10 Places to Get Outside this Winter

Finding the motivation to get outside in the Midwest winter can feel impossible when the choice is between staying warm and cozy indoors and facing the cold winter temperatures. However, even in the cold, getting outside is incredibly good for mental and physical health, and going outdoors for even a little bit each day can provide tremendous benefits to your health. Especially in the dark winter months when Season Affective Disorder (SAD) can take hold for many living in colder climates, getting outside provides Vitamin D from the sun and an immediate boost to mood. In fact, cold weather can provide its own health benefits, as getting active in the cold actually burns more calories than in warm weather.

The quiet, dormant state of nature in the winter has its own peaceful beauty, and just a few hours spent in a forest preserve or restored prairie can help you feel more connected to nature and the landscapes of our region. With the right clothes, getting out into nature in the winter can feel incredibly refreshing, and the more you get outside in cold weather, the easier and more enjoyable it becomes. As the Swedish say, there is no bad weather, only bad clothes!

The Chicago region contains hundreds of beautiful nature preserves. We have compiled a list of ten beautiful locations where you can get outside and hike this winter. For more ideas, check out our Get Outside Map!

Bobolink Meadow Land and Water Preserve

Since 2008, Openlands has managed restoration at Bobolink Meadow Land and Water Reserve, which is located at Tinley Creek Wetlands, all part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Together, they have become high-quality habitat for birds and a birding destination for the region. The two nearby sites are both in proximity to Orland Grassland Land and Water Reserve, another legacy project of Openlands, which has created a network of pristine grassland and wetland habitats in southern Cook County.

Once an agricultural area, Bobolink Meadow is now home to an increasing variety of native plant and bird species as restoration efforts open the landscape and encourage natural habitat. Located in Tinley Park, Bobolink is an excellent location for bird watchers, as it is regarded as one of the best birdwatching destinations in the region.

Churchill Woods

At 255 acres and part of the Forest Preserves of Dupage County, Churchill Woods Forest Preserve in Glen Ellyn is one of DuPage’s smaller forest preserves and is home to an impressive range of habitats. Churchill Woods features a one-mile trail for biking, hiking horseback riding and cross-country skiing in the winter. Trails at Churchill connect to the regional Great Western Trail.

Elizabeth Lake Nature Preserve

Located in Richmond, Illinois, and part of the McHenry County Conservation District, Elizabeth Lake Nature Preserve is a large, diverse wetland community composed of every different stage of high-quality wetland, including: graminoid fens, calcareous floating mats, graminoid bogs, marshes, low gradient creek, pond, lake, sedge meadow, wet prairie and dry Mesic savanna.

Several different kinds of wildlife can be spotted, including white-tailed deer, raccoon, rabbit, muskrat, woodchuck, beaver, marsh wren, sora rail, green frog, smooth green snake and other small animals. The diverse wetlands are important for amphibian breeding and provide a habitat for various waterfowl, migrating birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. A small woodland area exists on the southwestern portion of the preserve. Visitors to Elizabeth Lake will experience a landscape and lake formed over 10,000 years ago by glaciers moving across the region.

Forty Acre Woods – Palos Park

At the 57-acre Forty Acre Woods, visitors can access miles of looping and connecting unpaved trails through the Palos Forest Preserves. This location contains a variety of wide trails for hiking and trail running. Forty Acre Woods is also a destination for horseback riding.

At 15,000 acres, the Palos Preserves in southwest Cook County are the largest concentration of preserved land in the Forest Preserves. Thanks to more than three decades of habitat restoration, they also hold some of the highest-quality natural areas in the county. These trails join many popular sites, such as the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, Pulaski Woods, Saganashkee Slough and Maple Lake which is home to a mountain bike staging area that provides access to almost 40 miles of unpaved trails.

Heron Creek Forest Preserve

Located in Lake Zurich and part of the Lake County Forest Preserves, visitors can explore 2.3 miles of gravel trails for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing. Heron Creek is an excellent place to bring the whole family, as an innovative playground provides a colorful series of tunnels, slides, ladders, bridges, decks and swings for children to climb and explore. The playground has two separate areas, one for ages 2–5, and one ages 5–12. Much of the playground is ramped for handicapped accessibility. There is also a sand pit, and lookout stations with views into the woods.

Heron Creek Forest Preserve is home to more than 116 species of birds, including a resident population of waterfowl and herons. Six state endangered bird species, black tern, black-crowned night heron, yellow-crowned night heron, osprey, Forster’s tern, and three state threatened bird species, brown creeper, pied-billed grebe and red-shouldered hawk have been found in the area.

The preserve features a rolling landscape of scenic woodlands and open fields. The Indian Creek basin, which flows through the site, is an Advanced Identification Wetland (ADID), the highest wetland classification in Lake County. It offers exceptional wildlife habitat and plant communities including a sedge meadow.

John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve

This state-dedicated nature preserve protected by the Shirley Heinz Land Trust located in Portage, Indiana, features a complex of sand prairie, oak savanna, and wetlands. More than 400 species of plants have been identified, many of them state listed. John Merle has a short, well-maintained trail, along with forest, prairie, and dune landscapes.

Kettle Moraine State Forest

More than 22,000 acres of glacial hills, kettles, lakes, prairie restoration sites, pine woods and hardwood forests protected by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources can be found in the Southern Unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest in Washington County, Wisconsin, making this a popular area for a wide variety of visitors.

Hikers can enjoy miles and miles of rolling hills through pine plantations, prairies and southern hardwood forests. Trail maps help to prepare visitors for the distances they will encounter and the natural areas that surround them. Hiking is available on the Scuppernong, Emma Carlin, John Muir and Nordic trails, as well as the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.  There are also several shorter self-guided nature trails.

Lake in the Hills Fen Nature Preserve

At the Lake in the Hills Fen Nature Preserve protected by the McHenry County Conservation District in Hills, Illinois, you can see nearly 500 acres of unspoiled native Illinois landscape. Over a mile of maintained trails wind through three diverse habitats: dry hill prairies, sedge meadows, and rare and beautiful fens.

Opened in April of 2011, this area has 229 acres adjacent to the 27-acre Lake in the Hills Fen State Nature Preserve. Over 400 species of plants, 80 species of birds, 40 species of butterflies, and a myriad of other animals depend on this preserve for a place to live. There are only 26 acres of hanging fens in the nation and the Lake in the Hills Fen has approximately four of them.

Ottawa Trails Woods

The Ottawa Trails Woods in Lyons is a forest preserve with picnic groves and shelters that is part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County and the historic Chicago Portage waterway. Visitors can enjoy an accessible stretch of paved trails with an abundance of wildlife, and many have attested to seeing deer and a variety of birds, including hawks, while hiking.

Salt Creek Greenway

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.

Nature-Based Solutions to Climate Change at COP27

This past Sunday, the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) concluded.   Climate delegates, advocates, and leaders met for two weeks in the Egyptian city of Sharm el Sheikh for discussions and negotiations surrounding the mitigation of global warming and the payment of loss and damages for developing nations that are bearing a majority of the climate crisis.

While much of the conference centered around finding ways to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably below 1.5 C, (which we are not currently on track to achieve) COP27 did yield an important conservation-related discussion: nature-based solutions to climate change.

On November 16, dubbed the “Biodiversity Day” of the conference focused on nature and ecosystem-based solutions, the Egyptian COP27 Presidency, Germany, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature announced the Enhancing Nature-based Solutions (NbS) for Climate Transformation (ENACT) Initiative for nature-based solutions. The initiative will coordinate global efforts to address climate change, land, and ecosystem degradation, and biodiversity loss through nature-based climate solutions and produce an annual report to update COP28 and future meetings on its progress. The initiative aims to enhance the protection from and resilience to climate impacts of at least 1 billion vulnerable people, including at least 500 million women and girls, secure up to 2.4 billion hectares of healthy natural and sustainable agricultural ecosystems, and significantly increase global mitigation efforts through protecting, conserving, and restoring carbon-rich terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems.

Nature-based climate solutions involve conserving, restoring, and better managing ecosystems to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Nature-based solutions are a central part of conservation work and the mission of Openlands, and involve processes including wetland restoration, tree planting, and forest protection, restoring and protecting grasslands and local ecosystems, planting native species, and instituting regenerative agricultural practices.

Nature-based solutions to climate change use the built-in processes of nature to trap carbon dioxide and prevent greenhouse gas emissions. Planting trees and native species removes carbon dioxide from the air, stores carbon in the soil, and releases oxygen into the atmosphere. Wetlands capture CO2 from the atmosphere and store more carbon than any other ecosystem on Earth. They are also hubs of biodiversity that help prevent erosion and improve water quality. Using regenerative agricultural practices can increase the carbon stored in soil or vegetation. Using cover crops can also lead to less runoff of sediments and nutrients into waterways, reduced flooding in watersheds, and greater soil carbon sequestration.

As the second-largest carbon emitter in the world, the United States has a major leadership role to play in rapidly reducing emissions and taking action to protect ecosystems. Earlier this year, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which is the most significant climate legislation in U.S. history and puts the United States on track to achieve President Biden’s ambitious goal of cutting U.S. emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels in 2030. In addition, President Biden set forth the nation’s first-ever conservation goal – to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

Nature-based climate solutions are an essential part of remediating the climate crisis and should be a part of all major mitigation plans. Commitments to stop deforestation, restore land and water, and protect it from degradation are all commitments that have a direct impact on the Midwest and the Chicagoland region in addition to cutting methane and fossil fuel emissions. On a local level, Openlands is committed to the work of protecting 30% of all lands by 2030. Advocacy successes such as the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Wildlife referendum and programmatic wins such as the completion of Space to Grow’s 34th schoolyard and the creation of the Arborist Registered Apprenticeship are examples of Openlands’ commitment to furthering nature-based solutions to climate change. You can learn more about Openlands’ work to protect our local ecosystems and take action here

Celebrating the Successful Passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Wildlife Referendum

The results are in! It’s a historic day as we celebrate the overwhelming passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Wildlife referendum, which will restore and expand protected lands, support and create new jobs, and invest in improvements like new trails, accessibility, and engagement in nature for all ages.

This referendum is one of the most important environmental funding measures in Cook County history and it will support our forest preserves for generations to come. 

“The support of Cook County voters shows just how vital nature is to all residents and how the sound management of the Forest Preserves has had a huge impact on residents’ relationship with nature close to home,” said Jerry Adelmann, President and CEO of Openlands. “Our gratitude and congratulations go to President Preckwinkle, Superintendent Randall, and the entire Forest Preserves of Cook County staff who work tirelessly to ensure residents have healthy, equitable, and enjoyable places to get outside. We are indebted to the over 170 organizations and hundreds of volunteers who joined us in making this campaign a success and join them in celebrating this long-awaited victory for people and nature.”

Now get outside and enjoy our local forest preserves!

Cast Your Vote “Yes” for the Forest Preserves of Cook County

Back in 2020, when seemingly out of nowhere, the majority of the world was kept indoors due to the spread of COVID-19, the power of nature to heal and rejuvenate became apparent. Nature became a safe haven from the isolation of quarantine and a place to heal and find respite from the collective grief experienced globally. In the Chicago region, residents flocked to local forest preserves, and in 2020, the number of visits to the Preserves rose from an estimated 62 million in a typical year to an estimated 100 million. Even now, visits remain high. 

The pandemic reminded Cook County residents of the absolute importance of our local Forest Preserves. The Forest Preserves of Cook County is the first and largest forest preserve system in the U.S., with nearly 70,000 acres of natural areas where people can hike, fish, bike, camp, and even zipline. 

Now the Forest Preserves need our support. With less than two weeks until election day on November 8th,  Cook County voters have the opportunity to vote yes on a referendum to protect clean water sources, air quality, and wildlife for our residents to enjoy for generations to come.

The forest preserves provide benefits to every person in Cook County every day. The millions of trees contained within the preserves absorb pollution and clean our air, making it easier to breathe and reducing health complications such as asthma. The forest preserves’ waterways and wetlands filter rainwater, preventing pollution from entering streams, rivers, and lakes, and reducing flooding in our homes and neighborhoods.

For the first time in nearly a century, Cook County commissioners voted unanimously to put a referendum on the November 8th ballot that asks voters whether they would support a small property tax increase measure that would bring in about $40 million in revenue annually. That would amount to about $20 a year on a home in Cook County worth $300,000. This proposal will fund projects that support cleaner air and water quality, reduced flooding, and wildlife protection throughout Cook County, providing jobs to residents of all ages. Additionally, the Forest Preserves will use the new funding to address deferred maintenance on public lands, acquire new lands, and resolve pension shortfalls.

While tax increases are not usually widely supported, the measure has been endorsed by the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, as well as the Civic Federation. Openlands has endorsed the upcoming Forest Preserve District of Cook County’s (FPDCC) property tax extension limitation law (PTELL) referendum with a coalition of 170 organizations and growing, and we encourage you to vote YES on November 8th toward the back of the ballot

By voting YES for the Forest Preserves, you will help create hundreds of green jobs for county residents and help conserve millions of trees, prairies, and wetlands that absorb pollution, keep our air clean, clean our water, and protect wildlife. Make a plan to vote in the City of Chicago or Cook County, and tell others to vote YES, too!

The Importance of Grassland Ecosystems for Climate Resilience

There is no better time of year than now, as summer transitions to fall, to visit Illinois prairies. Visiting one of the grassland areas in Illinois can offer a peaceful day in nature with abundant sunlight and long, expansive views across picturesque landscapes at locations such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Bartel Grasslands. Not only are Illinois’ grasslands beautiful locations to visit and enjoy, but grasslands are essential ecosystems in our region whose existence is essential for preserving plant and wildlife biodiversity. Restoring and expanding grasslands is more important than ever, as prairies are powerful carbon sinks that can help our region become more resilient to the effects of climate change through carbon sequestration, flood control, and habitat protection.

The topic of grassland ecosystems will be front and center at the 2022 Openlands Annual Luncheon. Marshall Johnson, chief conservation officer for the National Audubon Society, will deliver the keynote address. In his role at the National Audubon Society, Marshall leads the strategic direction for hemispheric-wide conservation work at Audubon to address the unprecedented climate change and biodiversity crises facing birds. You can learn more about Marshall’s work in his TEDxFargo talk, where he shared the reality of how our marketplace decision can help farmers and ranchers conserve grasslands through regenerative grazing.

Grassland ecosystems are made up of large open areas of grasses, and in the Chicago region prior to development, grasslands were predominantly filled with prairie plants. Most of the expansive prairies in our region were located outside of the city of Chicago and were located in big open plains in western and southern Illinois. As you got closer to the rivers in the Chicago metropolitan area, the landscape was more hospitable to savanna and woodland ecosystems.

Grasslands are one of our region’s most important nature-based solutions to climate change. Prairie plants are natural carbon sinks, as they have deep roots that sequester carbon into the ground and never release them unless they are tilled or dug up. Unlike trees, which eventually die and release their stored carbon back into the atmosphere, undisturbed prairie plants can store carbon for millennia, even when their tops are burned.

Prairies also absorb rain thanks to their deep root systems, which help reduce erosion, runoff, and flooding. Unlike pavement and short-rooted plants, which do not deeply absorb water, resulting in water runoff that can flood properties and waterways, grassland plants have deep, solid roots that grow deep into the ground, many up to fourteen feet. Those roots provide deep wells that act as a sponge and trap water in the ground before slowly seeping out. The water trapping and slow-release effect of prairie root systems prevent runoff and flooding, which will continue to be increasingly important going into the future as the Chicago region is expected to see a major increase in intense downpours because of climate change. Not only do the roots of grassland plants help them mitigate flooding, but they also make them more resistant to droughts, as plants with deep root systems dry out less quickly than those with shallow roots.

Along with storing carbon and mitigating flooding, Illinois’ grasslands provide habitats to a diverse range of wildlife, including prairie animals that burrow in the ground and migratory birds and monarchs, which rely on prairie plants for food and refuge on their journeys. The drastic loss of grasslands in our region has had a negative effect on wildlife due to the loss of food, water, and shelter, and many of the organisms that depend upon prairies have been forced to move or have become endangered. Bison and elk, which were once the largest mammals in Illinois, were driven out of the state due to habitat loss and the rise of agriculture, and can only be found in areas such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and Nachusa Grassland, where Bison are being reintroduced.

Illinois’ grasslands are in a dire state and restoration is critical to help restore the biodiversity that prairies provide. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, about 60 percent of Illinois, or 22 million acres, once was prairie. However, by 1900, most of Illinois ‘ prairies were gone, as the majority of prairie lands were converted to agricultural sites. Now, only about 2,500 acres of remnant prairie remain.

Openlands has taken an active role in the restoration of grasslands in the Chicago region at locations such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Bartel Grasslands, Deer Grove, and Hadley Valley in Will County.

According to Openlands’ Restoration Specialist Linda Masters, because most prairies in Illinois are small and fragmented due to agriculture, restoration requires a commitment to long-term stewardship of a site and ongoing monitoring. “Because we live in a fragmented landscape where all the natural processes have been removed, you can’t just plant natives and walk away. You can’t just set fire and leave,” Masters explained, saying that the modern-day proximity of prairies and development puts neighboring properties at risk of fire and flood.

Doing a controlled burn on a prairie undergoing restoration requires detailed planning so as not to spread fire to a neighboring barn or house. The same goes for wetland restoration at prairie sites, as suddenly allowing natural hydrology presents the risk of flooding a neighbor’s house. 

Bartel Grassland and the adjacent Bobolink Meadows is an excellent example of a site where Openlands has engaged in ongoing restoration and stewardship. Many farms that were once prairies had drain tiles installed to extend the growing season for crops, and one of the first steps in grassland restoration is often the removal of drain tiles. Bartel Grassland was once heavily tiled farmland with underground pipes that would draw water away from the property and empty into the river. Openlands helped disable drain tiles on the property, controlled invasive species, and planted native plants on site. Now, Openlands takes part in the stewardship of the site, which requires ongoing control and removal of invasive plants and monitoring hydrology to prevent the flooding of nearby properties. 

A newly released report Bird monitoring Results 2020, Bobolink Meadow LWR and Bartel Grassland LWR, states that “. . . the Bobolink Meadow/Bartel LWR sites take their place as one of the outstanding bird conservation projects in the region. The numbers of Bobolinks and other grassland birds, the nesting season Pied-billed Grebe, Wilson’s Snipe, both bitterns, three rail species, the spring shorebirds, the heron and egret rookery, the nesting Bald Eagles, and the winter raptors and finches in addition to the prairie and wetland vegetation and other wildlife give the Bobolink Meadow/Bartel LWR sites a unique conservation value.” 

Learn more about the work Openlands is doing to restore landscapes here. 

Photo by Erin Soto via the Forest Preserves of Cook County

Four Key Takeaways from the Passage of the Inflation Reduction Act

On Friday, Aug. 12, after its narrow passage through the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass the largest climate investment in our country’s history and on Tuesday, Aug. 16, President Biden signed the bill into law. The Inflation Reduction Act is designed to fight inflation, invest in domestic energy production and manufacturing, and reduce carbon emissions roughly 40 percent by 2030. The Inflation Reduction Act is a $750 billion health care, tax and climate bill and is a pared-down version of the Build Back Better Act, which was a $2.2 trillion bill introduced in 2021 that failed to pass through Congress. 

At a time when we are witnessing record-breaking temperatures, devastating wildfires, extreme flooding, and other environmental catastrophes that have resulted in tremendous amounts of damage and the loss of lives and livelihoods, the Act makes an unprecedented $369 billion investment in climate, clean energy, and environmental justice. 

The Inflation Reduction Act is a large legislative package that contains a number of provisions for healthcare, taxation, and climate. To make it easier to navigate, we’ve broken down the four key takeaways from the passage of this historic climate legislation that Openlanders need to know:

  1. The Inflation Reduction Act is expected to reduce carbon emissions roughly 40% by 2030 through an unprecedented $369 billion investment in climate, clean energy, and environmental justice. It is estimated that these investments will create more than 9 million good-paying jobs over the next decade. Plans for clean energy expansion include powering homes, businesses, and communities with clean energy through the installation of 950 million solar panels, 120,000 wind turbines, and 2,300 grid-scale battery plants. While the Act makes significant investments in clean energy technology, it also designates funding for nature-based solutions to climate change.
  1. The USDA Forest Service’s Urban & Community Forestry program is set to receive $1.5 billion for urban and community forestry projects, with priority funding going to underserved and low-canopy populations, as well as state agencies, local government entities, tribal communities, and nonprofit organizations. These new investments will help expand urban tree canopies and advance equity in neighborhoods while creating jobs and bolstering local economies across the nation.
  1. The Inflation Reduction Act dedicates $60 billion to environmental justice projects by promoting legacy pollution reduction, increasing access to clean energy indisadvantaged communities, and investing in the creation of green jobs, especially in the forestry sector. Environmental justice priorities include creating Climate and Environmental Justice Block Grants to support community-led projects in disadvantaged communities and address disproportionate environmental and public health harms related to pollution and climate change, allocating funding for fenceline monitoring near industrial facilities, air quality sensors in disadvantaged communities, and making clean energy more affordable, especially in disadvantaged communities and Indian country. 
  1. While we celebrate this monumental legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act unfortunately leaves out important nature-based solutions to climate change that were included in the Build Back Better Act. We must continue to prioritize nature-based solutions to climate change in future legislation, as among the things not included was the Civilian Climate Corps (CCC), a priority for Openlands, which would have employed thousands of young Americans to help protect our natural areas and maintain public lands.

While the Inflation Reduction Act is “the biggest single investment the government has ever made in fighting climate change,” we know that the fight is far from over. We celebrate this historic legislation and will continue advocating for bolder future policies that take unprecedented steps to protect forests, plant trees in cities, create a green-jobs economy, undo the effects of environmental injustice, and much more. 

Reconnecting People to Nature in the Calumet Region

The Calumet region, located along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, is home to some of the most majestic yet underrated natural areas in the greater Chicago region. Located in an area known for its history of heavy industry, Calumet is home to ecological treasures teeming with rich biodiversity including several forest preserve sites, Lake Calumet, and the Lake Michigan shoreline. However, many communities are unaware that opportunities for paddling, biking, and hiking are available in their own backyard.

Openlands has taken an active role in connecting communities of the Calumet Region with the beautiful woods and wetlands available for recreation. This summer, Openlands commenced its first-ever African American Heritage Water Trail Paddling and Interpretation Training internship program, which taught local youth to interpret and confidently paddle along the African American Heritage Water Trail.

The African American Heritage Water Trail was created to better connect people to the Little Calumet River and raise awareness of the significant history that the region contains. The Little Calumet River flows through several south-side Chicago neighborhoods and 180 years of African American history, including sites like Ton Farm, which served as a stop for freedom seekers navigating the Underground Railroad. After launching in 2020, the trail received substantial press attention, including a feature in the New York Times’ ’52 Places For A Changed World’ list.

According to Laura Barghusen, Openlands’ Blueways Director and one of the organizers of the internship program, the internship was born out of a need to meet the increased demand for interest from the public to get out on the water and tour the African American Heritage Water Trail. The internship was created to train local youth to interpret the trail, which has the dual benefit of employing youth in the area to learn valuable job skills while also attracting positive attention and investment to the area.

Openlands partnered with Friends of the Forest Preserves and St Sabina to add paddling and interpretation modules to a preexisting internship, which employed local youth to undertake paid restoration work at the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Beaubien Woods. Led by Laura Barghusen, Openlands’ Education and Community Outreach Coordinator Lillian Holden, and St. Sabina’s Erica Nanton, once per week youth were trained to paddle down the Little Calumet River, followed by lessons on the history of the region, environmental justice, and public speaking to master trail interpretation while assisting with paddling events.

Trail interpretation, or storytelling, is a critical part of the African American Heritage Trail experience. According to Laura, “You can have as many paddling events as you want, but if you don’t have interpretation, or people explaining what events happened along the trail and why they were significant, then you can’t convey the real significance of the region.”

According to Lillian, interns found the training in interpretation and public speaking to be highly valuable and their largest areas of growth. While many of the interns were shy towards public speaking and reserved at the beginning of the program, by the end Lillian witnessed the youth embracing risk-taking and healthy forms of anxiety through their public speaking.  

The first class of interns commenced the program on July 23rd by leading a public paddling event at the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Beaubien Woods Boat Launch. Interns used their new skillset to educate attendees by sharing the local history of the environmental justice movement and its beginnings in Altgeld Gardens through the work of Hazel Johnson, founder of People for Community Recovery, the history of the Robbins Airport, and its role in producing Tuskegee Airmen, and the Underground Railroad and how freedom seekers traveled along the Little Calumet to navigate their way to freedom in Canada.

Along with working to make the Little Calumet River a paddling destination for the public, Openlands has taken an active role in advocating to make Lake Calumet publicly accessible through the development of a new Lake Calumet and Port District Master Plan. While most of the lake has been fenced off and inaccessible for recreation for the last few decades, prior to the introduction of heavy industry on the Southeast side, Lake Calumet was once a thriving community getaway where locals would fish, hike, and hunt. The Port District took over the area in the 1960s and eventually installed razor wire-topped fencing around the entire, still substantially vacant lakeshore lands, which ended public access to the area. Currently, the Port District holds 2200 acres at Lake Calumet, with only a golf course open for the public, which is too expensive for local communities to use.

The Lake Calumet and Port District Master Plan, recently approved by the Port District Board, is the third plan since the 2001 and 2005 plans, prepared by the city of Chicago, which balanced job creation, public access, and habitat preservation and restoration. Openlands is excited to support the new Port District plan that opens recreation back up for local neighborhoods while remediating the site of dangerous industrial waste and protecting habitat for threatened and endangered bird species, which use the area as a critical migratory flyway. Birders have documented over 100 species in the Lake Calumet area, and at a time when habitat destruction is a leading cause of species endangerment worldwide, the protection of our local natural areas is more critical than ever.

Openlands has been a long-time member of the Lake Calumet Vision Committee, which was founded after the publication of the City’s 2001 Calumet Land Use Plan to advocate for the implementation of recommendations made in the plan. The 2022 Port District Master Plan finally ratifies most of the public access and habitat recommendations of the 2001/2005 plans.

The new Master Plan reflects three land uses: economic development, community access, and habitat conservation. In its formal comments on the new plan, Openlands recommended collaboration with agencies with the expertise to implement significant-scale community access and habitat conservation features, including the Chicago park district, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources; developing a strategy for comprehensively assessing the entire site for illegal dumping and toxic wastes and cleaning up or capping these deposits so that they no longer enter can enter Lake Calumet’s water habitat; and applying for Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funding. Working closely with local community and neighborhood advocacy groups and individuals over a 20-year period was the key to finally achieving a healthy future for Lake Calumet and its surrounding neighborhoods. 

With the New Museum Campus Vision, Chicago Could Become a True “City in a Garden”

It is hard to imagine another location on earth quite like Chicago’s Museum Campus. Three world-class institutions sit side by side, devoted to the study of the earth, heavens, and water. Views capture what sets Chicago apart as a global city – where one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes meets a people’s park and architecturally renowned skyline. No matter what happens at Soldier Field in the future, the Museum Campus has and always will play a formative role in crafting the spirit of Chicago. Yet we still fall short when thinking about that spirit and Chicago’s motto, City in a Garden. Now, a new plan offers opportunities to bring nature back to the Museum Campus: creating a recreational and restorative urban nature retreat that educates through integrated stories of people and the rich environment in which we live. This new vision of the Museum Campus can truly make Chicago “A City in a Garden” and a destination for its residents and global visitors.

With this new vision comes a renewed sense of place. Most Chicagoans know the Museum Campus as the narrowly defined areas around Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium, and sometimes Soldier Field. The new vision encompasses a broader campus, including Northerly Island, going west to DuSable Lake Shore Drive and the McCormick Bird Sanctuary to the south, all under the ownership of the Chicago Park District. The plan also puts the Museum Campus in context with the other magnificent public spaces, entertainment, and natural areas along the lake and downtown, proposing transportation connections between existing systems and places to increase accessibility. With this plan, the Museum Campus seamlessly integrates with the entire lakefront—from Grant Park through the Burnham Wildlife Corridor to the Obama Presidential Center and beyond—creating directional and interpretive signage and coordinated pedestrian and bike trail systems for an easier and more enjoyable experience for all.

Most exciting is the proposed rewilding of the campus, restoring the ecological integrity of Northerly Island as a powerful outdoor laboratory of nature-based solutions to climate change. Restoring larger areas of the campus with native plants and trees will create beauty and minimize expenses to the Park District and museums, and create much-needed habitat for migrating birds. In addition, moving the Huntington Bank Pavilion to an area on campus better suited for entertainment will create a therapeutic and recreational urban retreat for residents and visitors alike. The terminal at Northerly Island is ideally situated to become an environmental learning center for students, families, and visitors and the focus of a Great Lakes Climate Lab. The Climate Lab should build on the strengths and expertise of the three institutions and bring in multiple partners such as local universities, not-for-profits, and regional and national leaders. Imagine the opportunities for placemaking and creative interpretation with three world-renowned institutions to interpret earth, sky, and water on one campus surrounded by the native beauty of the prairie! The Campus can serve as a model for the entire lakefront and across the Great Lakes.

This vision for the Museum Campus will only be successful with increased accessibility and transportation solutions. This is especially true for the communities to the west. The plan aptly calls for pedestrian and bike connections across DuSable Lake Shore Drive, including access to Northerly Island from the 18th street bridge and Waldron Drive. In addition, it recommends dependable Bus, trolley, and bike options are available to all Chicagoans year-round so it can be a place everyone can enjoy. To ensure that, the City’s next steps must include broad public engagement leading to a comprehensive overall plan that makes the campus inviting to all Chicagoans and visitors.

Chicago became world-renowned when it protected its lakefront and created the Museum Campus. Now, we can create a new model for the world – an economic engine for our city and a community park that centers natural climate resiliency, education, and entertainment for all. Let’s live up to our motto as a true City in a Garden.

The Time for Action is NOW: Response to West Virginia v U.S. EPA

Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v U.S. EPA takes the country in the absolute wrong direction, reversing years of environmental progress. Openlands agrees with the three dissenting justices in saying the majority had stripped the EPA of “the power to respond to the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.”

The decision weakens the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases and dangerous air pollutants that affect our air quality and climate. Fossil Fuel-fired power plants are among the largest sources of dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, second only to transportation. The United States has a major role to play on the global stage, as we are the second largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

The United Nations has made it clear in no uncertain terms that the time for action is now, having reported that climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution are three closely interconnected planetary crises that put the wellbeing of current and future generations at unacceptable risks.

The deadline to curb carbon emissions is shorter than most people realize, and the window of opportunity is shrinking exponentially with each day of inaction. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently reported that we have only three years to stabilize emissions writing, “…in the scenarios we assessed, limiting warming to around 1.5°C (2.7°F) requires global greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2025 at the latest, and be reduced by 43% by 2030; at the same time, methane would also need to be reduced by about a third. Even if we do this, it is almost inevitable that we will temporarily exceed this temperature threshold but could return to below it by the end of the century.”

At a time when we are experiencing record-breaking heat waves, extreme flooding, and fluctuations in water levels that have resulted in tremendous amounts of a damage and loss of lives and livelihoods, we understand that climate change is an existential threat to life as we know it.

We must rely on science, which has established a roadmap to lead us out of this environmental crisis, and not politics. Congress must step in and clarify that the EPA is authorized to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. In addition to installing alternative energy at an unprecedented scale, we must accelerate support and funding for communities to use nature-based solutions that soak up carbon and make us more resilient.  The United Nations has made clear open space – from our urban canopy in parks to national wildlife refuges – are vital as over a third of the world’s climate solution. 

For the future of our people, the environment in which we live, and the clean air we all have the human right to breathe – we cannot afford to wait. The time for action is now.

photo credit: Ian Hutchinson

Openlands and Blacks in Green Pen Op-Ed in Response to the Chicago Tribune’s Tree Inequity Investigation

Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on a commitment to equity, but when it comes to trees, she isn’t following through. She supported starting a forestry advisory board that hasn’t met. She wanted to eliminate aldermanic prerogative, but many aldermen continue to remove hundreds of healthy trees. The city’s new climate action plan promotes protecting the most vulnerable people by planting 75,000 trees, but her Department of Water Management continues business as usual and removes trees without any standardized process to find alternatives to clear-cutting.

A recent Tribune analysis of the city’s selective tree planting reminds us how inequitable the tree canopy continues to be without a strategy that outlasts a mayoral administration. Wealthier, white neighborhoods continue to receive more resources while communities of color bear the brunt of exacerbating climate-driven extreme heat, flooding and poor air quality. The city’s new climate plan recognizes this historical lack of community investment in Chicago, but a tree-planting initiative without city officials aligning only provides more hot air. Read the full op-ed.

Photo courtesy of Erin Hooley and Raquel Zaldívar at the Chicago Tribune