Protecting Chicago’s Second Shoreline

A wildlife biologist peers down at the Chicago River from the Washington Street Bridge. River otters are fastidiously building cones out of the remains of their breakfast on a ledge behind the Civic Opera House. Once completely gone from Illinois, the otters – along with over 70 kinds of fish, black crowned night herons, bald eagles, and scores of other wildlife – have returned to Chicago’s rivers. They share the waters at dawn with high school crew teams who clip along the surface.

Chicagoans have come a long way over the last forty years in how we see and value our second shoreline. Once considered open sewers, the Chicago and Calumet rivers have become vibrant natural attractions that are economic drivers and community assets. Offices and homes are now facing the river again, and the number of docks and boat launches is rising.


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Managing stormwater to help our rivers

One solution is the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s (MWRD) “Deep Tunnel” and reservoir project, which captures billions of gallons of rain. When storms overwhelm MWRD’s treatment plants, it has to flush the overflow of rainwater and sewage into our rivers and Lake Michigan. The 30-foot tunnels and giant reservoirs hold massive amounts of polluted stormwater until MWRD can treat it all. The quality of our rivers has also improved as MWRD has upgraded the technology at its treatment plants.

MWRD is also partnering with Openlands and other organizations to help communities capture rain where it falls. Through the Space to Grow program, Openlands and Healthy Schools Campaign are working with MWRD, Chicago Public Schools, and the City of Chicago’s Department of Water Management to transform underutilized schoolyards into lush gardens and safe playgrounds for students, families, and community members. Because of these new amenities, we have fewer basement backups, less stormwater flowing into our sewers, reduced flooding, and ultimately less pollution discharged into our waters. The program is gaining national recognition as a model for other cities to leverage public and private partnerships for a multitude of community benefits.


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Strengthening regulations

The State and Federal EPA are recognizing our progress in reclaiming the Chicago and Calumet rivers and are requiring stronger protections for people and wildlife that are on and in the water. Since so many people are enjoying our waterways, the Illinois Pollution Control Board (Board) has adopted regulations that require the MWRD to disinfect over 600 million gallons of sewage that it discharges each day from its North Side and Calumet treatment plants. Earlier this month, the Board took another giant step towards passing comparable regulations to protect the resurgence of fish and other wildlife by requiring power plants and other industrial users to remove more heat and pollution from its cooling water before returning it to our rivers. Openlands and our colleagues continue to advocate for the Board and the United States EPA to hold strong on these improvements so that our rivers can reach their potential.


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The work continues

This growing consciousness has sparked new plans for the future. The Calumet Stormwater Initiative is leveraging the vision and resources of Chicago’s south side communities to attract millions of dollars in public and private funding for a host of stormwater projects. As a result of ongoing collaboration between government agencies and non-profit organizations, the region is a strong candidate for up to $500 million in federal assistance to help communities become more resilient to the effects of flooding and climate change.

We still face challenges ahead. Openlands and our partners are already challenging requests by industry for permission to sidestep the new water quality standards. We are preparing for upcoming Board proceedings that will determine how much industry can continue to pollute our rivers with road salt, ammonia and other chemicals that are toxic to rebounding wildlife. In addition, Openlands has intervened in a proceeding where the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is considering whether to continue to allow the MWRD to use Lake Michigan Water to flush out our rivers.

Overall, we are seeing progress. At Openlands, we will continue to press for revitalizing our waterways and better connect the people of our region with these natural treasures.

Conservation Easements Create a Network of Protected Lands

Openlands envisions a Chicago region where all people can connect to a web of green. The conservation easement is a primary tool Openlands uses to partner with private landowners to create that network of protected land. An easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust that permanently limits uses and ensures that the land retains its conservation value, while keeping the land in private ownership. Easements can be used to protect any type of important natural resource from wetlands to forests and farms. Openlands has been using easements in its work since 1980 and in 2013 was accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, a program of the Land Trust Alliance.

“Working with private landowners to help build an interconnected system of natural lands is critically important in a place like Illinois, where more than 95% of the land is in private ownership,”  says Emy Brawley, Openlands’ Director of Land Preservation.  “There will never be enough public dollars to buy the land needed to create a resilient, interconnected landscape at the scale necessary for our region to thrive.”

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The purpose and terms of each easement are tailored to landowners’ desires for the specific property. For instance, an easement for agricultural land could allow for farming activity and the construction of barns and stables, but not energy development or building multiple houses. The flexibility of the easement agreement allows landowners to retain some value through productive use of the land, while the land trust ensures that it is protected for future generations. Easements are most often donated by the landowner, who then is eligible for a variety of tax benefits from the transaction.  The easement also lowers the real property and estate tax burden, which may allow owners to keep land within a family.

“In our area, conservation easements are an under-appreciated and economically-sensible land protection tool. In contrast to public ownership, they keep property on the tax roll, and the expense of managing the land stays with the private landowner, rather than being transferred to a government,” says Brawley.  “So, conservation easements provide many of the same benefits that come from publicly-owned land – habitat for animals, clean water and air, even recreational opportunities – at a fraction of the cost.”

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One area for which conservation easements are proving to be a key tool is our work supporting our regional food system. Food is one of the most tangible connections we have with land and Openlands’ goal to connect people to nature is being accomplished through this important work.

In 2014, Openlands worked with the Conservation Fund to accept a 198-acre conservation easement at Prairie Crossing, an acclaimed conservation community in Grayslake, Illinois. The property includes passive recreation areas with trails, open space areas, a Montessori school, and agricultural operations. The agricultural zone of the easement is used for small-scale farming, the operations of which the Liberty Prairie Foundation helps to support and manage.

Working in partnership with the Liberty Prairie Foundation, Openlands is also developing initiatives that connect new and beginning farmers with land. Thanks to funding from the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust, Openlands and its partners are conducting research that aims to strengthen the resiliency of our region’s foodshed by ensuring that important farmland is protected and that the next generations of farmers and stewards will sustainably manage it for productive use. A robust, sustainably managed regional food system generates economic, environmental, and public health benefits that flow to all residents.

Exelon Employees Volunteer at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve

On April 5, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve got a helping hand from a group of Exelon and ComEd employees, and their families. Ten dedicated volunteers spent the morning cleaning up 100 pounds of trash from the beach. “The weather was perfect, the team did such a great job, and everyone enjoyed themselves,” said Preserve Site Manager Aimee Collins.

The volunteer opportunity was one of many organized by Exelon as part of National Volunteer Week.


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The volunteer workday, which also took place last year, was just the most recent partnership between Openlands and Exelon. The Exelon Foundation funds Eco-Explorations, wherein elementary and high school students learn naturalist skills both in the classroom and at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve. Additionally, both Van Horne Ravine Overlook at the Preserve and the ongoing art education partnership between Openlands and Marwen are funded by the Exelon Foundation.

For more information on beach cleanups or to register your organization for a corporate workday, please contact development@openlands.org or call 312.863.6261.

GATX Employees Give Back to the Community During a Tree Planting and Volunteer Workday

On May 22, employees from GATX Corporation joined Openlands for a volunteer workday. With the help from Openlands TreeKeepers and staff from the North Park Village Nature Center, GATX employees planted a total of 25 native trees, including eight blue beech, eight swamp white oaks, and nine hills oaks in the nature preserve behind the North Park Village Nature Center.

Openlands TreeKeepers instructed GATX employees in groups of four on the proper ways to plant, mulch, and water the trees. Since the launch of TreeKeepers 25 years ago, more than 1,800 volunteers have completed the program’s training course. TreeKeepers volunteers provide “eyes and ears on the ground” year-round in neighborhoods all over the city to spot improper planting, vandalism, insect infestation, and other problems. TreeKeepers are passionate ambassadors who help educate their neighbors as well as their local public officials about the importance of trees for the greater good.


2013-tree-planting-photo-7North Park Village Nature Center features a 46-acre nature preserve and educational facility situated within the 155-acre North Park Village campus that was once the site of a tuberculosis sanitarium owned by the City of Chicago. Openlands was a key partner in a coalition led by the North River Commission that successfully advocated for the preservation of the land as public property after the sanitarium closed and  plans were made to redevelop the site as a shopping center.  In 1989, Openlands was granted a conservation easement by the City of Chicago on the 155-acre site to preserve all of the existing green space, including the Nature Center, for 75 years.

The nature preserve’s trails now meander through woodlands, wetlands, prairies, and savannas, offering visitors a chance to learn first-hand the distinctive qualities of each ecosystem. The Nature Center boasts a discovery room with hands-on, interactive displays of natural objects. North Park Village Nature Center is open seven days a week (excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays) from 10am-4pm.

Openlands provides volunteer opportunities for corporations at tree plantings, community gardens, and beach clean-ups year round. If you are interested in learning how your workplace can get involved, please contact development@openlands.org or call 312-863-6261.