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The Importance of Grassland Ecoystems for Climate Resilience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Erin Soto via the Forest Preserves of Cook County

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. 

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! 

10 Native Plants to Make Your Property More Climate Resilient

The most recent report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the effects of climate change are already worse than previously expected. The new report is dire and found that droughts and heat waves are killing off trees and corals, sea-level rise is driving people out of their homes, and deforestation is harming ecosystems and killing animal species. The report, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability states that greenhouse gas emissions have increased temperatures by 1.1 degrees Celsius, which is already causing extreme adverse impacts at a faster rate than scientists expected. 

The reality of climate change is scary, and while we can no longer turn a blind eye to the reality of it and proceed as normal, it is also important that we find ways to maintain hope and take action that empowers us and connects us to nature. Without a doubt, in order to reverse course, countries and governments need to take urgent action to drive policies that curb emissions from the transportation and energy sectors, which are the biggest sources of emissions due to the burning of fossil fuels. In the United States, passing legislation like the Build Back Better Act and America the Beautiful initiative, which would preserve 30% of US Lands and Waters by 2030, is essential to avert a future where the planet is uninhabitable. 

While we cannot undo the effects of climate change already taking place on an individual level we can employ nature-based solutions in our region to support our local ecosystem and mitigate the worst effects of extreme weather. Planting native plants are one of the most immediate and easiest actions you can take to support wildlife and mitigate the effects of climate change on your property and in our region. 

Planting native gardens are part of a movement called “rewilding,” which is a conservation effort focused on restoring biodiversity and ecosystem health by stepping back and allowing natural processes to occur, and encouraging wild plants and insects. Native grasses have deep roots that make them drought-resistant, reduce soil erosion and flooding, filter pollutants from groundwater, and increase rainwater infiltration. They also remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their roots. In contrast, lawns increase stormwater runoff and are the worst plant choice for carbon sequestration. 

Native gardens also play an essential role in our food web by providing wildlife with habitat and pollinators, like birds, bees, and hummingbirds, with food. Pollinators are vital to maintaining healthy ecosystems, as they are essential for plant reproduction, and produce genetic diversity in the plants they pollinate.

Incorporating native trees and plants into your garden is one aspect of the process of rewilding, and you can choose from a wide array of them through the Openlands Native Tree and Plant Sale. While all native plants have a positive impact on the environment, Openlands’ Landscape Ecologist Mary Fortmann has selected ten trees, flowers, and grasses that have an especially powerful effect and can help make your property more resilient to flooding, drought, soil erosion, and more. Check out the list below then head over to the sale to make your purchases! Supplies are limited and will be restocked throughout the year, so if any of the species listed are out of stock, be sure to check back soon!

  1. Indian grass

Native grasses have deep roots that make them drought-resistant, reduce soil erosion and flooding, filter pollutants from groundwater, and increase rainwater infiltration. Indian grass is excellent for prairie restoration and stands 6 to 7 feet tall! However, it can be aggressive from seed and should not be planted in small gardens with limited space. Indian grass is excellent for fixing soil erosion.

  1. Switchgrass

Switchgrass is a beautiful grass at all times, but it really comes into its own in late summer into winter. This grass turns a lovely shade of yellow and orange is can function great as a natural fence. Switchgrass loves moist areas, so if you live in a flood plain this grass is a great option for your property. 

  1. Hickories

Hickories are a tree in the walnut family that bear fruit. Many of the American hickory species are native to the Chicago area and provide all the carbon sequestration and water absorption benefits of trees while also providing shade and air filtration. (currently out of stock)

  1. Milkweeds

Milkweed is a climate and pollinator superstar, as it has deep roots that sequester carbon and rainwater, and provides habitat and food to the Monarch butterfly. 

  1. Ninebark

Ninebark blooms pink to white in June in umbel-like clusters. Exfoliating bark exposes a cinnamon-brown inner bark. Great in shrub borders. This is a very durable large shrub.

  1. Little Blue Stem

Little Blue Stem is one of the most well-known of all prairie grasses. It has a beautiful color, height, and durability, and its beauty makes it a great ornamental plant. In nature, you’ll find it on well-drained sites of all kinds from sand and gravel soils to the tops of mesic hill prairie sites. In the garden, it will do fine on most sites that are not too wet.

  1. Hackberry

Hackberry is a Chicago-area native and a sturdy, tolerant shade tree for parkways, parks, and other large areas. Its fleshy, purple-brown berries ripen in late summer and persist through winter. (currently out of stock)

  1. Lead plant

Lead Plant has a deep branching root system good for erosion control and is easy to grow in any sunny well-drained site. As with many native plants, the lead plant is drought tolerant.

  1. Asters

Asters provide a beautiful pop of color in the native plant garden. Often paired with goldenrod, asters provide food for pollinators, and even after they have faded they continue to provide food and overwintering habitat for insects and wildlife. 

  1. Oaks

Trees in general, but Oak Trees specifically, are climate warriors. They remove carbon dioxide from the air, store carbon in the trees and soil, and release oxygen into the atmosphere. Oak trees are a keystone species that supports more life than any other tree in our region, providing habitat and food to more than 500 species. (currently out of stock)

The 2022 ComEd Green Region Grant Is Now Available to Nonprofits, Educational Institutions, and More

For the past decade, the ComEd Green Region Grant has provided funding to municipalities all over Northern Illinois for conservation projects that plan for, protect, and restore natural places and support climate resilience and pollinator habitats. In celebration of its tenth year, ComEd has expanded the applicant pool to include a wider variety of organizations. Non-profit organizations, schools, school districts, housing authorities, townships, counties, park districts, conservation districts, forest preserve districts, and municipalities within ComEd’s service territory are now all eligible to apply for matching awards up to $10,000. 

Since 2013, ComEd competitive grant programs have made investments in communities to improve their infrastructure and quality of life. Collectively, these programs have delivered funding to improve green infrastructure, like parks, and to expand clean transportation in communities across northern Illinois.

Due to the success of Grant projects over the previous decade, the teams at ComEd and Openlands hope that expanding the opportunity to include a broader range of organizations will diversify the types of projects pursued. Projects can include, but are not limited to, planting trees, building rain gardens and butterfly gardens at schools, remediating toxic soil, and landscaping with native plants. 

The ComEd Green Region Grants are flexible and available to any organization listed above that can outline a project plan based on the program guidelines. While a variety of projects will be accepted, priority will be shown to projects that demonstrate a climate resiliency focus. The climate crisis is an imminent threat that puts the Chicago region at an increased risk for flooding, extreme heat, and invasive species. Along with the threat of climate change, overdevelopment has led to severe habitat loss that puts pollinators, on which the food chain depends, at risk of endangerment and extinction. Projects that increase native plantings, build the tree canopy, remove invasive species, capture rainwater and purify waterways all have a very real impact on the health of our ecosystems and the resilience of our region.

Previous grantees like the Chicago Park District, who received a grant in 2018 to install native plants and repair trails to increase site access at Palmisano Park in Bridgeport, have already seen an increase in butterfly traffic. According to Jason Steger, the Natural Areas Manager for the Chicago Park District, “The ComEd Green Region grant allowed us to improve pollinator habitat at Palmisano Park in a meaningful way. Volunteers of all ages helped us install the thousands of flowering native plants we were able to purchase with grant funds. In an area that was previously dominated by grasses, these plants provide food for pollinators and enhance the color palette of the natural area throughout the growing season.”

Applications are open until March 25 at 5pm, and no matter how small the project scope, all qualifying organizations are encouraged to apply! Organizations will require a cash match equal or greater to the funding requested at the time of application. If you have an idea for a conservation project at your organization, you are encouraged to apply for the 2022 ComEd Green Region Grant. If you are unsure whether your project idea qualifies for the Grant, feel free to reach out to the Green Region team at Openlands.

TreeKeepers Celebrates its 30th Anniversary with the Creation of TreeKeepers Chapters

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Openlands TreeKeeper’s Program. In that time, over 2,200 passionate advocates for nature have taken the TreeKeepers Course, learning the basics of trees and tree care. TreeKeepers have dedicated their time and energy to learning how to prune, plant, and advocate for the Chicago region’s urban forest. In honor of TreeKeepers’ 30th anniversary, Openlands is looking at the tremendous impact that TreeKeepers have made over the past five years, especially the important work that these dedicated volunteers have accomplished throughout the pandemic.

One of the most exciting new developments of the last five years is the leadership that TreeKeepers have taken to create local Chapters. TreeKeepers have taken it upon themselves to plan workdays and work with a variety of partners, including park districts, Alderpeople, municipalities, and others, to plant new trees in places where they’re most needed and perform ongoing pruning to keep existing trees healthy.

The most robust and first TreeKeepers Chapter is based in Hyde Park and was started by Nancy Joseph, who completed the TreeKeepers course in 2013 and proudly wears the badge of TreeKeeper 1,189. According to Nancy, who originally trained as a Master Naturalist with the Forest Preserves of Cook County before taking the TreeKeepers course, becoming a TreeKeeper completely changed the way she engages with the world around her:

“I can’t walk down the street now without looking at a tree that needs to be pruned and what I would do to that tree. It has changed the way I move around my neighborhood significantly. Working in some of the neighborhoods where we work has really made me appreciate the difference between areas that have a lot of trees versus those that don’t have trees.”

These realizations led her to notice how much work needed to be done in her home community of Hyde Park, where she has lived for 24 years. Nancy initially began pruning cherry trees on her own at Jackson Park with the help of Jerome Scott, the District Forester of the Chicago Park District and also a volunteer TreeKeeper. Eventually, Nancy connected with other TreeKeepers in Hyde Park and formed a group that met for workdays twice per month, once to prune trees on the street and once at a local park. The group grew over time along with a dedicated core group of people in Hyde Park. They are often joined by TreeKeepers from all around the city and suburbs to help prune trees.

While the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily put TreeKeepers activities on hold, once the group received permission from the Park District and Openlands, they started weekly pruning events. According to Nancy, these events helped provide a sense of purpose during the challenging global crisis:

“It was exciting to have something to do. We had a core group that would come weekly and would prune huge stretches in Washington Park and the Midway [Plaisance]. It was a nice respite for all of us, and we got an awful lot of trees pruned.”

Now, the Hyde Park Chapter has resumed twice-monthly pruning sessions. The impact of their dedicated work cannot be underestimated, and their work helped nearly double the number that TreeKeepers pruned from 2,000 to 4,000 trees.

The Hyde Park TreeKeepers Chapter is an example of the impact that committed TreeKeepers can have in their community over time, and there is an opportunity to form TreeKeeper-led chapters, both inside and outside of Chicago.

One of the newest burgeoning chapters is located in Downers Grove, where there is currently an exciting collaboration between the Downers Grove Park District and the TreeKeepers Program. Mike Stelter currently serves as the Superintendent of Natural Resources at Downers Grove Park District and approached Openlands TreeKeepers Program Manager Al De Reu in 2019 about forming a partnership. Stelter was developing an urban forest management plan, and the Park District identified the need to involve citizens in forestry work and engage an active group of volunteers in tree care and planting.

The TreeKeepers program was included in the urban forest management plan, and while the creation of the Downers Grove TreeKeepers Chapter was temporarily put on hold due to the pandemic, small workdays began in the fall of 2020 and have continued since.

One of the biggest challenges that the Downers Grove Chapter faces is the need for more trained TreeKeepers based in the suburbs. The majority of TreeKeepers are based in Chicago, and Stelter hopes to garner more interest from local volunteers in the training and grow a group of dedicated TreeKeepers in Dupage County.

Curtis Fahlberg is one of a few Dupage County residents trained as a TreeKeeper, and he is currently leading the charge for the Downers Grove Chapter. Curtis was trained in 2019 and is currently a Hinsdale resident, where he says he has benefitted from the dense tree canopy and the diverse array of species that were planted in response to Dutch elm disease.

According to Curtis, he hopes to get local residents engaged with the TreeKeepers Program, as he says it is a rewarding experience that benefits both individuals and the local community: “Some new volunteers are getting a shovel in their hands for the first time and they are getting their hands dirty for the first time. They just have no idea what’s inside these root balls and it’s quite an adventure. It’s been fabulous therapy throughout the pandemic.”

On a recent workday in October, Curtis described how personal the planting of a tree can be. He planted a sweet gum tree for his niece Abigail and her husband Mike, who will be having a baby soon. He hopes to bring their family to visit the tree and watch it grow over time.

“It’s a very hopeful thing to plant a tree,” he explained.

TreeKeeper Nancy also spoke of her hope for the future of the TreeKeepers Program, explaining the value of expanding chapters into more communities:

“I hope that people who have had the training find that now is an important time to get involved with trees, as they’re so critical to so many of the ecosystem services of an urban environment. We really need people to get out and help. I hope we can encourage more people to create groups in their neighborhood.”

You can learn more about the TreeKeepers Program and how to get involved with the creation of local chapters here. We look forward to another 30 years!

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.

Space to Grow Celebrates Opening of New Schoolyard with Community Partners and Elected Officials Including Mayor Lori Lightfoot

On Saturday, June 5, dignitaries including Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Alderman Jason Irvin, Dr. Andrea Cheng, Chicago’s Acting Commissioner of Water, and MWRD Commissioner Kimberly du Blucet, joined members of the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative, architects from Studio Gang and Space to Grow partners to celebrate an amazing set of community resources that included the new Space to Grow schoolyard at Melody STEM elementary school in West Garfield Park.

So far, Space to Grow has opened 25 schoolyards across the city, with a focus on underinvested neighborhoods. Five more are under construction and will be completed this fall. “We look forward to working with our Space to Grow partners to bring more green schoolyards to communities across Chicago, “ said Gerald Adelmann, president and CEO of Openlands. 

How to Get Trees Planted In Your Chicago Neighborhood

Planting trees is one of the simplest nature-based solutions to climate change and is a tangible way for individuals to make a positive impact on the environment. However, planting a tree is easier said than done, and effectively planting in a way that ensures the long-term health of the tree requires more knowledge and skill than simply digging a hole. Trees provide so many benefits to people and the environment, from increasing property values and beautifying neighborhoods, to absorbing rainwater and decreasing the urban heat island effect. Programs in Chicago provide new trees and replace trees lost on city blocks to residents with the condition that residents put in the time and work to maintain the tree once it’s planted. We want to help you become an active steward of Chicago’s urban forest, which is why we’ve created this guide to help you find trees in Chicago through one of the programs offered to residents.

Chicago 311

Chicago residents looking to plant a tree in their neighborhood can contact Chicago’s 3-1-1 service. The process is simple, and residents can simply call 3-1-1 or submit a request online with their address. Once the request is approved, the Bureau of Forestry will plant a tree along the public right-of-way in your neighborhood. There may be significant time between an inspected and approved request and actual tree planting. Make sure you keep the tree watered, as it is critical for the survival of the tree. 

We recommend that you water a newly planted tree once you see leaves in the spring and until the leaves fall off in the fall, and give the tree 10-15 gallons of water per week. After three years, once the tree is established, you can discontinue watering unless there is a drought. Watch a full video tutorial on how to water a new tree with Openlands Forestry Program Manager Katie Fleming.

Learn more about how to contact 3-1-1.

Openlands TreePlanters Grants

Openlands TreePlanters Grants provide new trees to communities in the City of Chicago and the near south suburbs. The grants encourage resilience through planting trees and creating a network of neighbors to care for the trees. The TreePlanters Grant program was designed  to facilitate conversations about trees between neighbors and to create a community of tree advocacy in Chicago’s neighborhoods. 

Communities are asked to organize themselves, find sufficient places to plant 10 – 40 trees, meet their neighbors, reach out and invite their elected officials, and create a successful event all in the name of learning more about the benefits of trees and the proper way to plant and maintain new trees.

Openlands provides the education, organization, supplies, expertise, and quality control. On planting day, the Openlands Forestry Crew and certified TreeKeepers provide tools, trees, mulch and training for volunteers. In return, we ask that you help gather your neighbors, commit to work the full event (four hours), and keep caring for the trees for the next few years while they get established.

Learn more about the Openlands TreePlanters Grants.

Chicago Region Trees Initiative Program

As part of the Plant Trees for Communities Initiative with the Chicago Region Trees Initiative (CRTI), of which Openlands is a founding member, individuals are invited to plant at least one tree in every local community in the seven-county Chicago region and in each of the 50 Chicago wards (approx. 340 trees) in 2021. The Openlands Forestry team has partnered with CRTI’s program through the TreePlanters Grant. 

Each tree kit from CRTI comes with instructions on how to plant, mulch, and water your tree, along with a tree tag and tree owner’s manual. This program is a great option for anyone with tree planting experience who feels confident about their ability to manage the entire tree planting process, from planting to watering and mulching over a span of three years. Contact Lydia Scott at lscott@mortonarb.org with the Morton Arboretum to find out how to get your free tree.

Learn more about the Plant Trees for Communities program.

Purchase a Tree at the Openlands Native Tree and Plant Sale

The Openlands Native Tree and Plant Sale offers a wide variety of native trees for purchase that are not available at most big-box stores and nurseries. The Native Tree and Plant Sale is an excellent place to find more specific varieties of native trees that might not be available through one of the public tree planting programs.

Shop the sale.

Public vs. Private Planting Rules

If you are planting a tree on your own, it is essential that you only plant on your private property. In order to plant a tree in a City parkway such as through the 3-1-1 and TreePlanters Grant program, organizations must possess the necessary credentials to dig in the public right of way. 

Individuals can plant anywhere in their yard, as long as the tree is at least one foot away from the sidewalk. To understand the best way to plant a tree, watch this video of Tom Ebeling, Openlands Community Arborist, who takes you through the step-by-step process and speaks to best practices. 

At Openlands, we emphasize the importance of taking care of our urban forest and planting trees for the health of communities and the planet, and our Forestry team has planted more than 6,500 trees across the Chicago region since 2013. Thank you for taking action as a steward of our urban forest to increase the tree canopy in your neighborhood!

Why Mussel Loss Is Harming Freshwater Streams And How It Could Affect Our Drinking Water

By Openlands

Before the buttons that fasten our coats and dress shirts were made from plastic, buttons were made from the shells of freshwater mussels here in the Midwest. And while most people don’t give buttons a second thought, the tiny ornament is responsible for setting in motion the decimation of freshwater mussels in Illinois and surrounding states, threatening species that are crucial for maintaining water quality and ecosystem diversity in waterways. Currently, 72% of the roughly 300 species of freshwater mussels in the United States are extinct or in danger of extinction, which is why Openlands has teamed up with the Shedd Aquarium on a long-term mussel monitoring project at Hoffman Farm. The farm is one of five sites Openlands is currently working to protect in support of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge and is the inherited family farm of Elena Spiegelhoff, which Spiegelhoff donated to preserve the natural beauty of the area. Hoffman Farm has been preserved through a partnership between The Land Conservancy of McHenry County and Openlands. The farm spans 153 acres and sits just north or Glacial Park within Hackmatack Wildlife Refuge. Nippersink Creek, where the long-term monitoring project takes place, runs through Hoffman farm. The project seeks to understand whether reproduction and equally important, survival of all ages, is occurring within North Branch Nippersink Creek.

Beginning in the late 1800’s, the banks of the Mississippi River became a destination for clammers, as the waters were teeming with mussels whose shells were used to make pearl buttons. From the banks of the Mississippi and waterways in Illinois and Iowa, a multi-million dollar industry was born. Button factories lined the Mississippi River, and entire communities thrived on the emerging industry. However, harvesting was fully unregulated, and when one stream bed was emptied, clammers simply moved on to the next. In 1913 the harvests from the Illinois River yielded almost 600 tons of shells. Historically, Chicago had a rich and diverse population of mussels: The Des Plaines River and Lake Michigan tributaries had roughly 34 species, while the Fox River had 31 and the Kankakee River and basin had 40 species. In 2012, the Illinois Natural History Survey reported 19 species of mussel in the Des Plaines River basin and the Lake Michigan tributaries in Illinois. Of these 19, only 9 were found live. 

Freshwater mussels are crucial for filtering water and maintaining stream biodiversity. Mussels are also an indicator species of pollutants in waterways. Most mussels are like a brita filter for streams, which can be demonstrated by filling two aquariums with cloudy, dirty water. After 24 hours, the aquarium’s water with mussels is almost entirely clear. Of course, there are exceptions, and the invasive Zebra Mussel in the Great Lakes is so overpopulated that they make the water too clear, which has increased toxic algae blooms and deprived other species of food.

Photo courtesy of the Delaware Estuary Water Clarity Project

Healthy waterways are essential to the resilience of our region, which is why Openlands has been involved in monitoring mussel populations throughout the Chicago region. Openlands worked with partners to produce A Field Guide to the Freshwater Mussels of Chicago Wilderness in 2008, in order to encourage the monitoring of mussels in Chicago waterways. Now, Openlands is partnered with the Shedd Aquarium at Hoffman Farm in a long-term monitoring project. Shedd Aquarium staff set up nine monitoring sites in North Branch Nippersink Creek at Hoffman Farm in 2019. Based on the diversity of species they found at each site, they chose one area for long-term monitoring. Over a three-day period, all the live mussels in the area were caught, brought on shore to be measured, had their rings counted (similar to tree, mussels have rings that show their age), genetically sampled, then pit tagged before being put back in in the water. Pit tagging is similar to microchipping a pet and allows each mussel to be located and identified from year to year.

The main purpose of the long-term monitoring project is to monitor the survival over time of mussels in the system, including how individuals are surviving and whether reproduction is occurring. Mussels have a long lifespan that extends on average 60 years. However, while older mussels may still be abundant in streams, the young mussels may not be able to survive, resulting in a loss of the population over time.

Mussel larvae are called glochidia, which attach to fish in their early years to survive before becoming juveniles who can survive on their own. Younger mussels can be extremely sensitive to pollution. For example, fat mucket glochidia are sensitive to chloride levels and ellipse glochidia are sensitive to ammonia. So even if older mussels are surviving, younger mussels might not be able to survive because of pollutants from runoff, nearby industry, or a loss of fish hosts for glochidia.

Currently, 12 different mussel species are tagged at the long-term monitoring site at Hoffman Farm. While the button industry may have been the initial antagonist of freshwater mussel loss, our modern polluting practices, like salting winter roads and using waterways as dumping sites for industries, have exacerbated the problem and posed new threats to this endangered taxa. 

Through the work at Hoffman Farm, we hope to understand the survival of our local freshwater mussels and identify whether populations are holding their own at Hackmatack. The health and biodiversity of our waterways depends on the survival of these tiny powerhouses.