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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”

Key Takeaways from the COP26 Climate Conference

Last week, COP26, the largest climate change conference in the world, concluded in the United Kingdom after 12 days of meetings between global leaders. COP26, or the Conference of Parties, is an annual U.N. meeting of 197 countries that have agreed to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. This decision-making body assesses how countries are dealing with the climate crisis and establishes legal obligations on these countries to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The overall goal of the conference is to reduce GHG emissions enough to keep the global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, keeping the world from some of the most disastrous effects of climate change. Experts saw this year’s conference as holding a unique urgency, as many believed it to be the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control. 

This year marked 26 years of the annual summit, though many people consider the COP21 Conference in Paris to have been the most significant, due to the birth of the Paris Climate Agreement. There, every country agreed to work together to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees and aim for 1.5 degrees, to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate and to make money available to deliver on these aims. However, the commitments laid out in Paris did not come close to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, which is why this year’s summit in Glasgow was seen as critical to bringing nations together to commit to radically reduce their emissions. However, COP26 concluded with mixed reviews from the environmental community, and experts say the goals made this year fail to reach the Paris Agreement’s goal on limiting warming. So, was COP26 a success? 

Takeaways

  • The biggest takeaway of the conference was the creation of the Glasgow Climate Pact, which for the first time made a commitment to phase down coal and fossil-fuel subsidies. Acknowledging the need to phase out coal to drastically reduce warming was one of the biggest breakthroughs of the conference. However, it does not require that countries phase them out, which is a major point of contention for environmental advocates. 
  • More than 130 countries committed to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. The 130 countries, which include Brazil, home to the Amazon Rainforest, possess 90% of the world’s forests. Deforestation has devastating effects on the climate, as forests are climate sinks that track carbon in the ground. 
  • The United States and United Kingdom led the creation of the Global Methane pledge, which signed on over 100 countries to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere, and cutting methane emissions is critical to radically reducing warming. 
  • The United States and China issued a joint pledge to work together to slow global warming. The United States and China are the two highest emitters of greenhouse gasses, and they said they would boost clean energy, combat deforestation and curb emissions of methane.
  • India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to cut India’s emissions to net zero by 2070, which was the first time the country of 1.3 billion people made a net-zero pledge. However, the pledge is 20 years later than the 2050 net-zero pledge made by most other countries at COP26. 
  • Countries at Glasgow pledged to set up climate finance mechanisms to help countries already suffering loss and damage due to the climate crisis. Talks urged developed countries to scale up climate finance, technology transfer and capacity-building, and to follow through on their pledge to help developing countries transition to greener economies and adapt to the climate crisis.
  • While the commitments made at the conference will move us forward in a more positive direction, the graph below shows how the commitments made are basically a drop in the bucket.
Small island countries are some of the most vulnerable areas to the effects of the climate crisis, and their entreaties took center stage at this year’s conference. The Alliance of Small Island States, which is a coalition of 39 countries, largely from the Caribbean and South Pacific, including Jamaica, Cuba, Fiji and Antigua and Barbuda, commanded discussions about the need for wealthy countries to provide more funding for developing countries to adapt, and to pay some form of “climate reparations.” They ultimately described being unheard by larger countries and said that COP26 failed to create an actionable plan to protect the islands.

As the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, the United States has a gigantic role to play in the radical reduction of emissions necessary to control disastrous global warming. COP26 will only be a success if we all can work together to address climate change. Nature based solutions to climate change can and should be part of the proposed actions, as it provides upwards of 30% of the solution to tackling climate change.  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.  Openlands is advocating for proposals like a new Civilian Conservation Corps included in the Build Back Better bill, America the Beautiful, and the REPLANT Act. You can help by reaching out to your senators and representatives to ensure these bills pass, and the US leads the way in tackling climate change.

Openlands and Partners Win $400,000 Walder Foundation Grant to Restore Beaubien Woods

Beaubien Woods is part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s robust 70,000 acres of natural area in Cook County. A treasured ecosystem on Chicago’s South Side, it is home to a mix of prairie, woodland, and wetland habitats, including Flatfoot Lake. Beaubien Woods runs along the Little Calumet River, an environmentally significant waterway that connects Chicago to the Mississippi River for various wildlife, including birds, fish, and mussels. Along with its ecological value, the Calumet Region has a rich cultural heritage, including being home to historical stops along the Underground Railroad and the birthplace of environmental justice in Chicago. The preserve sits next to community and industry, and access to the river has historically been limited. 

Beaubien’s proximity to the Little Calumet makes it the perfect place to bring nature and people together. To make Beaubien Woods and the Little Calumet River more accessible to the public, Openlands recently received a grant from the Walder Foundation for $400,000 to restore open spaces along the Little Calumet River. The grant project is shared in partnership with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, the Field Museum, and local community organizations, including People for Community Recovery, We Keep You Rollin’ Bike and Wellness Group, the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project, Chicago’s Finest Marina, and the Golden Gate Homeowners Association. Along with prairie restoration and the removal of invasive plant species, the project will build a community gathering space near the Beaubien boat launch, similar to the five gathering spaces at the Burnham Wildlife Corridor. A curatorial committee of community groups led by the Field Museum will decide the winning designs. By creating a community-driven, artistically designed gathering space alongside the restored prairie and trails, the project aims to reconnect nearby neighborhoods with the abundant environmental and cultural assets on and along the river to develop stewardship for the sites.

The Beaubien Woods project restoration will span two years, beginning this fall with a controlled burn to promote native species. Throughout the winter, Openlands’ Arborist Apprentices will clear invasive brush and trees. Beginning in the spring of 2022, contractors and volunteers will plant seeds and plug plants, emphasizing pollinator-friendly native plants. At the end of the project, 20 acres of native prairie will be restored along the access road to Beaubien Woods boat launch and invasive species will be removed at the northern end of the trail from Carver Military Academy to Flatfoot Lake, making the trail more inviting and encouraging the growth of native oaks. The Field Museum is currently the restoration steward at Beaubien Woods and will continue holding volunteer restoration days. 

The second year of the grant will also include some restoration of native plants and thinning of invasive trees at the riverfront of Beaubien Woods near the historic Ton Farm, the site of an Underground Railroad safe house that is nearby Beaubien Woods to the west. This restoration will provide a riverfront open space that the community can enjoy. According to Laura Barghusen, Openlands Blueways Director, Beaubien was chosen as the site for the Walder Grant for several reasons, the foremost being its potential to connect people to nature. “There were opportunities and interest to do restoration, and we saw it as an anchor and an example of what could be done along the Little Calumet to improve biodiversity and water quality and to try to connect people more with the river,” Barghusen explained.

Restoring the prairie at Beaubien will have a domino effect on ecosystem recovery that will benefit the land and the water. Prairie restoration will increase the number of species in the preserve and improve water quality because the restoration will enhance the ability of the soil to absorb and filter stormwater before it goes into the river. Improving the ecosystem, especially along trails, will make it a more attractive destination for people to enjoy nature while cleaning air and water and protecting wildlife.

Openlands’ Statement on the Obama Presidential Center and Tree Loss

Many people felt strongly that there should not be winners or losers as the Obamas decided to build the Presidential Center in Jackson or Washington Park. At Openlands, we shared that sentiment, and still believe that today. For Openlands, winning embraced 5 principles: Minimize building in the parks, replace parkland taken with equal acreage in the nearby community, provide convenient public access to transportation, maximize synergies with the community and cultural institutions, and restore and revitalize the entire South Park. Collectively, these principles empower a bold vision for the south parks that drives restoration and realizes the needs of our diverse population.

Since the Obama Presidential Center announcement, Openlands has advocated for a thoughtful, comprehensive, and inclusive approach to planning – how development will affect the surrounding neighborhood, transportation solutions with CTA and Metra improvements, and the comprehensive restoration of the 1000+ acres of trees, lagoons, and recreational facilities that make up the south park system of Jackson, Washington, the Midway Plaisance, and South Shore Cultural Center.

The proposed project, along with the significant reconfiguration of roads within Jackson Park, triggered a federal review process under the National Environmental Policy Act, National Historic Preservation Act, and other legal requirements. Importantly, the review process required public engagement and comment and seeks to surface alternative ideas that will avoid, minimize, and as a last resort, mitigate for impacts caused by the project. Openlands participated in every meeting and provided extensive comments, striving to get the agencies to see that reasonable alternatives to the proposed plans are viable. In the end, none of it mattered to the agencies and the projects were authorized essentially as originally proposed.

With development already beginning, many trees will be removed in the coming weeks. Openlands staff and leadership share the disappointment of tree advocates and TreeKeepers in the loss of this tree canopy. Currently, we are requesting that the Obama Foundation and Chicago Park District share their tree mitigation plan publicly if they have one. If they do not have a plan in place, Openlands is advocating they:

  1. Mitigate for tree loss by replacing removed trees with an inch-to-inch diameter replacement plan. For example, a 20-inch diameter tree removed would be replaced with 10 two-inch trees. These trees should be planted either on the site and/or to extend into the surrounding parkland and neighborhoods.
  2. Pay the dollar value per square inch cross section of trunk per tree removed (based on the International Society of Arboriculture’s Guide for Plant Appraisal, 8th or 10th Edition Model) to fund additional Chicago Park District tree planting and tree maintenance. This is a similar approach to that of the Forest Preserves of Cook County and the City of Chicago’s Bureau of Forestry.

We will continue to urge the Obama Foundation to value the ecological importance of trees and to avoid or minimize the impact of the Presidential Center’s development on existing trees.  We will further advocate that the Foundation mitigate for trees removed with the most up to date tools to evaluate and value those trees.

Photo Credit: Marc Monaghan, Hyde Park Herald

Urban Forestry Advisory Board Key to Mitigating City Flood Damages, Promoting Environmental Equity Passes in City Council

By Openlands’ embedded journalist, Carlyn Kranking

In an intense Chicago storm, rain can pour down at the rate of 2 inches or more per hour. One inch of rain alone, on an acre of land, amounts to over 27,100 gallons. Much of the city is covered in impermeable surfaces that don’t absorb water, such as concrete, asphalt, and metals. Since stormwater can’t be retained by these materials, it quickly flows into the sewers and overwhelms them. When the sewers are full and the water has nowhere else to go, it creates backups that push water into homes through pipes or basement sewers.

Luckily, there’s a defense against this damage: trees. Trees help absorb water in the soil through their roots, and their leaves hold water, slowing its fall to the ground. Planting and caring for trees is a proactive defense against urban flooding.

To protect trees, the Chicago City Council unanimously voted on Friday, June 25 to establish an Urban Forestry Advisory Board, which Openlands supported. The Urban Forestry Advisory Board ordinance passed almost a year after it was first proposed by Alderperson Scott Waguespack, along with Alderpersons Samantha Nugent and George A. Cardenasto. The win would not have been possible without the TreeKeepers and advocates who championed the ordinance, along with the 27 alderpersons who co-sponsored the bill.

Currently, according to Daniella Pereira, Vice President of Community Conservation at Openlands, trees are “usually a last thought.” But now, the Urban Forestry Advisory Board will work to put trees at the front of mind in discussions of infrastructure. 

Alderperson Scott Waguespack led the development of the ordinance, saying “I’m proud to work with Openlands and our governmental agencies to create the UFAB. Passage of our ordinance ushers in a new level of cooperation to save and build our tree canopy and tackle the climate change problem.”

What is an Urban Forestry Advisory Board?

In Chicago, the Urban Forestry Advisory Board will consist of city commissioners and industry professionals from across the city who will consult on issues related to the urban forest. The board will be made up of 13 volunteer members, seven of which will be commissioners and officials from government departments. The mayor will appoint the remaining six members, including representatives from the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, tree service businesses, and a non-government community organization, as well as one academic arborist.

The board will create an urban forestry management plan, assess policies and expenditures related to forestry, recommend legislation, make a list of protected “heritage” trees, and lead a public education program about the benefits of trees.

To help envision what an Urban Forestry Advisory Board would look like in Chicago, Openlands staff examined other U.S. cities that have established similar boards. The Atlanta Tree Commission aims to get trees recognized as infrastructure. They lead public education efforts and hear appeals about forestry-related administrative decisions. The San Diego Community Forest Advisory Board holds public meetings where residents can voice challenges relating to trees. Similar boards exist in cities countrywide, including Austin, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle.

Benefits of Urban Trees

Trees in Chicago and its surrounding counties provide countless benefits to residents. In one year, the region’s trees intercept 1.5 billion cubic feet of water and save $100 million in stormwater damages and treatment, according to the 2020 Chicago Tree Census. They store millions of tons of carbon and filter pollutants out of the air. Trees provide shade for buildings, saving residents $32 million per year on cooling costs. Animals use trees for habitat, and being around trees can improve people’s mental health and overall mood.

But Chicago’s tree canopy is under duress. In the last decade, the city’s canopy cover has dropped from 19% to 16%, even as six of the seven surrounding counties saw canopy growth. Largely due to the Emerald Ash Borer’s decimation of ash trees, the city is at risk of losing some of the benefits brought by its urban forest. When the city loses bigger, older trees, it’s more difficult to get those benefits back.

“A larger tree has exponentially more benefits,” said Michael Dugan, Director of Forestry with Openlands. “A very large tree — let’s say it’s 40 inches in diameter — if we replace that with 40 smaller, one-inch diameter trees, we’re not going to get the same benefit.”

The Urban Forestry Advisory Board will establish a heritage tree program that protects some of the trees with special value to Chicago because of their size, age or historical significance. This would help ensure the longevity of trees that provide the most services and those that have special value to a community.

“There’s no protection for any of our public or private trees at this point,” Pereira said. “But some of these have significant history or significant meaning to a neighborhood or a family, and it would be really great to acknowledge that.”

Protecting Chicago’s Tree Canopy

Openlands is also caring for Chicago’s trees by mobilizing residents to be tree caretakers themselves. Through the TreeKeepers course, Openlands trains volunteers to protect and advocate for the region’s trees. In the class, much of the coursework is voluntarily taught by tree professionals, such as city foresters, arborists, or professionals from tree-care companies or the U.S. Forest Service. Once they complete the course, volunteers become certified to plant, protect, and care for trees with Openlands. They can lead their own tree-planting or pruning events, and they have the knowledge to educate others and advocate on behalf of the urban forest.

Additionally, residents can apply for a TreePlanters grant, to have 10 to 40 trees planted at predetermined locations in their neighborhood. On the planting day, Openlands supervises while volunteers plant the trees and learn to care for them together. For the next few years, the resident volunteers are committed to caring for the new trees, though Openlands staff is available to provide assistance and answer questions.

This spring, the Openlands Arborist Registered Apprentices planted trees for Chicago residents, to comply with social distancing. These four trainees will spend a year learning and working with Openlands, followed by two years with a tree-care company in this region. After these three years of work, the apprentices will be eligible to sit for the International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist Exam. The apprenticeship program helps combat the shortage of labor in the arborist industry and gives these early-career arborists the skills to be successful.

Equity in the Urban Forest

Flooding in Chicago is a greater burden on communities of color and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, Pereira said. And with it, these communities have more health impacts.

“From the basement flooding, mold is a huge, huge issue that affects people’s lungs and respiratory system,” Pereira said. “[In] neighborhoods where there’s more flooding, there tends to also be a lot more health issues, sometimes with asthma, from dirty air.”

Openlands’s TreePlanters program tries to prioritize planting trees in areas with low canopy cover, specifically on the southwest side and near south suburbs. Prioritizing these areas can help create a more equitable distribution of trees and their positive effects, including relief from some effects of flooding. The Urban Forestry Advisory Board would be a way for city departments to ensure equitable tree canopy and care of trees throughout all Chicago neighborhoods.

Further, trees can encourage social cohesion, and taking care of large trees in an area can promote a sense of community. For example, Pereira said, without trees to provide shade, there might not be as many comfortable areas to gather on hot days.

“You can have less gathering and less socialization with neighbors, and that is gonna impact how people feel in terms of safety, within their neighborhood or connecting with their neighbors,” she said. “Unfortunately, [it] leads to a lot of isolation by just not having comfortable and safe green spaces in your neighborhood.”

Pereira said investing in planting and maintaining an urban forest will save money in the long run in other areas.

“[The urban forest] will pay for itself in terms of keeping the city cooler, keeping water from entering sewers, keeping our air cleaner and hopefully preventing more hazards,” she said. Without investment in urban trees, “We end up paying for it through all this disaster mitigation that has to happen at the end.”

How A New Civilian Conservation Corps Will Benefit Illinois’ Infrastructure In The Chicago Tribune

Did you know that Openlands helped shape the Renew Conservation Corps legislation with Senator Dick Durbin, which would create green jobs for young people and result in revamped infrastructure, reforestation, and ecosystem restoration? Openlands’ President and CEO Jerry Adelmann was interviewed for this article in the Chicago Tribune about how a new Conservation Corps, included in President Biden’s infrastructure plan, would mimic President Roosevelt’s New Deal program, which employed 3 million men and left a legacy across the country in parks, preserves, and national parks.

Openlands Talks About A New Civilian Conservation Corps on Wisconsin Public Radio

Openlands’ President and CEO Jerry Adelmann and Vice President of Community Conservation Daniella Pereira were interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio, where they discussed how new Civilian Conservation Corps legislation can put people back to work, fight climate change, and connect people to nature.

How To Choose The Right Plants For Your Landscape At the Openlands Native Tree and Plant Sale

The annual Openlands Native Tree and Plant Sale is back this year in a year-long online format! Each year, Openlands hosts a sale to bring you a wide array of native shrubs, trees, grasses, ferns, and flowers to beautify your yard and support ecological health. Due to the pandemic, this year’s event will again be held online in partnership with Possibility Place, with purchases delivered to your door. The 2021 Native Tree and Plant Sale is now open, and you can start shopping here.

The Openlands’ Native Tree and Plant Sale is an excellent opportunity for the public to access a wide variety of native plants, which are often difficult to find at most nurseries and big-box stores. Through the sale, you can choose from some of the many ferns, flowers, shrubs, and woody plants native to landscapes in northeastern Illinois. Native plants serve a wide variety of both aesthetic and ecological functions. Many are beautiful, hardy, and beneficial to wildlife, and can help reduce the impact of climate change. Native plants play a fundamental role in our food webs, and they support wildlife, from butterflies to songbirds. Establishing a well-chosen array of natives can help make your property more climate resilient, as trees and many other native plants create shade, cool the air, act as a sponge to absorb rainwater, and store large amounts of carbon for many years.

Openlands has put together this beginner’s guide to help you start to figure out which plants are best suited for your unique landscape, budget, needs, and aesthetic desires. Along with this handy plant-selection filter, you’ll be on your way: https://www.possibilityplace.com/plant-finder. Just make sure to head back to Openlands sale from there, so your dollars support Openlands mission to conserve nature for life.

Where to Start:

If you are new to native planting, the first step is to assess your property and identify your goals.

Who is Doing the Work?

If you’re not a gardener and do not intend to hire one who is skilled with natives, but still want your property to look great and function well, skip the gardens and select trees or shrubs. If you can afford it, consider hiring a designer who specializes in natives or a company that can help install new plantings.

Light and Soil Conditions

When choosing which natives to plant, it is essential to first determine how much light your planting area receives. If it does not receive a lot of sun, you still have many options, as an array of natives grow in partially shaded conditions.

Along with light, your property’s soil conditions are a major determining factor in the type of plants appropriate for your space, as dry and wet soil is suited for different plants. Also give special consideration when soils are heavily compacted, contain a lot of clay or sand, or are beneath walnuts or pines.  

Trees and Shrubs

If you’re looking to get some privacy and block the view of your neighbor’s patio, then you might want to opt for shrubs and trees. For total newbies, introducing trees and shrubs to your landscape is a great way to start, as they are the most sustainable plantings. They are also less likely to get ripped out when a subsequent homeowner arrives, as people are more reluctant to cut out a tree or shrub.

Shrubs can serve as a natural fence and provide privacy while still looking beautiful. There are dozens of native shrubs to northeastern Illinois. When well designed, shrubs can increase a property’s value.

Trees are shown to have a positive impact on mental health and they also increase property values, cool your home in the summer, create oxygen, and clean the air of pollutants. Besides providing privacy and shade on sunny days, trees in some locations of the landscape can reduce stormwater runoff, which can reduce the effects of heavy rains and erosion. Some trees do best in spacious yards with plenty of sun.

Native Garden & Tree Care

Natives are a great investment. As most are perennial plants, they will return year after year, unlike annuals like pansies or begonias. While the investment upfront may be more than annuals, they reap immense benefits year after year that you will get to enjoy.

When you first buy your plants, they will be small. Once they fully mature, they can grow up to several feet, while trees and shrubs can grow even larger. Because of this massive growth, it is a good idea to space out your plants based on their mature size.

Unlike vegetable gardens, many native plant gardens that have become established only require watering once per week if at all. However, it is essential that you regularly water your garden in the first year or two while your plants take root. Water one inch per week throughout the first year until the ground freezes, unless we get a good soaking rain that week.  A slow, deep watering directly over the roots when needed is best; avoid frequent, shallow watering. Placing an empty tuna can or similar container in the watering area is a useful way to track how much water an area receives.

Native trees require more attention during their first few years, as they need regular watering. From the time the leaves begin to appear in spring through the first frost, water trees once per week with up to 15 gallons of water. When in doubt, check the soil at the base of the tree, and if it is dry, please water.

Many trees and other plants, native or not, spend the first year or two recovering from transplant shock and establishing a strong root system. Depending on what size plant you buy and the conditions where it grows, you might not see immediate growth or you might be treated to quite a show. Be patient, as it may take a few seasons for the plants to flourish. However, once their roots are established, they generally come back on their own each spring, and some may even need to be thinned out.

Ecological Service

While planting trees, shrubs, or a native garden may seem like a small act, know that your actions will have a big impact. Native plants have a direct relationship with the butterflies and birds in our area and growing your natives will encourage the continuation of the web of life. Mary Fortmann, Openlands’ Sustainable Landscapes Coordinator, explains the benefits of integrating natives into your landscape:

“You can make your yard a haven for weary travelers. While there’s nothing wrong with most nonnative plants, they don’t support wildlife in the same way as natives.”

To learn more about bringing conservation-friendly practices to your property, including details on how to implement our top four recommended projects, visit Openlands’ Lands in Harmony page.