was their first time paddling!


For the second year, Wilderness Inquiry assisted our Ping Tom trip, and they provided canoes, equipment, and guides for the day, allowing more people to experience the river which winds through their own backyards. Wilderness Inquiry’s excellent guides made sure everyone was prepared to hit the water by offering safety lessons and equipment demonstrations before heading out. And while this can be a high-traffic area of the Chicago River, their guides found a quiet time for the tours, making sure everyone could enjoy their time without hesitation.

On Saturday, April 29, many different families, community groups, and volunteers braved miserable conditions in the rain and cold to spend some time on the river, as well as to assist with a park cleanup and tree mulching. Our friends from Faith in Place facilitated a discussion of migration stories, sharing how the families and communities in attendance arrived in the Chicago region. Families could also try their luck with a self-guided bird walk around Ping Tom Memorial Park both days.


Openlands is excited to announce the next two paddling dates for Explore Your Lakes and Rivers! These events are designed to be inclusive for first-time paddlers, they are open to the public, and they are a great way to spend a Saturday outside.

Please join us on Saturday, May 13 at Powderhorn Lake in Burnham. The morning of May 13 is devoted to cleaning-up the Chicago River around the area, and to celebrate the effort, we invite you to explore Powderhorn Lake in the afternoon from 1:30-4:30pm.

Powderhorn Lake sits in one of the most biodiverse areas in the Chicago region. The dune and swale habitats host a variety of plant life such as prickly pear cactus, and it is known for the osprey nest! Paddlers get a great look at the new osprey families in the springtime, and you can further explore the natural areas surrounding the lake such as Burnham Woods and Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve.

Download the Flyer for May 13.

Little Cal CleanUp

On Saturday, June 3, join Openlands and Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC) at Kickapoo Woods for a cleanup of the Little Calumet River. We will be exploring an upper section of the river with shallow waters, making it an ideal trip for beginners. We will be launching out the FPCC’s new boat launch in Kickapoo Woods and lunch will be provided to volunteers!

River cleanups are part of Openlands’ robust history of connecting the people of the Calumet Region to nature by increasing public access to open space, empowering community groups and local governments to care for the region’s natural resources, and promoting a regional culture of conservation by developing an interconnected network of protected and productive green ways, water trails and open spaces.

Download the Flyer for June 3.

These 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.

Building School Gardens Workshops Prepare CPS for Spring

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Celebrate Earth Day Around Chicagoland

Earth Day is celebrated on April 22, and we want to share some ways you can enjoy and protect the planet this year. Below is a list of just a few places where you can get involved, spend some time outside, and enjoy the nature around you throughout the Chicago area.

If you just want to get outside and celebrate Earth Day in your own way, take a look at our suggestions to discover the outdoors of the Chicago region.

Friday, April 21

Join the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Friends of the Chicago River, Illinois Environmental Council, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Openlands, and many more for a rally in support of some basic common sense ideas like climate action, clean energy, and protecting clean air. Learn more.

Saturday, April 22

On Earth Day, head downtown for the March for Science. Show your support for the scientific community, for government-funded research, for science-based decision making in public policy, and for curiosity and exploration, the very basis of science. Learn more.

Join Openlands for community tree plantings across Chicago. On Earth Day we are looking for TreeKeepers to help plant in Humboldt Park and our Forestry Crew is assisting a community tree planting in Forest Glen. Be sure to register as a volunteer if you’re interested.

Residents in Lake County can head to the Chicago Botanic Garden to hear an expert panel discuss global climate change, which is being hosted by Congressman Brad Schneider (IL-10). Learn more.

Friends of the Parks is organizing their 28th Annual Earth Day Parks and Preserves Clean-Up. All morning long, volunteers will be out caring for the parks and green spaces of Chicago. Learn more.

Forest Preserves of Cook County will host a series of Earth Day events including special celebrations, bird hikes at LaBagh Woods and Sagawau Environmental Learning Center, canoe trips, volunteer restoration projects, and more. Check out their full list.

DuPage Forest Preserves are hosting several history hikes, site tours, and restoration workdays at Churchill Woods, West Chicago Prairie, and Mayslake. See the full list.

Lake County Forest Preserve District is also hosting an Earth Day celebration at Ryerson Woods in the afternoon, following a restoration workday at that site in the morning. Learn more.

Sunday, April 23

Join My Block, My Hood, My City for their One Block at a Time celebration of Earth Day. MBMHMC will be partnering with Chicago FarmWorks to prepare for a spring planting. Chicago FarmWorks is a 2.6 acre urban farm located in Chicago’s East Garfield Park that donates over 10,000 pounds of produce to Chicago food banks. Sign up to help.

Similarly, Advocates for Urban Argiculture maintain a calendar of community gardens events in Chicago, and they have multiple ways to get involved all weekend long. View their calendar.

Saturday, April 29

On the following Saturday, you can lend your voice for the planet once again at the People’s Climate March. Join climate activists in Chicago and across the country to stand up for our communities, climate action, and a healthy planet. Learn more.

Be sure to share your Earth Day with us! If you’re on Instagram, tag your photos from Earth Day with #DiscoverYourPlace to share your day with the Openlands community.

Have You Discovered Glacial Park?

Just under an hour and a half from the Chicago Loop lies Glacial Park, encompassing 3,400 acres of restored open space including prairie, wetlands, oak savanna, and delta kames. Over 400 of these acres are dedicated nature preserve and home to 40 state-endangered and threatened plant and animal species. Additionally, Glacial Park is ranked as one of the top five locations in the region to view migratory birds.

The Nippersink Creek also runs through Glacial Park, providing excellent opportunities for both fishing and paddling. As McHenry County Conservation District’s most popular land holding, Glacial Park attracts over 64,000 annual visitors. Visitors can enjoy a wide range of activities from horseback riding to outdoor concerts near the visitor center.

Currently, Glacial Park is the best way to experience Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Hackmatack was designated as a refuge by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012 and will span over 11,200 acres once complete. Hackmatack will be built around existing conservation lands such as Glacial Park. This park is a prime example of the habitat and wildlife Hackmatack aims to protect.


Glacial Park is located at the intersection of Route 31 and Harts Road, in Ringwood. The Lost Valley Nature Center is the entryway to the rest of the park and trail system. Park hours are daily from 8am-4:30pm.

What can you do at Glacial Park?

  • Lost Valley Visitor Center: The visitor center offers both self guided tours of the exhibits and staff led programming. Snow shoe rentals are available during winter months if weather permits. Interpretive trail guides and family exploration packs are also available.
  • Birding: Glacial Park is listed as one of the top five spots to view migratory birds in the region. Various species can be found throughout the park, but the wetlands and Nippersink Creek are likely spots to find migratory waterfowl.
  • Trails: Glacial Park contains over 8 miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, and snow snowmobiling, visitors have plenty of space to explore. By downloading the Glacial Park hiking app, visitors can follow a two mile long interpretive nature trail loop touching on one of four topics: “Plant Communities”, “Wildlife”, “History of the Land”, and “Geology”. A segment of the 26 mile long Prairie Trail runs along the park’s eastern boundary, allowing bicyclists to travel from one side of the county to the other. A map to all trails in Glacial Park can be found here.
  • Canoeing and Kayaking: The Nippersink Creek offers calm and clear waters with scenic views of the park throughout. Pull in at Keystone Road Landing or Pioneer Road Landing to enjoy the sights!
  • Fishing: Key fishing spots along the shore of Nippersink Creek are Keystone Road Landing and Pioneer Road Landing. The creek is filled with bass, bluegill, channel catfish, walleye, carp, and many more.
  • Powers-Walker House: The historically significant house located near the visitor center was built in 1854 in the Greek Revival-style. Special events and programs are held here throughout the year including the Ice Cream Social of 1858, Archaeological Awareness, Harvest Gathering of 1858, and more.


Make a Day or Weekend of It 

  • Grand Illinois Trail:  This is a 500-mile trail that was created to connect already existing trails in Northern Illinois. This trail roughly connects with Glacial Park and directions for trail segments can be found here.
  • Volo Bog: The only quaking bog in Illinois is just a 15 minute drive from Glacial Park. Today the preserve contains over 1,100 acres of diverse habitat.
  • Boone Creek Conservation Area: This area offers 2-miles of hiking trails and 1.3-miles of horseback riding trails along with scenic picnic spots. More information and directions here.
  • Moraine Hills State Park: This state park contains over 2,200 acres primarily composed of wetlands and lakes. The park is home to over 200 species of birds making it a birding paradise. Directions can be found here.
  • Wonder Lake: Wonder Lake is a 17-acre lake located in Marinette County, Wisconsin, offering fishermen a great spot with species such as largemouth bass.
  • Fox Lake and Fox River: located just 50 miles northwest of Chicago, Fox River is a 202-mile long tributary of the Illinois River that feeds into the Fox Chain O’Lakes, and a perfect spot for fishing, boating, swimming, and picnicking.
  • Lake Geneva and Big Foot Beach: Big Foot Beach is just 25 minutes from Glacial Park across the Wisconsin border. Both are great overnight option for camping, hiking, swimming, boating, and more!
  • Richmond and Woodstock: Both of these towns are located in McHenry County and offer overnight accommodations. Richmond is just a seven minute drive from Glacial Park, while Woodstock is 25 minutes.
  • Discover! Learn about the different ecosystems and wildlife found in Glacial Park while enjoying the miles of trails and visitor center programming. If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagramer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find at Glacial Park! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.


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.

Take action now to protect the Great Lakes.

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.

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.


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.

Take action now to protect the Great Lakes.

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 11,000 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. Cuts to federal programs like the National Wildlife Refuge System, however, will rob the public access of to the outdoors, harm local economies, and eliminate support for wildlife.

Take action now to protect our National Wildlife Refuges.

“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 and help 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.


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.

Take action now to protect our National Wildlife Refuges.

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.

The proposed federal budget will eliminate all funding for National Heritage Areas, programs that seek modest federal contributions, but that achieve dramatic results. 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.

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

Take action now to support our National Heritage Areas.

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 aspects of the American experience. The proposed federal budget would eliminate support for all existing NHAs, including the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor, as well as all future projects, such as two proposed NHAs in the Chicago region, the Calumet National Heritage Area and the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area.

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.

Take action now to support our National Heritage Areas.

Openlands Vice President Leads Statewide Conservation Partnerships

Openlands Vice President of Conservation, Emy Brawley, has completed a two-year term as President of the Prairie State Conservation Coalition (PSCC).  As of March 3, she steps into the one-year role of immediate past President.  Originally joining the PSCC board of directors in 2010, she served both as Treasurer and Vice President before being nominated and elected to serve as President of the Board.

Prairie State Conservation Coalition is the statewide organization founded to serve and strengthen the 35+ conservation land trusts operating in Illinois.  Conservation land trusts are local, non-profit organizations that permanently protect land and water resources through land acquisition, conservation easements, and other tools.  PSCC works to leverage the power of conservation land trusts and their members into strong statewide policies and practices benefiting land conservation.  Collectively, Illinois’ conservation land trusts have protected over 200,000 acres of private land across the state in the past fifty years.


“My goal in supporting PSCC is to increase the amount of protected natural habitat and open space in the state through a strong network of conservation land trusts that have ample capacity, resources, technical skills, and public support,” says Brawley. “People instinctively understand that more open space improves their quality of life and ensures healthier, more sustainable communities for the future.”

Having joined Openlands in 2008, Emy currently oversees the land protection, restoration, stewardship, and greenways programs, develops and executes organizational strategy and regional conservation goals, creates and strengthens strategic partnerships, and originates innovative and complex multiple-party initiatives to protect land and water.

“These days, private land conservation is more important than ever.  Governments are stretched thin, and long-term investments in parks and open space are at risk.  Conservation land trusts fill a vital role in protecting and restoring land, and in providing opportunities for Illinois’ residents to connect with nature,” says Brawley.

Learn more about Openlands’ work to protect land and water.