Located just 25 miles north of Chicago, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve presents a rare opportunity to visit one of the last remaining ravine and bluff ecosystems in the metropolitan region. With a $4 million grant from the Grand Victoria Foundation, environmentally rich areas have been carefully restored, and an innovative interpretive plan enables visitors to experience more than a mile of Lake Michigan shoreline and extraordinary ravine habitat in a completely unique way. In 2013 the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission designated the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve as an Illinois Nature Preserve.
Ecology of the Preserve
The Preserve contains three distinct natural communities: lakeshore, lakeshore bluff, and lakefront ravine. Within these ecosystems lay many diverse sub-communities and microclimates. It is Openlands’ goal to restore these communities to pre-settlement conditions, or to the closest approximation possible.
While efforts to protect and restore these areas have increased significantly over the past twenty years, there is simply little precedent to guide restoration approaches. Further complicating this is the fact that the historical record lacks details regarding the original vegetation or site conditions; the earliest land surveyors tended to stop recording data once they reached the edge of a slope, and written accounts from the late 1800’s describe natural communities that were already much altered by human activity.
Despite this, Openlands has used both existing historic and biological data to construct a general concept of how these ecosystems function. This research has helped form an overall vision for restoration of the Preserve. On-going monitoring and restoration fieldwork allows Openlands to adjust stewardship and restoration approaches to inform these restoration and stewardship activities.
Ecological restoration and stewardship is a multi-year process and Openlands has already recognized significant changes in the condition of the Preserve’s ecosystems as a result of our efforts. Continued management will ensure the site continues to improve over time. Current and on-going stewardship efforts include:
- Ecological inventories and biological monitoring in partnership with the Plants of Concern program at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Bird Conservation Network, and the Shedd Aquarium.
- Hydrology studies to inform development and storm water remediation, and to enhance regional efforts to understand the dynamics of ravine and bluff natural communities.
- Intensive removal of invasive plant material to provide increased light penetration within wooded areas and stimulate reestablishment of herbaceous ground cover.
- Installation of native seed mixes and plant plugs in key areas that are prone to erosion and invasive species colonization.
- Development of Eco-Explorations, a curriculum-based educational program that engages students of various levels with science concepts while immersing them in the Preserve’s “learning landscape.”
- Collaborating with neighbors on storm water management projects.
- Creation of guiding documents for the Preserve, such as the Master Plan, Operations Manual, and General Use Policy.
- Designation of the site as an Illinois Nature Preserve in 2013.
The Illinois Nature Preserve status offers the highest protection for a property to remain free from harm from activities of humans in perpetuity. Dedicated Preserves are considered put to their highest societal benefit as protected natural areas. As part of this designation, the Preserve has both Natural Areas and Buffer Areas dedicated as the Openlands Lakeshore, Bluff and Ravine Nature Preserve.
Natural Areas are defined as being closer to their primeval character, while Buffer Areas provide protection for the Natural Areas and/or may be managed to restore them to Natural Areas quality in time. Other circumstances also demand consideration as part of a Nature Preserve designation, including the site’s historic use as a military base (and the remaining artifacts), the need to aggressively restore the site’s vegetation and hydrology, and the goal to sustainably steward the site’s natural features in perpetuity.
Restoring a Ravine
The Openlands Lakeshore Preserve contains some of our region’s only publicly accessible ravine ecosystems, living laboratories that divulge a glimpse of the area’s rich geological past, as well as hints of a biologically rich and sustainable future.
Cool, moist, and shady, Lake Michigan ravines are different from any other ecosystem in the region. More than 150 native plants can be found in Bartlett Ravine alone, and the three ravines combined provide a migratory stopover for tens of thousands of birds every year. But modern life began to take its toll on the ravines. Concentrated stormwaters sliced into vegetated slopes that were once more stable. Invasive species found their niches too.
Today, Bartlett Ravine is rebounding as a high-quality, sustainable ecosystem. It’s home to the round-leafed dogwood (Cornus rugosa), a rare plant that grows only near the lake and is helping to reshape our understanding of the species.
Visitors to the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve can watch nature come back, too, in Bartlett Ravine and on a mile of Lake Michigan shoreline now open to the public.
Photo: Carol Freeman
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