Reflecting on Openlands’ Legacy in the Environmental Movement 

The year was 1970 and Chicago, like cities across the country, had been marked by a decade of massive change and tension in the cultural consciousness. An air of protest moved through the country, as individuals were mobilized by the sight of horrifying images from the Vietnam War, and protests swept through Chicago at the Democratic National Convention of 1968. Racial tensions were high, as the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death that same year destabilized the spirit of the Black Chicagoans and ignited riots on the West Side that left entire neighborhoods in ashes. Redlining divided the city even deeper and white flight and sprawl moved wealthier, middle-class to the suburbs of every major city. 

Yet, among the many racial and political issues that divided many Americans during the 60’s, one issue united the country: the need for environmental protection. Unlike today, where environmental issues have become largely bipartisan, the first Earth Day brought together people from both sides of the political aisle due to the recognition that pollution and waste needed firm regulations.  

This coming Saturday, April 22, we celebrate the 53rd anniversary of the first Earth Day, when Senator Gaylord Nelson created an official day of action to force environmental issues and the urgent need to create regulatory mechanisms that protect the health of our planet into the national consciousness and government agenda. On that day in 1970, Openlands was a young organization at the cutting edge of environmentalism. Prior to Openlands’ establishment in 1963, there were no conservation organizations focused on land preservation and environmental protection in large cities. The beginning of the 1970’s marked the beginning of a decade that would shape environmental policy, both nationally and locally in Chicago, and set the stage for Openlands’ 60 years of conservation leadership. 

The first Earth Day was pivotal in bringing together millions of Americans and the previously fragmented environmental movement. Here in Chicago, Openlands played a key role in helping organize the city’s first Earth Day, which included plans that spanned a whole week and that ended with a rally at the Civic Center, now Daley Plaza. 

Prior to April 22, 1970, while there were scattered activist efforts to address certain environmental issues, such as stopping the use of deadly pesticides, as illuminated by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and the reduction of city smog, there was no official movement that brought together all environmental issues under one umbrella or that supported the creation of green organizations and careers.  

In Chicago, concerns about pesticides, pollution, sprawl patterns were developing, especially due to the expansion of highways, which led to the development of prime farmland and prairies. Prior to the founding of Openlands, there were no environmental organizations in the Chicago region to address these issues. That is, until George Overton, who was involved in fresh air camps that exposed inner city youth to nature and founding President Jeffrey Short, a conservationist focused on saving biodiversity and rare prairie ecosystems from extinction, came together to seek the preservation and development of recreation and conservation resources in northeastern Illinois.  

Originally established as a project of the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago in a state with no official land use policy, Openlands originated as an environmental hub where people could turn to for taking environmental action. In its first decade, Openlands took on significant projects in Illinois and beyond, such as the preservation of Beall Woods, a prime oak-hickory forest that is now a state park, and the protection of the Indiana Dunes. Openlands also played a key role in laying the groundwork for the Illinois Prairie Path, which was the first greenway plan in the nation, the promotion of the McHenry County Conservation District, and support for preservation of the Illinois & Michigan Canal corridor. However, while Openlands was beginning to take action in the Chicago region, on a national scale, environmental issues were on the political backburner, and there was no Clean Air or Clean Water Act and little regulation of hazardous waste. 

That all changed when Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who was concerned about sprawl and the destruction of open space in his home state, conceived of a day of national environmental awareness. Because Senator Nelson was unable to push environmental issues to the top of the national agenda, he hired young staffers and used inspiration from the anti-war protest teach-ins to organize the first Earth Day. His office took out a full-page ad in the New York Times advertising the first official day of action, and more than 12,000 events took place across the country. As many as 20 million Americans (every 1 in 10) got involved, including the closing of 5th Avenue in New York City, which drew 200,000 people, and a teach-in at the University of Michigan, which drew 15,000. Thousands of events took place in communities across the country at churches, schools, and in front of government buildings. 

In Chicago, every college hosted events, and Oak Park River Forest High School hosted an entire week of Earth Day events, which Openlands staff participated in. Earth Day changed the course of many Americans lives and of national policy. According to environmental historian Adam Rome, the first Earth Day was incredibly empowering and gave individuals a sense they could do anything, and it demonstrated the power of collective action. Organizing large events and coming together with others who share concern for an issue serves as a profound educational experience and can motivate individuals to work together to make lasting change.  

In many ways, Openlands was created out of the shifting cultural consciousness that birthed Earth Day, and since its founding has been committed to connecting people to nature in the Chicago region and serving as a convener and facilitator that transcends geopolitical boundaries. 

At a time when climate issues present a very real existential threat to the present and future of biodiversity and humanity, it is easy to get overwhelmed about the scale of change required to change our trajectory. However, looking back at the first Earth Day is one way to maintain hope and momentum. Americans from all political backgrounds came together and made commitments to do something different and create change. 

Celebrating the Passage of the Charitable Conservation Easement Program Integrity Act

Conservation easements play a critical role in landscape conservation and the preservation of wildlife habitat. And thanks to the passage of the Charitable Conservation Easement Program Integrity Act (CCEPIA) in late December, the integrity of conservation easements now receives permanent protection like the land that easements preserve. The Act, which is part of the omnibus spending bill, will play a powerful role in stopping the abuse of conservation easements by tax cheats, saving billions in taxpayer dollars. 

A conservation easement is a voluntary and legal agreement that allows landowners to retain desired rights to their private land while protecting a property’s important natural features like woodlands, water sources, and native plantings. Landowners keep many of their rights, including the right to own and use the land, sell it, or pass it on to their heirs, but give up the right to cut down or destroy the parts of the property protected in the easement.  

Currently, conservation easements save around 40 million acres of open space and wildlife habitat in the United States and provide tax incentives for landowners, with land trusts stewarding about half of those 40 million acres. Conservation easements are a critical part of achieving the goal of conserving 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. Easements are a pillar of Openlands’ land preservation work, and over the past 40 years, Openlands has assisted over 100 communities across northeastern Illinois in acquiring land and conservation easements to directly preserve over 15,000 acres of open space. 

In 2015, Congress increased tax incentives to encourage landowners to use conservation easements. Unfortunately, a small number of bad actors have abused this system, taking advantage of tax break benefits for their own gain. In doing so, they jeopardized the reputation of conservation easements. According to the most recent publicly available IRS data, investors claimed nearly $36 billion in unwarranted deductions between 2010 and 2018. 

To put that into perspective, approximately 2,000 to 2,500 conservation donations are made annually for truly charitable purposes, resulting in about $1 billion in claimed deductions per year. Meanwhile, between 2016 and 2018, the IRS found $22 billion in unwarranted tax deductions claimed on fewer than 300 easements. And while the number of bad actors is small, the discovery by the IRS of this tax abuse called into question the entire system and connected the concept of conservation easements with fraud in the public eye. The CCPEIA puts an end to these abuses and will protect the federal conservation easement tax incentive and preserve the integrity of our tax laws and the conservation community as a whole. 

Conservation easements like the one protecting Hoffman Farm in McHenry County can create a family legacy that ensures the enjoyment of the land for future generations. Elena Spiegelhoff, who grew up playing among the natural wonders of the property, inherited the family farm in McHenry County and wanted to protect the farmland and natural features she had known since childhood. Through a partnership between McHenry County Conservation District and Openlands, the 153 acres that sit within the greater Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge are now permanently protected. Openlands is now working with a sustainable farmer to keep the land healthy and productive in its new role as a native plant nursery. You can hear more from Elena about the process in the video below.

While conservation easements are often used on private land, they can directly benefit the public, as in the case of North Park Village Nature Center located on the northwest side of Chicago. Formerly the site of the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, the sprawling campus grounds provided fresh air for patients and a natural setting for the treatment of tuberculosis. After the Sanitarium’s doors closed in 1974, the public gained access to the site and recognized the over 140 acres of natural areas as a special nature hub within the city. Throughout the years, multiple development plans were proposed for the area, but thanks to the help of Openlands’ collaboration with the local community and an advisory council, it was decided that the site would remain in the hands of the City through a conservation easement with Openlands, who would ensure the open space would stay protected. This was the first time that Openlands applied a conservation easement to publicly owned property.

You can learn more about how to protect your land in perpetuity with a conservation easement through Openlands here.  

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

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!

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. 

Celebrating National Wetlands Month

It’s National Wetlands Month, and in celebration of these important ecosystems, we are highlighting a few of the major wetland restoration initiatives that Openlands has taken part in in the Chicago region. Wetlands are areas where water covers the soil or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or for varying periods of time during the year. Rivers, lakes, streams, marshes, swamps, and bogs are all categories of wetlands that play an important role in our region’s ecology, as they collect water and minimize flooding, enhance water quality, control erosion, sequester carbon, and provide a home to at least one third of all threatened and endangered species. Unfortunately, due to development and major infrastructural changes like the reversal of the Chicago River in the 1900’s, Cook County has lost 40% of its wetlands since the 20th century. Without wetlands, our region experiences increased flood and drought damage, nutrient runoff and water pollution, and shoreline erosion. The loss of wetlands has also triggered a decline in wildlife populations.

The history of the Chicago region is a history of wetlands. Before the city was built into the booming metropolis it is today, much of the region existed as wet prairie, sedge meadow, and marsh. In fact, the name Chicago is derived from the Miami-Illinois word shikaakwa (“Stinky Onion”), or Nodding Onion, which is an odorous wetland plant native to the region. Chicago was built on a wetland that has since been filled. In both the city and in rural areas, in order to allow for development and farming, water was removed by installing drain tiles, which is a series of pipes made out of clay  (now pvc) that drain water. Drain tiles move soil water to streams or drainage ditches and lower the water table, turning wetlands into dry lands. 

While the draining of the wetlands in the Chicago region allowed for the development of a great metropolis, we now know that in order to protect our local ecology, wetland restoration is necessary for the future sustainability of our region. Wetland restoration is a nature-based solution to climate change and an essential part of protecting wildlife.

Openlands’ part of major wetland restoration projects spans the region from Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge down to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. In Cook County,  Openlands partnered with the Forest Preserves of Cook County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore wetlands and their surrounding upland habitat at Tinley Creek and Bartel Grasslands as part of the O’Hare Modernization Mitigation Account (OMMA). This project involved restoring around 900 acres of land owned by the Forest Preserves and an example of how through partnerships like this, taxpayer investments are extended for maximum impact. According to Linda Masters, Openlands’ Restoration Specialist, a majority of Openlands’ wetland restoration at these locations involved identifying where drainage tiles were installed, then disabling them in order to raise the water table and allow for the wetlands to reestablish themselves. Tinley Creek and Bartel Grasslands exist on flat geographies that used to be under a glacial lake until it drained to form lake Michigan. In order to later transform that wet land into farmland, drainage was required, meaning drainage tiles were installed  under the ground .

The OMMA partners hired Huddleston McBride Land Drainage Company to assess the landscape, dig trenches to find the underground drainage tiles, then create maps of all the tiles. Valves were then installed to manipulate water levels and raise the level of the water table. According to Linda, Openlands has taken a “passive” approach to re-establishing hydrology, meaning that for the most part, nature is allowed to do most of its own work. However, the valves are occasionally manipulated if the land is too wet and is at risk of flooding, as that puts nearby development at risk. Along with disabling  drainage tiles, Openlands removed introduced trees that were planted at both Tinley Creek and Bartel Grasslands post-farming. While Openlands is normally a proponent of tree planting, in this case, both landscapes were prairies before settlement , and the removal of trees allowed them to return to their natural prairie condition.

According to Linda, wetland restoration is essential for the health of both infrastructure and wildlife. Rather than creating hard surfaces like concrete that drain water quickly to rivers and cause flooding downstream, wetland restoration keeps water where it falls , making the land into a sponge. Wetlands also create habitat for animals that are adapted to living in or near water. Due to the drainage of our region’s wetlands, we have lost wading birds and waterfowl that have nowhere to go when wetlands disappear. By restoring wetlands, habitat is recreated that welcomes back the wildlife native to our region, maintaining the biodiversity of our region necessary to keep our ecosystems healthy and functional.  

Learn more about Openlands wetland restoration work here.

Gaining Ground Through Volunteering at Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge

It started with a question among dedicated individuals: “Why can’t we have a National Wildlife Refuge here?” Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, which this fall will celebrate ten years since its official establishment, began just like that and has grown to a partnership of many organizations and individuals, including Openlands, and the protection of over a thousand acres and counting, for wildlife and people. 

The preservation of landscapes like Hackmatack is one of the ways that Openlands is gaining ground with land trusts across the country through the Land Trust Alliance. Over 60 million acres of land have been protected by land trusts in the United States with the goal of protecting 60 million more by 2030.  That ambitious goal is only possible if we increase the pace and scale of conservation in the region. Throughout this month we’ll be focusing on ways people can help us keep gaining ground through volunteering, advocating, and supporting land conservation.  At Hackmatack, preservation and restoration continues and when complete, the Refuge will include over 10,000 acres of protected land. 

The existence and growth of this National Wildlife Refuge and the work of volunteers go hand-in-hand. Back in 2004, a small group of volunteers, who came to be known as Friends of Hackmatack, began to pursue the possibility of transforming the land that Hackmatack now occupies into a wildlife refuge. Openlands became a key partner early on, and with other groups like McHenry County Conservation District, and over the next eight years public interest was gauged, and over $20,000 in donations were collected to start the Refuge. Eventually, thanks to the ongoing efforts made by partners, the proposed Refuge made national news, and then-Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar publicly announced the authorization of Hackmatack as a National Wildlife Refuge. Volunteers have been the backbone of Hackmatack from its inception and have continued to restore and care for the land so that it can be enjoyed by future generations. 

While Hackmatack is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its refuge manager, volunteers and partnerships are critical to the health and sustainability of Hackmatack. Openlands often acquires unrestored land and will work in lockstep with Friends of Hackmatack and McHenry County Conservation District to remove invasives, plant native plants, and restore the land to health. That means that the bulk of restoration work at Hackmatack falls into the hands of volunteers. 

According to Friends of Hackmatack Board Member Pete Jackson, one of the best examples of the impact that volunteers make at Hackmatack is through the ongoing work at Tamarack Farms, an area currently owned by Openlands: “We’ve been working there for over two years and we’ve put in over 825 hours of volunteer hours. This is a savanna that was severely degraded with overgrown brush. We were able to complete the clearing of that site and we’re doing follow-up work now.”

Jackie Bero, who works as the volunteer coordinator at the McHenry County Conservation District, explains that volunteers do more than just manage land. The volunteers who work with the Conservation District and Friends of Hackmatack are teachers and advocates who educate others about the importance of conservation. 

The necessity of volunteers cannot be understated; according to Bero, 511 registered volunteers in the Conservation District fulfill different volunteer roles including doing public outreach and education, along with restoration and land management. In 2021, volunteers worked over 6,000 hours, which equates to an additional three full-time staff. Without the work of volunteers, the scope of work necessary to keep Hackmatack restored would not be possible. 

“We can’t do it all ourselves, there’s too much land to cover. Frankly, we’re inspired [by the work of volunteers],” Bero explained.

People interested in volunteering can get involved in various capacities, ranging from one-off restoration visits to long-term projects. Many steady volunteers come to every workday and are the backbone of Hackmatack. However, for people unable to make a long-term commitment, restoration is the easiest thing for a drop-in volunteer to get involved with. According to Bero, all volunteers are welcome and appreciated. “If you don’t have a lot of time and can only make it once a year, that’s a couple of hours we can’t do on our own,” she said. 

Volunteers can take part in a number of different activities, including seed collecting, brush cutting, and plant and wildlife monitoring. For people looking for more advanced restoration work, the Conservation District offers training for chainsawing, herbicide use, prescribed burning, and pulling garlic mustard.  

Education is a core tenet of the mission of Friends of Hackmatack, and they always use workdays as an opportunity to help volunteers understand the importance of the local ecology and their work. The process of helping volunteers understand the natural world around them helps volunteers understand why their work is important and worth committing to. 

According to Friends of Hackmatack Officer and Board Member Steve Byers, the organization encourages their volunteers to become leaders in their own right and develop their own skills. “It’s a plus for the District and Friends of Hackmatack, but it’s a plus for the individuals that become leaders in stewardship activities. It’s an empowering experience,” he explained.

Beyond the on-the-ground restoration work that volunteers support, volunteers also play a crucial role in the policy work necessary to keep Hackmatack sustainable for future generations. According to Openlands’ Restoration Specialist Linda Masters, “A vibrant volunteer community is really the eyes and ears on the ground – they are constituents and voters. They will write to their legislators and ensure that these places remain and are not bulldozed or developed, that they are cared for.”

Anyone interested in volunteering at Hackmatack can do so by submitting an interest form through the McHenry County Conservation District and visiting the Stewardship Activities page through Friends of Hackmatack. Interested individuals can also reach out directly to Pete Jackson. Together, we can keep gaining ground to 2030! 

Announcing the Winners of the Route 53 Fields of Vision Photo Contest

The Green Corridor Coalition is proud to announce the winners of the ‘Fields of Vision’ photography contest, and we were absolutely blown away by all of the beautiful photos that were submitted!

The Green Corridor Coalition is a group of friends, residents, environmentalists, politicians, and visionaries fighting to protect the land that comprises the old Route 53 Corridor, one of Lake County’s most scenic natural landscapes. The group is pushing to turn a formerly proposed tollway corridor into a greenway — a trail through a long narrow nature preserve with a climate corridor that connects communities with parks and natural landscapes, making Lake County and our region more resilient, livable, and economically competitive. Illinois lawmakers recently approved a resolution calling for a task force to study alternate uses for the proposed extension of Illinois Route 53 in the northwest suburbs.

We received 55 submissions for the contest, but nine stood out as winners across our three categories. Please welcome us in congratulating the following individuals who placed in the contest:

Advanced Amateur:

First Place: David Jacobson – “Kestral Flyover”

Second Place: Michael Schmitt – “Killdeer Kildeer Killdeer”

Third Place: Mike Trahan – “Lone Chickory at the Wood Edge”

Amateur Over 18:

First Place: Jen Miller – “Broccoli Sunrise”

Second Place: Cheryl Keegan “Majestic Sandhill Crane”

Third Place: Gina Sheade – “Heron Creek Trail”

Amateur Under 18:

First Place: Kaavya Vassa “Heron Creek”

Second Place: Carter Conrad “A Vibrant Sunset”

Third Place: Anika Bhargava – “Berries in the Sun”