Have You Discovered the Garfield Park Conservatory?

Step in to Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory and step back in time and to a whole different world. Between the towering trees, tropical plants, vibrant flowers, the gorgeous displays, and stunning architecture, it almost feels more like an immersive art experience than a walk through the garden.

The Conservatory is truly one of Chicago’s greatest treasures: it houses one of the country’s best horticultural collections and gorgeous landscaping, it is an architectural wonder with elements designed by the famous landscape architect Jens Jensen, and it is an excellent community asset. You can spend your day wandering among the collections of plants, enjoying a free guided tour or educational program, or letting your kids explore nature in their own way, making it a great spot for visitors of all ages.

The Garfield Park Conservatory is owned and operated by the Chicago Park District and is home to thousands of plant species, spread through eight different indoor gardens. In the warmer months, visitors can spend some extra time wandering the 10-acres of outdoor gardens.

There are definitely some spectacular spots in the Conservatory to snap a photo, so be sure to bring your camera or phone and share what you find. Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure! And something to keep in mind: the Conservatory is a pretty great spot for a date.

Unpacking the National Climate Assessment and What We Can Do

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

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

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

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


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

Fourth National Climate Assessment, Chapter 21 — Midwest

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

1. It’s not too late to do something

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Forests and land conservation are more important than ever

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

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

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

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

Chicago Neighborhoods

4. Heat, Humidity, and Human Health

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

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

5. Agriculture in the Midwest is at Risk

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

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

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

6. Water Levels in the Great Lakes

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

7. Climate change is felt most by the most vulnerable

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

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


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

Have You Discovered Ryerson Woods?

Wandering the trails at Ryerson Woods you may feel as if you’re exploring forests far from the Chicago suburbs. This oak woodland is home to some remnants of our region’s ecological past and it’s a great place to spend the day outside.

Located on the banks of the Des Plaines River in southern Lake County, the Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area is 565-acre preserve managed by the Lake County Forest Preserves. Ryerson Woods supports some of Illinois’ most pristine woodlands and several state threatened and endangered species. Two rare ecosystems — flatwoods and a floodplain forest — can be found here. Much of Ryerson Woods has been protected as an Illinois Nature Preserve.

Ryerson Woods makes a great day-trip for outdoor enthusiasts. The trails are well maintained and the area is pretty flat, so it won’t be your most strenuous hike, but there’s plenty to enjoy. And part of the beauty of Ryerson comes from its year-round accessibility: the trails are open to cross-country skiing in the winter (when there’s at least 4″ of snow) and it’s treasure to see in late October as the leaves turn. If you’re looking for somewhere new to explore or even if you’ve been before, make sure it’s on your list of places to get outside in our region.

How the 2018 Midterms Impact Conservation

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

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

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


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

Look for Bison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Saturday, November 3 is National Bison Day and you can celebrate the holiday by visiting Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie! In honor of the holiday, Midewin is throwing a party and volunteers and staff will be on hand to visit with people while they look for the bison herd. Spend the day wandering the prairie, learning about Midewin’s history, and join a guided hike with the US Forest Service.

In 2015, a herd of American bison were introduced to Midewin as part of a 20-year ecological restoration experiment, and the herd has since grown in size. In 2016, President Obama declared the American bison as the national mammal due to its historic, cultural, and ecological ties to North America.

The US Forest Service, who manages Midewin, and the Forest Preserve District of Will County are co-hosting a community-wide bison outreach with events across Will County, so you can couple your trip to Midewin with a visit in downtown Wilmington.

This is a great opportunity to enjoy Midewin, the largest open space in the Chicago region. You can view some of the scheduled activities for the day here or spend the day exploring Midewin for yourself. Check out our recommended hikes here or rent canoes and enjoy a trip on the Kankakee River Water Trail.

Photo: Rick Short, USDA

The 19,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is the first national tallgrass prairie in our nation’s history. Established in 1996, it is considered one of the most important conservation initiatives in Illinois of the 20th century and was established as a direct result of leadership and advocacy by Openlands. In addition to advocating for the former Joliet Arsenal to become Midewin, Openlands worked in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and other organizations to develop The Prairie Plan for the restoration of a unique prairie ecosystem. In 1997, Openlands helped organize the conference, “From Bison to Buffalo Grass,” which envisioned the return of bison as an integral part of prairie restoration efforts. Learn more at Openlands.org/Midewin.

Have You Discovered Busse Woods?

Head out to the northwest suburbs and explore one of the largest forest preserves in Cook County! With over 3,500 acres of conserved open space, winding mixed-use trails, open pastures and picnic areas, paddling opportunities, wildlife viewing, and more, Busse Woods is one of the region’s best outdoor recreation destinations. Whether you’re an experienced kayaker, a trail runner, a family looking for a great picnic, or a nature lover, this place has something for everyone.

Busse Woods is pretty huge, and there’s so much to unpack and explore within the forest preserve, which makes it quite a fun time. With so much to do there, you’ll probably want to spend a whole day there. And while Busse Woods is great year-round, know that you’ll get some excellent views of fall colors as you explore this massive forest.

If you’re intrigued, be sure to plan ahead for your day. The main trail loop is nearly eight miles roundtrip, but it is definitely doable. The trail is pretty flat, paved throughout, and shaded for about half of the trip. There are a number of places to rest along the way. Plan three to four hours, depending on your pace, and bring plenty of snacks and water. If you’re thinking of a shorter trip, consider the portions of the trail surrounding Busse Lake as it’ll provide some excellent views — not to mention a cool breeze on a warm day.

Busse Woods is also home to the unique Busse Forest Nature Preserve, one of the richest and most diverse natural areas in the Cook County forest preserves, and has been designated an National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service.

FYI: if you’re trying to figure it out, it’s pronounced “bus-see”.

The Old Plank Road Trail

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

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


Old plank map

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

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


Old plank bike

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

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

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

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


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

Have You Discovered the South Shore Nature Sanctuary?

No matter your feelings on city life, we can all appreciate a quiet moment with nature in the heart of the city. You can find one of the most sublime retreats into nature at Chicago’s South Shore Nature Sanctuary. Maintained by the Chicago Park District, the South Shore Nature Sanctuary is six acres of dunes, wetlands, woodlands, and prairies within South Shore Beach Park.

This small nature preserve sits peacefully on the shores of Lake Michigan, home to a short boardwalk and some magnificent views of the lake and the skyline. It is a great location for a short walk in the city or to make part of a larger day in the community. There are two rest areas within the nature sanctuary if you want to bring a picnic.

The nature sanctuary is one of more than 50 natural areas found across Chicago parks. The Park District has committed to protecting and expanding these natural areas to allow residents richer experiences with the nature around us, to provide habitat, and to preserve some of the landscapes that existed in our region before European settlement. The nature sanctuary is also one of the city’s best locations to spy an amazing array of migrating bird life. Our location along the shores of Lake Michigan makes Chicago an important intersection for birds as they make seasonal migrations along the Mississippi region and across the Great Lakes. Spots of green along the lake here or at places like Montrose Point are just beckoning to them!

Have You Discovered Volo Bog?

In the west of Lake County lies one of Illinois’ unique wetland communities, Volo Bog. Managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Volo Bog State Natural Area contains a few trails for you to explore including a half-mile interpretative boardwalk and an approximately three-mile trail with views of the tamarck forests. In 1970, Volo Bog was designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve and in 1972 as a National Natural Landmark.

Over 10,000 years ago, during the end of the last Ice Age, a chuck of retreating glacial ice lodged itself deep in the ground at what is now Volo Bog. Several thousand years later the remnant lake began to fill with salt and vegetation, creating the wetlands present today. Volo Bog is technically known as a quaking bog because vegetation floats atop the open water. Yes, all the surrounding plant life and trees in the picture above are floating. Over time, the absence of waves will allow the plant life to slowly expand further onto the water, eventually covering the entire site.

As you explore this natural area, you’ll quickly transition between several types of habitats, including tamarack forests, marshlands, and shrublands. If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagrammer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find at Volo Bog! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.

Have You Discovered Oak Openings Nature Preserve?

When was the last time you wandered through an ancient grove of oak trees and stumbled upon a hidden pond tucked away quietly in the woods? At Oak Openings Nature Preserve, you can do just that, while exploring a conservation community in the heart of Lake County, Illinois.

Oak Openings Nature Preserve is 73 acres of protected open space in Grayslake providing year-round recreation opportunities, local trail connections, chances to explore a variety of native landscapes, and a central location to start a day enjoying the Liberty Prairie Reserve — the larger conservation community and network of protected lands surrounding Oak Openings.

Liberty Prairie Reserve encompasses nearly 6,000 acres in Lake County, over half of which have been permanently protected as conserved open space through a network of natural landscapes and farmland. It is community of advocates and stewards, passionate about conserving land and wildlife, that has come together to live with a sensitivity towards nature, create a sense of place with the land, and enhance habitat for wildlife on the scale needed to thrive.

There are several ways to discover and enjoy the mosaic of sites comprising the Liberty Prairie Reserve, and we encourage you to explore the entire area for yourself during your trip to Oak Openings.

If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagrammer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find at Oak Openings! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.