Congress Passes a Farm Bill

Last week, Congress passed a Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is among the most important and comprehensive laws Congress makes. It authorizes the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), crop insurance, urban forestry, and conservation and local food programs. It now awaits the President’s signature.

Overall, the new Farm Bill does many favorable things:

  • Critically important for our communities is that work requirements on supplemental nutrition assistance recipients remain mostly unchanged.
  • Key local food offerings are consolidated into the new Local Agricultural Market Program and given increased and permanently authorized funding.
  • Beginning and socially-disadvantaged farmer supports, which are underutilized in greater Chicago, are consolidated and given permanently increased funding under the new Farmer Opportunities Training and Opportunities Program.
  • The Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program has dedicated, increased funding of $5 million in each of the next five years.
  • Harmful exemptions from endangered species laws for agrochemical uses are rejected along with other damaging regulatory rollbacks.
  • Misguided forest management provisions are mostly ignored.

This Farm Bill is a mixed bag for conservation, but there are a few more highlights on the plus side:

  • The Environmental Quality Incentive Program, which pays farmers to make improvements that conserve water, reduce erosion, and improve habitat, is increased to more than $2 billion.
  • The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program that permanently protects farmland is increased by 80% (to $450 million) and will allow land trusts to do buy-protect-sell transactions.
  • Regional conservation partnerships are allocated another $50 million (up to $300 million).

However, overall conservation funding remains $5 billion lower than what conservation programs received before 2014. This means that increases to some conservation programs come at the expense of other conservation initiatives. Most notably, this Farm Bill, cuts $800 million (45%) from the Conservation Stewardship Program (“CSP”). CSP is widely regarded as the most effective program for improving wildlife habitat, water quality, and “whole farm” conservation solutions. It is so popular that less than half of farmers who apply for funding currently receive it. After these cuts, only about ¼ of farmer-applicants who want to do comprehensive resource conservation will be funded.

The overall impact from this shift in conservation funding will cost Illinois roughly $14 million per year, according to staff analysis and adjustments of a report by the University of Illinois. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that CSP creates nearly $4 in economic and environmental values for every $1 it costs, leaving Illinois with a net loss of $56 million. Openlands will try to reduce this loss by leading efforts to better utilize Farm Bill resources in Illinois, such as seeking funding for agricultural conservation easements on places like Hoffmann Farm.

Thank you to all of you who made your voice heard in support of SNAP and a conservation-friendly Farm Bill. Learn more about how Openlands is working improve local food systems and protect farmland in our region.

Unpacking the National Climate Assessment and What We Can Do

On Black Friday, the White House released the much anticipated Fourth National Climate Assessment, a sweeping Federal review of the impact of climate change on the natural environment, agriculture, human health, forests, transportation, and natural resources. The report, which was authored by scientists from 13 Federal agencies and climatologists from across the country, documents in explicit terms the changes to our climate that have already occurred in the United States.

The report paints a grim future for the country and the Midwest region, going so far as to declare that, “without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property, and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.”

And all of this needs to be held in light of the United Nations’ 2018 Emissions Gap Report, released on November 27, which states that even at the current pace of emissions reductions, the world is falling far short of the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement.

Climate science can be cumbersome and reading about these reports no doubt will lead to some anxiety for many of us. But we want to prepare you with information and talking points so you can advocate for climate action right now. 


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“Species and ecosystems, including the important freshwater resources of the Great Lakes, are typically most at risk when climate stressors, like temperature increases, interact with land-use change, habitat loss, pollution, nutrient inputs, and nonnative invasive species.”

Fourth National Climate Assessment, Chapter 21 — Midwest

On the whole, Illinois has actually fared somewhat well relative to the rest of the planet, which is to say that we are not experiencing the upsurge in natural disasters like the California wildfires, the devastating heatwaves in Australia, or the destructive hurricanes in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The changes we have felt are more subtle, and inaction will cause those changes to accelerate exponentially over the century.

1. It’s not too late to do something

One of the most important things to always keep in mind is that it is not too late to act. The 2015 Paris Agreement created a global framework wherein signatory countries would work to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The goal is to keep global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) — at that point, we must still expect significant changes in our climate, but we will avert catastrophe. Additionally, the Paris Agreement set the aspirational goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees (2.7 F) to create a type of  safety net. There is still a chance that we can reach that goal.

2. Climate projections are viewed on a scale, and we can act to reduce and prevent some impacts

Climate change reports often present their findings with both a best case scenario and a worst case scenario. For the Chicago region, the worst case scenario is we end the century with a climate similar to that of present-day Dallas or Phoenix.

Both the Fourth National Climate Assessment and the landmark report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued in October 2018 emphasize the importance of what are known as mitigation and adaptation tactics to address this crisis.

Mitigation is the process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing efforts to pull greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Adaptation refers to the actions we can take to prepare for the impacts and reduce the risks of climate change.

Openlands believes our response to the threat of climate change must be two-fold, embracing both of these strategies, and using solutions based in nature to put carbon back in the ground. As Chicago’s regional land trust, Openlands is uniquely positioned to leverage land conservation with community climate action and to ensure that our region seizes the opportunity to pioneer innovative solutions to the climate crisis.

3. Forests and land conservation are more important than ever

Both the report from the Federal Government and IPCC stress the importance of forests and land conservation as central elements in preventing climate change from wreaking ecological devastation. Large, healthy woodlands with hardy native species and vast sweeping prairies filled with grasses and deep-rooted plants suck in and absorb massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere while providing havens for wildlife.

The National Climate Assessment states that, “species and ecosystems, including the important freshwater resources of the Great Lakes, are typically most at risk when climate stressors, like temperature increases, interact with land-use change, habitat loss, pollution, nutrient inputs, and nonnative invasive species.” The good news is that so many of these risks can be avoided today.

For one, we know how to protect clean water resources: we know that plants and open space can manage stormwater, removing harmful pollution and keeping adjacent waterways healthy. Trees in urban areas not only pull pollution and carbon from the air, but also lower temperatures on the ground, but across the region we need to care for these resources better and plant many more trees. And we know that restoring natural areas leads to healthier landscapes that mitigate greenhouse gases more efficiently. Ecological restoration has additional benefits beyond absorbing carbon, which include flood relief, pollution reduction, controlling invasive species, improved water quality, and better habitat for wildlife.

Focusing our efforts on protecting existing forest preserves and parks, restoring natural areas, and using these nature-based solutions all help mitigate emissions and adapt our neighborhoods and communities to a changing climate.

Chicago Neighborhoods

4. Heat, Humidity, and Human Health

Unfortunately, we have to expect that increased temperatures will unleash new complications to human health in our region. Higher temperatures and higher humidity increase the risk for heat stress, the ferocity of storms, mold and fungal disease such as oak wilt, and the potential for poor air quality resulting from smog. We can expect to see these hazards affecting those with asthma and chronic health conditions.

In both the best and worst case scenarios, we can expect greater occurrence of painful 100-degree days. This undoubtedly will result in higher utility bills and strain on transportation infrastructure. Increased heat and humidity will further impact human labor, particularly in sectors tied closely with the climate such as agriculture.

5. Agriculture in the Midwest is at Risk

The United States produces nearly $330 billion in agricultural commodities annually. Agriculture is vulnerable to direct impacts on crops and livestock from changing climate conditions and extreme weather events, as well as indirect impacts like new insects and diseases. While heat stress on crops in the Midwest has been minimal, increased spring rainfall has made planting more challenging and wet conditions in the fall can impact the timing and quality of a harvest.

Central to every study of the agricultural impacts of climate change is the assumption that farmland will always be available. While more than 80% of land in Illinois is farmland, keep in mind that we have some of the best soil in the world for growing food. We need to think of this soil as a key natural resource — and protect it like one.

Openlands is working right now to ensure that the farmland in our region stays as healthy farmland, rather than being sold off for another big box store. We also work with farmers to implement adaptive practices on their land. Integrating native prairie plants into row crops, for example, has been shown to reduce sediment and nutrient loss from fields, as well as improve biodiversity and ecosystem services, such as flood control and carbon sequestration.

6. Water Levels in the Great Lakes

There have been lots of news stories this year showing how water levels in Lake Michigan are at near-historic highs and there’s a temptation to claim prematurely a link to climate change. The reality is that we are not sure what is going to happen with water levels in the future. We can expect the Great Lakes region will get warmer and to experience warmer winters, meaning there will be greater evaporation from the lakes year-round. But we are also expected to receive far more precipitation than we have historically; therefore, water inputs to the lakes will be higher. We are unsure how climate change will impact the stable cycle of evaporation and precipitation that has governed the Great Lakes for millennia. You can read more about that here.

7. Climate change is felt most by the most vulnerable

Much like poverty, disease, crime, or debt, climate change can affect anyone, but the effects are concentrated among those who are most vulnerable. Children, elderly adults, and frontline communities will feel the health impacts of a changing climate the most. Frontline communities are often low-income and communities of color and tend to face disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards, pollution (such as congested highways or power plants), inequitable access to green space, and poor air quality leading to higher rates of asthma.

In 1963, Openlands was founded as a social justice organization charged with the purpose of preserving green space because nature is vital to the well-being of all people. Since that time we have steered our region towards sustainability and now we are committed to guiding our region through climate change. We can’t do it without you.


All the information in this blog post can be found in greater detail in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which again was written and reviewed by 13 Federal agencies. The report is presented online in a user-friendly manner; you can find information on particular regions, issues, or themes; and we strong encourage you to take some time to read through the report. For more information, please contact climate@openlands.org.

How the 2018 Midterms Impact Conservation

The 2018 Midterm elections are (almost) over, and the results are important for conservation. New leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives, Illinois Governor’s Mansion, and on county boards throughout our region offers opportunities to re-assert conservation priorities at all levels of government. Here are a few results that are especially noteworthy:

  • Federal: The greater Chicago region will have new leadership in two House of Representative Districts: the 6th District, which encompasses Deer Grove Forest Preserve and many other forest preserves in Cook, McHenry, Kane, and Lake counties, and the 14th District, which includes Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Both winning candidates have strong backgrounds in science and healthcare.
  • Illinois: Many candidates who campaigned on environmental and renewable energy topics won statewide offices, including Governor, Attorney General, and Treasurer. A strong slate of State House and Senate candidates will also be working with Openlands and our partners to advance strong environmental policies in Springfield.
  • Other states: Wisconsin will also have a new Governor, who can re-assert wetlands and air quality protections that were waived by his predecessor. Proving that open space has national and bipartisan appeal, California, Georgia, the City of Austin, and at least 46 other state and local governments passed open space funding referenda worth more than $5.7 billion this year, according to the Trust for Public Land’s LandVote database. However, Washington State voters failed again to pass a sweeping carbon tax program.
  • Local governments: Closer to home, county boards will now include more familiar (and friendly) faces. They will also include many new names, including 6 new Commissioners in Cook County, as well as new party leadership of county boards in Lake and Will counties. Strong leaders at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District were re-elected and another long-time champion for clean water was added to their ranks.

Thank you for voting to elect such a strong slate of environmental leaders to govern us, and please turn out again during Chicago’s citywide elections on February 26, 2019. We at Openlands will continue to work collaboratively with new and returning elected officials to advance conservation issues at all levels of government. We invite you to continue telling these elected officials that conservation matters to us all!


We need you to continue making your voice heard with our elected officials, even today. Take a look at our ongoing advocacy campaigns and speak up today for our environment.

Links, Livestock, and Local Food

Openlands works to promote and protect healthy lands across northeastern Illinois. With so much of our region dedicated to agriculture, this vision must include farmland, so we support small and local farmers, interested in conservation-friendly land management practices, to secure new land for sustainable agriculture.

In late 2017, Openlands identified a unique opportunity for agricultural land protection: the Plum Tree National property, an approximately 265-acre former golf course located in rural McHenry County, just outside the small farm town of Harvard, Illinois. Abandoned golf courses typically feature vacant or naturalized areas, substantial acreage, and existing infrastructure that could support a logical transition from golf course use to agricultural operations. These features make golf course properties an attractive option for farmers looking for large tracts of land.

Openlands hoped to convert the site to agricultural grazing to help increase opportunities for sustainable local food farming. We also wanted to provide financial support for a farmer to implement the infrastructure that was required to make the business viable and profitable with the assistance of Food:Land:Opportunity.

However, when we conducted soil sampling during the initial due diligence process, we found soil contamination that rendered the property unfit for a swift and economical transition into grazing use. This meant the project couldn’t proceed, but we realized that we have learned a number of important lessons. Openlands’ experience with the Plum Tree National property revealed that golf course properties may present other unique challenges. To plan ahead for those challenges, we published a new report to assist farmers, land trusts, and other conservation agencies think through the work.

Full Report: Links, Livestock, and Local Food — Challenges of Converting a Golf Course Into a Sustainable Local Food Operation


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Although the project to create a local grazing operation on the former Plum Tree National golf course property did not come to fruition, Openlands remains hopeful about the possibilities of such land use conversions in the future. As golf courses trend towards closure and sale across the U.S., more such properties will become available in the coming years. Additionally, we hope that our experience can serve as an example for land conservation organizations across the country.

As Chicago’s regional land trust and one of the only land trusts to work in a major metropolitan area, Openlands is uniquely positioned to test innovative land protection models like this. We recognize that these lessons need to be learned and we are willing to take these risk, conduct these studies, and share the results to better inform the land trust community across the country. The story of Plum Tree can inform other opportunities for Openlands, and these lessons will help protect more agricultural land and help to localize food systems across the country.


Food:Land:Opportunity supports Openlands’ work testing new and innovative models that combine agriculture and land conservation, including the Plum Tree National project.

For more information, please contact Aimee Collins, Director of Regional Conservation at acollins@openlands.org.

Getting Rid of the Walls of Buckthorn

If you’ve been outside to a natural area of pretty much any size in Illinois, chances are you’ve seen it: walls of a shrubby plant completely blocking off trees, plants, and flowers and overrunning woodland areas. This is common buckthorn and it’s our region’s most destructive invasive plant.

Common buckthorn is not a species native to the Midwest. It was first brought to North America by European settlers to use as hedging material. While they quickly realized it spread rampantly, it was too late, and buckthorn was unleashed on the land.

Buckthorn forms its leaves early in the spring and keeps them late into the fall, creating dense layer of shade that helps it out-compete native plants. It can be so prevalent in woodlands and forests that it will completely replace existing understory plants, like native wildflowers. It exudes a chemical that harms frogs and toads, it wipes out beneficial soil life, and it leads to erosion.

Buckthorn is a major problem and it has spread to far too many gardens and yards, so it should be removed wherever possible. So let’s get started with some tips.


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Making the Right Identification

Buckthorn is easily identifiable, especially later in the fall, as its leaves stay green after most trees have lost their leaves for the season. Buckthorn’s simple leaves are elliptical in shape, about three inches long, and have veins that curve toward the tip.

Twigs often have thorny projections toward the tips, hence the common name. Cut buckthorn branches reveal the species’ yellow sapwood and orange heartwood, which is a useful way to confirm its identification.

Buckthorn’s habit varies from a small tree to 25 feet in height, to a shorter, broader shrub. It often grows in thick stands in the understory, crowding out other species and thus diminishing area diversity. It is very shade-tolerant, which also helps buckthorn out-compete native shrubs and tree saplings. Buckthorn also readily re-sprouts when cut, making it difficult to remove. Birds will the dark fruit, which contributes to its pervasiveness.

Many desirable native shrubs can be confused with buckthorn including American plum, black chokeberry, hawthorn and nannyberry. The easiest time of year for identification is late autumn, when native shrubs have lost their leaves but buckthorn remains full of green leaves.

Photo: Gary Fewless via Wisconsin Wetlands Association

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Removing Buckthorn Properly

Take a moment to size up your population of buckthorn on your property: where is its heart and in which direction is it spreading? It’s usually helpful to work from the least-infested area toward the most-infested area, but if you’re protecting a high-quality area, such as a stand of oak trees, work from there outward.

Hand-pull small plants when soil is damp. An advantage of hand-pulling is that it removes the roots, which reduces resprouting. Use a Pullerbear, Extractigator or similar tool for stems up to 2 inches. Cut larger stems and trunks with a loppers, hand
saw or, when necessary, chainsaw. You’ll want to protect your body with goggles, thick gloves, sturdy boots, etc.

Herbicide immediately and very carefully after cutting. Choose the right herbicide for the setting and time of year, and follow all label instructions. Apply carefully to the stump with a disposable paint brush. With large infestations, adding a dye to the herbicide will help you keep track of which stems were treated. And if you do use herbicides, don’t let it touch any plants you want to keep.

Be sure you have a plan for disposing of the waste, too, whether that’s burning or chipping. In general, it is best to leave noxious weeds like buckthorn on-site. Even dead plants can spread seeds. If chipping or burning aren’t an option, contact yard waste facilities to see if they accept noxious weeds.

One last tip: talk to your neighbors. For one, you may want to mention why you’re cutting brush, and chances are they’ll have buckthorn on their property too. If all the neighbors are removing it from their property, everyone has a better chance of success. Plus, you can team-up on neighborhood workdays and many hands will make light work.


Planting an Alternative

It’s understandable that you may want to keep a sense a privacy around your home. Luckily, there are several native species you can plant that will provide similar aesthetic features and provide brilliant fall colors while giving a better home to birds and wildlife.

We recommend the following buckthorn alternatives:

  • Hazelnut or filbert (Corylus americana)
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzion)
  • Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
  • Nannyberry viburnum (Viburnum lentago)
  • Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
Photos via Possibility Place Nursery and John Raithel

Getting the Help You Need

This might sound like a lot of work. In some cases, it certainly can be, but you’re making an important commitment to nature and the environment. To keep big jobs from overwhelming you, simply draw an imaginary “line in the sand,” and pledge to remove any buckthorn that crosses the line. Another option is waiting until winter when plants are dormant and soils are frozen. This will keep you from trampling any flowers or plant life you do want on your property.

If you’re unsure what you’re looking at, Openlands can help. Through the Conservation@Home program, you can spend a hour walking your land with one of our expert ecologists who will help identify the natural features on your property, assess tactics for controlling invasives like buckthorn, and recommend ways to implement conservation-friendly practices. Learn more about the program and sign up now for a free property consultation.

The Old Plank Road Trail

In 1992, Openlands purchased just over 20 miles of abandoned railroad lines for the development of the Old Plank Road Trail, which stretches from Chicago Heights to Joliet. The land acquisi­tion was made on behalf of six local and state agencies that had each agreed to develop portions of the trail. Openlands’ involvement (at the time through our affiliated non-profit, CorLands) provided a jump-start to the decade-long grassroots effort to create the trail, and ultimately saved over $1 million in taxpayer dollars.

When Openlands officially became involved in the trail, the project had been stalled for years for a variety of reasons, and we began an outreach effort to local communities to build support for this visionary trail. Local opposition was eventually addressed by inviting residents to participate in the trail planning process, and by agreeing to reroute the trail around certain areas, plant trees and shrubs, install fences, and grade the trail to ensure residents’ privacy and security.


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Another obstacle was reluctance from the Penn Central Railroad — the original land owner — to engage in separate negotiations with the six local governments and agencies interested in purchasing its land. These local entities included the Village of Park Forest, the Village of Matteson, the Village of Frankfort, Rich Township, the Forest Preserve District of Will County, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. And in a way, their reluctance made sense: securing only five of the six trail segments would have left the entire route fractured. They needed a single entity to manage the acquisition as one purchase. They needed a land trust.

This problem was solved when the Illinois Department of Transportation, which was coordinating the purchase from Penn Central, asked Openlands to move from its advisory role to assume control over the entire project. Two years of intensive negotiations then began, with Openlands acting as an intermediary between Penn Central and the six local entities.


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This arrangement was a win-win situation for all parties involved. With Openlands in charge of the negotiations, the local entities gained specialized real estate expertise while avoiding individual negotiations with Penn Central. The process was also sim­plified for Penn Central by giving the corporation a single entity to work with, and by standardizing procedures.

Openlands was able to negotiate a purchase price down, a savings of over $1 million in taxpayer dollars. Half of the purchase price was funded by the governmental entities that will develop the trail, with the remaining funding paid by a matching grant from the State of Illinois’ Bikeways Fund.

Immediately upon buying the property, Openlands placed deed restrictions on each of the parcels to ensure that the land will be permanently used as a recreational trail, regardless of a change in owners. Openlands then subdivided the property into six parcels and trans­ferred ownership to the governmental bodies that had provided funding.

The creation of the Old Plank Road Trail proved the power of partnerships: by work­ing with a land trust and with each other, the local governments were able to secure matching grants from Illinois and the Federal Government to complete one of the finest rails-to-trails conversions.


This article is from the Openlands archives and was originally published on behalf of CorLands. As a non-profit affiliated corporation, CorLands managed land acquisition, technical assistance, and conservation easements for Openlands between 1977 and 2010 when it merged back into Openlands. Learn more about some of the projects in our history.

Openlands Earns Reaccreditation from the Land Trust Accreditation Commission

Openlands does a lot of things. We plant trees and transform schoolyards into safe playgrounds and lush gardens. We build new trails and take families on canoe trips. And we protect the Forest Preserves and help to pass new laws to support conservation. We also are are a land trust, meaning we purchase land from willing sellers and then hold it until a public agency can buy it from us, forever keeping it as open space — instead of the next big box store.

Today, Openlands is excited to share that we have been reaccredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission. Being an accredited land trust is important. It means that Openlands demonstrates sound finances, ethical conduct, responsible governance, and lasting stewardship of the lands we protect. As an accredited land trust, we apply best practices in land protection transactions that conserve the green spaces of the Chicago Wilderness region for all to enjoy.

“Openlands is thrilled and honored to reach this important milestone in our organization’s history,” said Openlands President and CEO Jerry Adelmann. “As Chicago’s regional land trust, Openlands has helped to protect more than 55,000 acres in northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region, with projects such as the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, and Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Reaccreditation is a mark of confidence that will energize our land conservation efforts and it’s a boost of encouragement as we expand programs and our impact.”

We have been a Land Trust Alliance Member since 1983, and in 2013, Openlands was accredited for the first time by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission. The Land Trust Accreditation Commission is an independent program of the Land Trust Alliance, a national land conservation organization working to save the places people need and love by strengthening land conservation across America.


DGE Summer

Nationwide, over 400 land trusts have been accredited by the Commission, and together, we are leading a movement to protect the lands that Americans love, to restore native landscapes and expand access to trails, and to use solutions based in nature to combat the threats of climate change.

Here in the Chicago region, reaccreditation reaffirms Openlands’ commitment to connecting people to nature where they live. It supports our efforts to protect places like Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. It helps us establish new parks and school gardens in Chicago. It deepens our work with regional partners to create new access points to water trails from Lake County to Will County. And it provides us with the tools and resources to steward some of the region’s truly spectacular natural treasures, such as Deer Grove East Forest Preserve and the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

These are the places we love and we encourage you to explore them for yourself.

This year, Openlands is one of 22 land trusts to have our accreditation renewed by the Commission, and we will celebrate this distinction in October at the Land Trust Alliance Rally in Pittsburgh. We also want to add a personal thank you to Openlands Director of Regional Conservation Aimee Collins, who managed this enormous project for us internally and to whom we owe a debt of gratitude.


Past generations started the important work of land conservation, and the work will continue with future generations. Reaccreditation is a checkpoint along the way saying “we are fulfilling our responsibility” as caretaker for this generation.

Join us.

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Lake Michigan Water Levels Impact Coastal Management at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve

If you’ve visited the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve this year, you might have noticed some changes happening along the lakefront due to high water levels in the lake. It’s called erosion, and we’ll be the first to admit that it’s pretty bad right now. Erosion is a natural process that gradually removes soil, rock, and sediment from wherever it’s been sitting on the land such as a beach or a riverbank. Erosion at the Lakeshore Preserve is so substantial at the moment that we even had to remove a lakefront art installation to prevent it from washing away into the Great Lakes!

Before we say any more though, please trust us that the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is still completely safe for you to visit. You can still enjoy the sights, sounds, trails, and art installations. We ask that you stay on the paved trails and be sure to keep your pets leashed and off the beach areas. If you’re an avid science geek, an expert geohydrologist, or even someone who just enjoys walking along the lakefront, we encourage you to visit the Lakeshore Preserve and see with your own eyes how the Great Lakes are shaping the surrounding lands.

You may have read in the news that water levels in the Great Lakes are at historic highs – while they’re not currently the highest we’ve ever recorded, it’s still pretty significant news. There is no easy answer for why that is, and it’s affecting shorelines in a number of ways.


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Water levels in the Great Lakes have historically fluctuated. Low levels in the late 1960s were followed by record highs in the mid-1980s. The water levels of the Great Lakes are pretty much determined by simple cycles of ice cover, precipitation, and evaporation. In the scheme of things, human withdrawal is actually rather insignificant. (Here’s a fantastic article explaining that in more detail.)

Ice coverage in the winter months is a significant determining factor of water levels. When there is more ice coverage, less water will evaporate from the lakes. As our climate changes, the Great Lakes region is predicted to experience greater fluctuations in winter temperatures: winters could be warmer-than-average or colder-than-average, or a week of low 20s followed by a week in the high 50s could become normal, all affecting ice coverage. For example, lake levels were lower between 2008-2010 than currently since the last few winters have been generally colder. The colder winters led to higher ice coverage, meaning less wintertime evaporation.

In terms of climate change, the region is also predicted to receive much more precipitation than normal, meaning water inputs to the Great Lakes will be higher. We cannot say one way or another how the stable cycles of evaporation and precipitation, cycles that have been steady for thousands of years, will be affected. Increased evaporation and precipitation could balance each other out – leaving the lakes at similar water levels to what has been historically observed – or one process could completely outweigh the other, causing a sharp rise or fall in water levels. While it would be inaccurate to use climate change as an explanation for the current lake levels, we can expect that in a changed climate we will generally experience more fluctuation in water levels as periods of evaporation outweigh precipitation and vice versa.


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The point is that the water levels in Lake Michigan have physical impacts felt up and down its shoreline. Along this part of the lake currents typically flow north to south. Since European settlement, the Illinois shoreline has been altered in a number of ways for a variety of reasons, all of which interrupt these currents in site-specific ways and regionally. The impact of various alterations, when combined with high water levels, can cause erosion even to reinforced areas like at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

Along the North Shore, we have many, many artificial alterations to the shore including hundreds of metal groynes jutting into the lake (pictured above). When they were installed much earlier in the 20th century, these groynes were intended to prevent erosion, but they were installed with an incomplete understanding of on-shore, near-shore, and off-shore conditions and currents, exacerbating the erosion we see today.

The Openlands Lakeshore Preserve does have many of these metal groynes, but also large revetment rocks and some of the latest coastal engineering strategies, all intended to reduce erosion. While we are working on a solution to stabilize the beach and toe of the bluff, erosion still persists. The significant erosion we see at the Lakeshore Preserve is occurring in places that have no erosion control or in areas where the water level is simply so high, it is washing away soils behind the control measures. It remains a fact of life that erosion is a natural process and it cannot be prevented altogether, no matter the strategy you try.


Erosion model

With the traditional groyne solution, we see patterns of erosion that follow the southerly current (above in purple). As waves reach the shore (above in blue), sand and soil is carried away and is deposited immediately north of the next groyne (above in brown). This is called littoral drift. The satellite image above shows how wedges of beach have formed over time in between groynes. The immediate effect of this pattern is fragmentation of shoreline areas like the Lakeshore Preserve, Illinois Beach State Park, or other popular beaches of the North Shore.

If you’re a homeowner on the Lakefront, this may all sound rather concerning. There are a few things you can do: contact your city council and tell them you’re concerned about coastal erosion. There is significant attention being paid to the issue and support for North Shore municipal councils to develop a comprehensive plan for coastal areas, but statements of support from the public will aid the projects and implementation. Keep in mind that regional plans like this do take time, careful monitoring, and significant analysis to find the right solutions, but there are some more immediate steps you can take.

Try to prevent any man-made alterations to the shoreline on your property if possible. Finally, reducing runoff from rain and stormwater will help reduce erosion. Make sure that surface runoff flowing over your property is either captured by a rain garden, is diverted directly into sewers, or is piped down into the lake. Rain gardens are an excellent solution because they capture rainwater where it falls, preventing bluff and ravine erosion and keeping sediments and pollutants out of the Great Lakes.

View more resources for ravine homeowners and technical experts. We also encourage you to read through the excellent resources offered by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Coastal Management Program. Homeowners looking for initial recommendations can contact lakeshorepreserve@openlands.org.


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As a lakefront landowner, Openlands is also concerned about this erosion. The Lakeshore Preserve is home to several natural bluffs, and at the base of one of these – where there is no erosion control – we have been seeing some substantial erosion for the past year. As erosion has increased, the natural slope of the bluff has been affected and we expect this to continue until the bluff finds its angle of repose again. An angle of repose is the steepest angle the slope of the bluff can take while the soil remains stable. The picture above shows recent conditions: when the slope holds its natural angle, it should stretch to the waters edge with some beach to protect it and without that significant dropoff at the base shown above. The bluff here will find its slope again, but will continue to reshape higher up the slope and upland areas as it does. Once again, erosion is a natural process and below you can see its effects on two sites at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve over a year’s time.

Click on each of the images below to see the impact on the bluff from August 2017 – May 2018.

Click each image below to see the changes to the Lake Prism Art installation from May 2017 – May 2018.


We aim for the Lakeshore Preserve to function as a learning laboratory as a way to monitor changes in our climate and landscapes, and that it will serve as a model for communities and landowners along the North Shore. To that end, we have been working since the summer of 2018 with researchers from the Illinois State Geological Survey at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to monitor the erosion. Using drone footage and images, researchers will analyze erosional forces and sand migration over the course of eight months via a series of digital 3D models, which will map changes to the bluffs and beach. New studies like this are needed to build a more-complete and in-depth understanding of the natural forces at work.

As a component of the learning laboratory, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is the second site on the North Shore to receive this kind of study, and the data will be tested in several ways to provide local municipalities, agencies, and elected officials with the most useful interpretation to address their communities’ unique needs.


Changes like erosion are reminders that landscapes are alive, and that they can be altered by both humans and nature, so we need to be conscious of our impact and work to restore landscapes wherever possible. Again, we encourage you to visit the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve; it is a spectacular example of the ravine and bluff ecosystems unique to the North Shore and it is open to the public year-round. Begin planning your visit.

Advocating for Chicago’s Trees, Block by Block

In 2016, TreeKeeper Ed Zimkus noticed something peculiar happening to the trees on his block. Ed lives in West Edgewater, a typical Chicago neighborhood with countless tree-lined streets, but even when Ed became a certified TreeKeeper, he never expected to find himself in a fight to save all 13 trees on one side of the block. The following was written by TreeKeeper Ed.


It started in 2016, when I discovered spray-painted magenta dots at the base of many of our block’s parkway trees. The dots continued for a couple of blocks and around the corner. I had no luck in getting answers from the ward office about who sprayed the dots or what they meant. No one seemed to know. I let it ride until this March, when I became alarmed at the spray-painted green stripe running down the middle of our parkway the length of the block. A couple of trees – both of them healthy – had big green X’s on the trunks. It didn’t look good.

Eventually I learned that the Chicago Department of Water Management is in the midst of a 10-year program to replace century-old water mains all across the city. Their goal is to replace 30 miles of water mains a year. It’s a huge, expensive undertaking, and who can argue with updating the city infrastructure? If a couple of our parkway trees were going to be collateral damage, my main concern was minimizing the root damage to the remaining trees on the block. I emailed the Ward Office asking that someone from the Bureau of Forestry be consulted to help protect the remaining trees, as I had learned from the TreeKeepers training. Yet I heard nothing back until the Department of Water Management returned to our block a few weeks later. This time they marked a big green X on every single parkway tree. The supposed final word is that the devastating result of a new water main is going to be zero trees on our side of the block. No shade. No birds. No beauty.


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In Chicago, trees marked with a dot typically mean they’ve been recently inventoried, but you certainly want to pay attention and get in touch with Openlands.

As a home-owner and tree lover, I couldn’t give up so easily. The more I talked to neighbors and my Openlands connections, the more I got swept up in an activist role. I’m learning as I go, with the outcome still in question, but if trees in your neighborhood become threatened, this much I can share:

There’s Strength in Numbers: Rally your neighbors to email or phone your Alderman. You can’t stop the construction, but say you want them to explore every option to save as many trees as possible. I dropped off flyers on porches and posted on our neighborhood website, and the response was quite positive. This prompted our alderman to forward a letter from the water department commissioner to everyone who expressed concern.

The water commissioner said there was nothing to be done, and unfortunately the trees had to go. However, I knew enough from talking to my contacts that there are options. This led to me drafting a petition asking for a meeting with the alderman, representatives from the Chicago Department of Water Management, the Bureau of Forestry, and residents all present – preferably on site. With so much to lose, we wanted to have all our questions answered before the trees are taken down.

Start gathering knowledge and taking pictures: Document whatever helps your case. Many neighbors take their parkway trees for granted, so be sure to remind them what they stand to lose unless they speak up. Your neighborhood trees have real value as property assets. Trees sequester and store carbon by absorbing CO2, they soak up rainwater to reduce flooding, and reduce the “heat island” effect in neighborhoods, and mature trees won’t be replaced for decades. Learn whatever you can about the options. (For instance, I’m trying to find out how wide a water main trench has to be.)

Understand it’s all about money: The water main upgrade is so big, subcontractors outside of the city are being contracted, with low bids getting the job. The faster they make it go, the more money they make. They’re not really worried about our parkway trees. Make a monetary case for the value of the trees as property assets. Removing and replacing decades-old trees is expensive. Imagine the change in cooling costs to your home. Ask about the cost of any construction options that might save the trees. (In our case, I want to know why the new water main can’t be in the street instead of the parkway, like it is throughout most of the city. Aren’t they just perpetuating the planting and removal of parkway trees with every future pipe issue?) Let them come back to you with costs. Don’t be inflexible or angry, or you risk alienating your alderman, who may want to find a solution for all. But make noise. The city departments and contractors are all counting on apathy to make their jobs easier.

Finally, know that there is a chance we may not win, but losing is certain if we don’t speak up.


Openlands Forestry team has planted more than 4,500 trees across the Chicago region since 2013. With the help of our TreeKeepers volunteers, we are the active stewards of Chicago’s urban forest. If you are concerned about tree removals in your neighborhood, please contact TreeKeepers@Openlands.org.

Following Restoration, South Cook Forest Preserves Have Become Birding Hotspots

Two forest preserves in southern Cook County, Bartel Grassland and Tinley Creek Wetlands, have proven themselves to be phenomenal destinations for birding in the Chicago region — and that is entirely due to years of successful restoration at the two sites.

Restoration is the process of returning the land to a healthy state for nature, wildlife, and people. The two forest preserves are across the street from one another, and Openlands has managed the restoration of these sites since 2008 and continue to as part of the Forest Preserve’s Next Century Conservation Plan. By identifying and restoring conservation areas in proximity to one another, we create the habitat on the scale needed for wildlife to thrive.

The landscapes of the Chicago region are particularly important for migrating wildlife and bird species. Forests, grasslands, wetlands, and open water provide stopover points for birds during their semi-annual journeys that, for some species, span across continents and hemispheres. The Great Lakes provide an important bridge between two migratory routes, the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways, which help bird species as they move from their breeding areas to their winter homes. The resulting migrations of bird species in spring and autumn color our skies and neighborhoods with a stunning diversity of birds, but they rely on local green spaces and nature preserves like these for rest, food, and shelter.


 

Since 2008, Openlands and the Forest Preserves of Cook County have worked together to enhance over 1,400 acres of continuous grassland habitat at these two preserves. Restoration has involved removing invasive vegetation, planting native prairie plants, and engaging volunteers and the surrounding community. We worked to restore the sites’ natural hydrology (the process of how water moves through an area), and in some instances, reconstructed the natural topography by shaping depressions in the land to mimic wetlands. Recreating these landscapes has led to spectacular results.

Since the restoration occurred, both preserves have attracted many grassland birds — particularly Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Dickcissels, as well as winter raptors such as the Northern Harrier and the Short-eared Owl — in much greater numbers and over more acres. In 2017, 11 new bird species were observed at the preserves: Greater White-fronted Goose, Alder Flycatcher, Broad-winged Hawk, Golden-winged Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Mourning Warbler, American Redstart, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler! These species add to the 160+ bird species that have been observed at the preserves as of February 2018.


Tinley-Bartel MUST CREDIT Erin Soto (2)

And while the abundance of bird species is reason to celebrate, the quality of restored habitat is worth protecting as strongly as we can. Following restoration, both of these preserves were awarded Illinois Land and Water Reserve status by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, granting additional protection for these special places. Over 900 acres of Tinley Creek Wetlands were protected in 2017 as Bobolink Meadow Land and Water Reserve, and Bartel Grassland Land and Water Reserve is 585 acres of protected natural areas.

Additionally, both preserves earned recognition from the Audubon Society in 2016 as an Important Bird Area. Important Bird Areas are internationally recognized places that are chosen for their unique role in providing habitats for birds. These habitats play a vital role in the lives of birds who are endangered or threatened, either by providing breeding grounds, pathways for migration, or places to spend the winter. Of the 93 birds on Bird Conservation Network’s species of concern in the Chicago region, 50 have been observed in both preserves, including six endangered and one threatened species.

Through many efforts and the work of several partners, the restoration of Tinley Creek Wetlands and Bartel Grassland has been one of the most successful bird conservation projects in the Chicago region. After ten years of restoration, the promise of these grasslands has been fulfilled, and these preserves hold potential to serve as a regional resource for years to come.


Visit the Preserves

Bartel Grassland and Tinley Creek Wetlands are located at the intersection of Central Ave. and Flossmoor Rd. near Tinley Park. Ready to try out birding for yourself? We have some tips.

Learn more about Openlands’ land preservation efforts.


Audubon Great Lakes, Bartel Grassland Volunteers, Chicago Department of AviationChicago District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Living Habitats, and the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission all assisted with these projects.

Special thanks to local nature photographer Erin Soto for sharing all the above images of Bartel Grassland.