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.

Links, Livestock, and Local Food

Openlands works to promote and protect healthy lands across northeastern Illinois. With so much of our region dedicated to agriculture, this vision must include farmland, so we support small and local farmers, interested in conservation-friendly land management practices, to secure new land for sustainable agriculture.

In late 2017, Openlands identified a unique opportunity for agricultural land protection: the Plum Tree National property, an approximately 265-acre former golf course located in rural McHenry County, just outside the small farm town of Harvard, Illinois. Abandoned golf courses typically feature vacant or naturalized areas, substantial acreage, and existing infrastructure that could support a logical transition from golf course use to agricultural operations. These features make golf course properties an attractive option for farmers looking for large tracts of land.

Openlands hoped to convert the site to agricultural grazing to help increase opportunities for sustainable local food farming. We also wanted to provide financial support for a farmer to implement the infrastructure that was required to make the business viable and profitable with the assistance of Food:Land:Opportunity.

However, when we conducted soil sampling during the initial due diligence process, we found soil contamination that rendered the property unfit for a swift and economical transition into grazing use. This meant the project couldn’t proceed, but we realized that we have learned a number of important lessons. Openlands’ experience with the Plum Tree National property revealed that golf course properties may present other unique challenges. To plan ahead for those challenges, we published a new report to assist farmers, land trusts, and other conservation agencies think through the work.

Full Report: Links, Livestock, and Local Food — Challenges of Converting a Golf Course Into a Sustainable Local Food Operation


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Although the project to create a local grazing operation on the former Plum Tree National golf course property did not come to fruition, Openlands remains hopeful about the possibilities of such land use conversions in the future. As golf courses trend towards closure and sale across the U.S., more such properties will become available in the coming years. Additionally, we hope that our experience can serve as an example for land conservation organizations across the country.

As Chicago’s regional land trust and one of the only land trusts to work in a major metropolitan area, Openlands is uniquely positioned to test innovative land protection models like this. We recognize that these lessons need to be learned and we are willing to take these risk, conduct these studies, and share the results to better inform the land trust community across the country. The story of Plum Tree can inform other opportunities for Openlands, and these lessons will help protect more agricultural land and help to localize food systems across the country.


Food:Land:Opportunity supports Openlands’ work testing new and innovative models that combine agriculture and land conservation, including the Plum Tree National project.

For more information, please contact Aimee Collins, Director of Regional Conservation at acollins@openlands.org.

Getting Rid of the Walls of Buckthorn

If you’ve been outside to a natural area of pretty much any size in Illinois, chances are you’ve seen it: walls of a shrubby plant completely blocking off trees, plants, and flowers and overrunning woodland areas. This is common buckthorn and it’s our region’s most destructive invasive plant.

Common buckthorn is not a species native to the Midwest. It was first brought to North America by European settlers to use as hedging material. While they quickly realized it spread rampantly, it was too late, and buckthorn was unleashed on the land.

Buckthorn forms its leaves early in the spring and keeps them late into the fall, creating dense layer of shade that helps it out-compete native plants. It can be so prevalent in woodlands and forests that it will completely replace existing understory plants, like native wildflowers. It exudes a chemical that harms frogs and toads, it wipes out beneficial soil life, and it leads to erosion.

Buckthorn is a major problem and it has spread to far too many gardens and yards, so it should be removed wherever possible. So let’s get started with some tips.


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Making the Right Identification

Buckthorn is easily identifiable, especially later in the fall, as its leaves stay green after most trees have lost their leaves for the season. Buckthorn’s simple leaves are elliptical in shape, about three inches long, and have veins that curve toward the tip.

Twigs often have thorny projections toward the tips, hence the common name. Cut buckthorn branches reveal the species’ yellow sapwood and orange heartwood, which is a useful way to confirm its identification.

Buckthorn’s habit varies from a small tree to 25 feet in height, to a shorter, broader shrub. It often grows in thick stands in the understory, crowding out other species and thus diminishing area diversity. It is very shade-tolerant, which also helps buckthorn out-compete native shrubs and tree saplings. Buckthorn also readily re-sprouts when cut, making it difficult to remove. Birds will the dark fruit, which contributes to its pervasiveness.

Many desirable native shrubs can be confused with buckthorn including American plum, black chokeberry, hawthorn and nannyberry. The easiest time of year for identification is late autumn, when native shrubs have lost their leaves but buckthorn remains full of green leaves.

Photo: Gary Fewless via Wisconsin Wetlands Association

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Removing Buckthorn Properly

Take a moment to size up your population of buckthorn on your property: where is its heart and in which direction is it spreading? It’s usually helpful to work from the least-infested area toward the most-infested area, but if you’re protecting a high-quality area, such as a stand of oak trees, work from there outward.

Hand-pull small plants when soil is damp. An advantage of hand-pulling is that it removes the roots, which reduces resprouting. Use a Pullerbear, Extractigator or similar tool for stems up to 2 inches. Cut larger stems and trunks with a loppers, hand
saw or, when necessary, chainsaw. You’ll want to protect your body with goggles, thick gloves, sturdy boots, etc.

Herbicide immediately and very carefully after cutting. Choose the right herbicide for the setting and time of year, and follow all label instructions. Apply carefully to the stump with a disposable paint brush. With large infestations, adding a dye to the herbicide will help you keep track of which stems were treated. And if you do use herbicides, don’t let it touch any plants you want to keep.

Be sure you have a plan for disposing of the waste, too, whether that’s burning or chipping. In general, it is best to leave noxious weeds like buckthorn on-site. Even dead plants can spread seeds. If chipping or burning aren’t an option, contact yard waste facilities to see if they accept noxious weeds.

One last tip: talk to your neighbors. For one, you may want to mention why you’re cutting brush, and chances are they’ll have buckthorn on their property too. If all the neighbors are removing it from their property, everyone has a better chance of success. Plus, you can team-up on neighborhood workdays and many hands will make light work.


Planting an Alternative

It’s understandable that you may want to keep a sense a privacy around your home. Luckily, there are several native species you can plant that will provide similar aesthetic features and provide brilliant fall colors while giving a better home to birds and wildlife.

We recommend the following buckthorn alternatives:

  • Hazelnut or filbert (Corylus americana)
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzion)
  • Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
  • Nannyberry viburnum (Viburnum lentago)
  • Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
Photos via Possibility Place Nursery and John Raithel

Getting the Help You Need

This might sound like a lot of work. In some cases, it certainly can be, but you’re making an important commitment to nature and the environment. To keep big jobs from overwhelming you, simply draw an imaginary “line in the sand,” and pledge to remove any buckthorn that crosses the line. Another option is waiting until winter when plants are dormant and soils are frozen. This will keep you from trampling any flowers or plant life you do want on your property.

If you’re unsure what you’re looking at, Openlands can help. Through the Conservation@Home program, you can spend a hour walking your land with one of our expert ecologists who will help identify the natural features on your property, assess tactics for controlling invasives like buckthorn, and recommend ways to implement conservation-friendly practices. Learn more about the program and sign up now for a free property consultation.

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.


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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.


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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.

Openlands Earns Reaccreditation from the Land Trust Accreditation Commission

Openlands does a lot of things. We plant trees and transform schoolyards into safe playgrounds and lush gardens. We build new trails and take families on canoe trips. And we protect the Forest Preserves and help to pass new laws to support conservation. We also are are a land trust, meaning we purchase land from willing sellers and then hold it until a public agency can buy it from us, forever keeping it as open space — instead of the next big box store.

Today, Openlands is excited to share that we have been reaccredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission. Being an accredited land trust is important. It means that Openlands demonstrates sound finances, ethical conduct, responsible governance, and lasting stewardship of the lands we protect. As an accredited land trust, we apply best practices in land protection transactions that conserve the green spaces of the Chicago Wilderness region for all to enjoy.

“Openlands is thrilled and honored to reach this important milestone in our organization’s history,” said Openlands President and CEO Jerry Adelmann. “As Chicago’s regional land trust, Openlands has helped to protect more than 55,000 acres in northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region, with projects such as the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, and Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Reaccreditation is a mark of confidence that will energize our land conservation efforts and it’s a boost of encouragement as we expand programs and our impact.”

We have been a Land Trust Alliance Member since 1983, and in 2013, Openlands was accredited for the first time by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission. The Land Trust Accreditation Commission is an independent program of the Land Trust Alliance, a national land conservation organization working to save the places people need and love by strengthening land conservation across America.


DGE Summer

Nationwide, over 400 land trusts have been accredited by the Commission, and together, we are leading a movement to protect the lands that Americans love, to restore native landscapes and expand access to trails, and to use solutions based in nature to combat the threats of climate change.

Here in the Chicago region, reaccreditation reaffirms Openlands’ commitment to connecting people to nature where they live. It supports our efforts to protect places like Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. It helps us establish new parks and school gardens in Chicago. It deepens our work with regional partners to create new access points to water trails from Lake County to Will County. And it provides us with the tools and resources to steward some of the region’s truly spectacular natural treasures, such as Deer Grove East Forest Preserve and the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

These are the places we love and we encourage you to explore them for yourself.

This year, Openlands is one of 22 land trusts to have our accreditation renewed by the Commission, and we will celebrate this distinction in October at the Land Trust Alliance Rally in Pittsburgh. We also want to add a personal thank you to Openlands Director of Regional Conservation Aimee Collins, who managed this enormous project for us internally and to whom we owe a debt of gratitude.


Past generations started the important work of land conservation, and the work will continue with future generations. Reaccreditation is a checkpoint along the way saying “we are fulfilling our responsibility” as caretaker for this generation.

Join us.

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Lake Michigan Water Levels Impact Coastal Management at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve

If you’ve visited the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve this year, you might have noticed some changes happening along the lakefront due to high water levels in the lake. It’s called erosion, and we’ll be the first to admit that it’s pretty bad right now. Erosion is a natural process that gradually removes soil, rock, and sediment from wherever it’s been sitting on the land such as a beach or a riverbank. Erosion at the Lakeshore Preserve is so substantial at the moment that we even had to remove a lakefront art installation to prevent it from washing away into the Great Lakes!

Before we say any more though, please trust us that the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is still completely safe for you to visit. You can still enjoy the sights, sounds, trails, and art installations. We ask that you stay on the paved trails and be sure to keep your pets leashed and off the beach areas. If you’re an avid science geek, an expert geohydrologist, or even someone who just enjoys walking along the lakefront, we encourage you to visit the Lakeshore Preserve and see with your own eyes how the Great Lakes are shaping the surrounding lands.

You may have read in the news that water levels in the Great Lakes are at historic highs – while they’re not currently the highest we’ve ever recorded, it’s still pretty significant news. There is no easy answer for why that is, and it’s affecting shorelines in a number of ways.


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Water levels in the Great Lakes have historically fluctuated. Low levels in the late 1960s were followed by record highs in the mid-1980s. The water levels of the Great Lakes are pretty much determined by simple cycles of ice cover, precipitation, and evaporation. In the scheme of things, human withdrawal is actually rather insignificant. (Here’s a fantastic article explaining that in more detail.)

Ice coverage in the winter months is a significant determining factor of water levels. When there is more ice coverage, less water will evaporate from the lakes. As our climate changes, the Great Lakes region is predicted to experience greater fluctuations in winter temperatures: winters could be warmer-than-average or colder-than-average, or a week of low 20s followed by a week in the high 50s could become normal, all affecting ice coverage. For example, lake levels were lower between 2008-2010 than currently since the last few winters have been generally colder. The colder winters led to higher ice coverage, meaning less wintertime evaporation.

In terms of climate change, the region is also predicted to receive much more precipitation than normal, meaning water inputs to the Great Lakes will be higher. We cannot say one way or another how the stable cycles of evaporation and precipitation, cycles that have been steady for thousands of years, will be affected. Increased evaporation and precipitation could balance each other out – leaving the lakes at similar water levels to what has been historically observed – or one process could completely outweigh the other, causing a sharp rise or fall in water levels. While it would be inaccurate to use climate change as an explanation for the current lake levels, we can expect that in a changed climate we will generally experience more fluctuation in water levels as periods of evaporation outweigh precipitation and vice versa.


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The point is that the water levels in Lake Michigan have physical impacts felt up and down its shoreline. Along this part of the lake currents typically flow north to south. Since European settlement, the Illinois shoreline has been altered in a number of ways for a variety of reasons, all of which interrupt these currents in site-specific ways and regionally. The impact of various alterations, when combined with high water levels, can cause erosion even to reinforced areas like at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

Along the North Shore, we have many, many artificial alterations to the shore including hundreds of metal groynes jutting into the lake (pictured above). When they were installed much earlier in the 20th century, these groynes were intended to prevent erosion, but they were installed with an incomplete understanding of on-shore, near-shore, and off-shore conditions and currents, exacerbating the erosion we see today.

The Openlands Lakeshore Preserve does have many of these metal groynes, but also large revetment rocks and some of the latest coastal engineering strategies, all intended to reduce erosion. While we are working on a solution to stabilize the beach and toe of the bluff, erosion still persists. The significant erosion we see at the Lakeshore Preserve is occurring in places that have no erosion control or in areas where the water level is simply so high, it is washing away soils behind the control measures. It remains a fact of life that erosion is a natural process and it cannot be prevented altogether, no matter the strategy you try.


Erosion model

With the traditional groyne solution, we see patterns of erosion that follow the southerly current (above in purple). As waves reach the shore (above in blue), sand and soil is carried away and is deposited immediately north of the next groyne (above in brown). This is called littoral drift. The satellite image above shows how wedges of beach have formed over time in between groynes. The immediate effect of this pattern is fragmentation of shoreline areas like the Lakeshore Preserve, Illinois Beach State Park, or other popular beaches of the North Shore.

If you’re a homeowner on the Lakefront, this may all sound rather concerning. There are a few things you can do: contact your city council and tell them you’re concerned about coastal erosion. There is significant attention being paid to the issue and support for North Shore municipal councils to develop a comprehensive plan for coastal areas, but statements of support from the public will aid the projects and implementation. Keep in mind that regional plans like this do take time, careful monitoring, and significant analysis to find the right solutions, but there are some more immediate steps you can take.

Try to prevent any man-made alterations to the shoreline on your property if possible. Finally, reducing runoff from rain and stormwater will help reduce erosion. Make sure that surface runoff flowing over your property is either captured by a rain garden, is diverted directly into sewers, or is piped down into the lake. Rain gardens are an excellent solution because they capture rainwater where it falls, preventing bluff and ravine erosion and keeping sediments and pollutants out of the Great Lakes.

View more resources for ravine homeowners and technical experts. We also encourage you to read through the excellent resources offered by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Coastal Management Program. Homeowners looking for initial recommendations can contact lakeshorepreserve@openlands.org.


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As a lakefront landowner, Openlands is also concerned about this erosion. The Lakeshore Preserve is home to several natural bluffs, and at the base of one of these – where there is no erosion control – we have been seeing some substantial erosion for the past year. As erosion has increased, the natural slope of the bluff has been affected and we expect this to continue until the bluff finds its angle of repose again. An angle of repose is the steepest angle the slope of the bluff can take while the soil remains stable. The picture above shows recent conditions: when the slope holds its natural angle, it should stretch to the waters edge with some beach to protect it and without that significant dropoff at the base shown above. The bluff here will find its slope again, but will continue to reshape higher up the slope and upland areas as it does. Once again, erosion is a natural process and below you can see its effects on two sites at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve over a year’s time.

Click on each of the images below to see the impact on the bluff from August 2017 – May 2018.

Click each image below to see the changes to the Lake Prism Art installation from May 2017 – May 2018.


We aim for the Lakeshore Preserve to function as a learning laboratory as a way to monitor changes in our climate and landscapes, and that it will serve as a model for communities and landowners along the North Shore. To that end, we have been working since the summer of 2018 with researchers from the Illinois State Geological Survey at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to monitor the erosion. Using drone footage and images, researchers will analyze erosional forces and sand migration over the course of eight months via a series of digital 3D models, which will map changes to the bluffs and beach. New studies like this are needed to build a more-complete and in-depth understanding of the natural forces at work.

As a component of the learning laboratory, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is the second site on the North Shore to receive this kind of study, and the data will be tested in several ways to provide local municipalities, agencies, and elected officials with the most useful interpretation to address their communities’ unique needs.


Changes like erosion are reminders that landscapes are alive, and that they can be altered by both humans and nature, so we need to be conscious of our impact and work to restore landscapes wherever possible. Again, we encourage you to visit the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve; it is a spectacular example of the ravine and bluff ecosystems unique to the North Shore and it is open to the public year-round. Begin planning your visit.

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.

Following Restoration, South Cook Forest Preserves Have Become Birding Hotspots

Two forest preserves in southern Cook County, Bartel Grassland and Tinley Creek Wetlands, have proven themselves to be phenomenal destinations for birding in the Chicago region — and that is entirely due to years of successful restoration at the two sites.

Restoration is the process of returning the land to a healthy state for nature, wildlife, and people. The two forest preserves are across the street from one another, and Openlands has managed the restoration of these sites since 2008 and continue to as part of the Forest Preserve’s Next Century Conservation Plan. By identifying and restoring conservation areas in proximity to one another, we create the habitat on the scale needed for wildlife to thrive.

The landscapes of the Chicago region are particularly important for migrating wildlife and bird species. Forests, grasslands, wetlands, and open water provide stopover points for birds during their semi-annual journeys that, for some species, span across continents and hemispheres. The Great Lakes provide an important bridge between two migratory routes, the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways, which help bird species as they move from their breeding areas to their winter homes. The resulting migrations of bird species in spring and autumn color our skies and neighborhoods with a stunning diversity of birds, but they rely on local green spaces and nature preserves like these for rest, food, and shelter.


 

Since 2008, Openlands and the Forest Preserves of Cook County have worked together to enhance over 1,400 acres of continuous grassland habitat at these two preserves. Restoration has involved removing invasive vegetation, planting native prairie plants, and engaging volunteers and the surrounding community. We worked to restore the sites’ natural hydrology (the process of how water moves through an area), and in some instances, reconstructed the natural topography by shaping depressions in the land to mimic wetlands. Recreating these landscapes has led to spectacular results.

Since the restoration occurred, both preserves have attracted many grassland birds — particularly Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Dickcissels, as well as winter raptors such as the Northern Harrier and the Short-eared Owl — in much greater numbers and over more acres. In 2017, 11 new bird species were observed at the preserves: Greater White-fronted Goose, Alder Flycatcher, Broad-winged Hawk, Golden-winged Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Mourning Warbler, American Redstart, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler! These species add to the 160+ bird species that have been observed at the preserves as of February 2018.


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And while the abundance of bird species is reason to celebrate, the quality of restored habitat is worth protecting as strongly as we can. Following restoration, both of these preserves were awarded Illinois Land and Water Reserve status by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, granting additional protection for these special places. Over 900 acres of Tinley Creek Wetlands were protected in 2017 as Bobolink Meadow Land and Water Reserve, and Bartel Grassland Land and Water Reserve is 585 acres of protected natural areas.

Additionally, both preserves earned recognition from the Audubon Society in 2016 as an Important Bird Area. Important Bird Areas are internationally recognized places that are chosen for their unique role in providing habitats for birds. These habitats play a vital role in the lives of birds who are endangered or threatened, either by providing breeding grounds, pathways for migration, or places to spend the winter. Of the 93 birds on Bird Conservation Network’s species of concern in the Chicago region, 50 have been observed in both preserves, including six endangered and one threatened species.

Through many efforts and the work of several partners, the restoration of Tinley Creek Wetlands and Bartel Grassland has been one of the most successful bird conservation projects in the Chicago region. After ten years of restoration, the promise of these grasslands has been fulfilled, and these preserves hold potential to serve as a regional resource for years to come.


Visit the Preserves

Bartel Grassland and Tinley Creek Wetlands are located at the intersection of Central Ave. and Flossmoor Rd. near Tinley Park. Ready to try out birding for yourself? We have some tips.

Learn more about Openlands’ land preservation efforts.


Audubon Great Lakes, Bartel Grassland Volunteers, Chicago Department of AviationChicago District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Living Habitats, and the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission all assisted with these projects.

Special thanks to local nature photographer Erin Soto for sharing all the above images of Bartel Grassland.

Preserving Farmland and Cherished Family Memories in Support of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge

When Elena Spiegelhoff inherited the family farm in McHenry County, she wanted to protect the farmland and natural features she had known since childhood. The farm had been in her family since 1950, first in the care of her parents, and then her brother, Eugene. But Elena knew she couldn’t care for the farm forever.

Elena speaks with fond memories of this family home in Richmond: growing up, the family horse would plunge her into the Nippersink Creek on hot summer days, her grandmother would spend their summers working in her garden and using the farm house table for baking; Elena would climb to her hillside “secret garden” hidden among the oak trees that would produce the “best tasting melons in all of [McHenry] County,”; and she would walk the land as a kid in the company of her two dogs. How do you part with a place you hold so dear?

Elena wanted to ensure her family’s farm was preserved and that it can be a place for future generations to appreciate. Her deep love and respect of the land led Elena to a partnership with The Land Conservancy of McHenry County (TLC) and Openlands. Today, we are pleased to announce that we have permanently protected the land that Elena loves.


This was a prime opportunity for Openlands to support Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Hoffmann Farm, which honors the family name, is 153 acres sitting within the greater refuge area. In May 2018 we completed the process to protect the farm: first, together with TLC, we helped Elena place a conservation easement on her property before purchasing the protected land. We are now working with a sustainable farmer to keep the land healthy and productive in its new role as a native plant nursery.

Hoffmann Farm also presented an opportunity to preserve some local history as well as high quality natural resources. Elena’s brother Eugene was an avid fan of model trains and formerly operated a small model train on the farm for local residents to enjoy. While that service is no longer running regular trips, Elena wanted to make sure her brother’s legacy wasn’t paved over as a mall or subdivision, and portions of the old model train tracks now remain on the land.

The oak-hickory woodland that served as a backdrop to so many childhood adventures has been protected and we will help that ecosystem thrive. Finally, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service structured Hackmatack around the many small waterways that comprise the Nippersink Creek watershed, and Hoffmann Farm straddles half a mile of some of the most pristine waters in the creek’s North Branch, providing substantial support to habitat and wildlife in the region.


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Hoffmann Farm is one of five sites Openlands is currently working to protect in support of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Like the farm, these projects are the result of partnerships with willing sellers or private landowners who place conservation easements on their land. As Openlands continues to protect new areas within the greater refuge area, we are interested in exploring multiple land-use strategies to protect natural resources, promote a culture of conservation, help the region thrive, and ensure working agricultural lands remain healthy and productive. Red Buffalo Nursery will now operate on Hoffmann Farm, providing native plants both for purchase and to assist with landscape restorations throughout the region.

Agricultural conservation easements, like the easement at Hoffmann Farm, can ensure that farmland remains protected. These practices lead to healthier soil, cleaner waters, and a better home for wildlife. Openlands is excited to work with small and new farmers for the benefit of local communities and our region’s sustainable agriculture.


While it took some time to protect her home, Elena Spiegelhoff stood by this vision, and we cannot thank her enough for sharing her love of the land with us. We are honored to assist landowners like Elena who share our passion for land conservation. Many thanks to our partners at the Land Conservancy of McHenry County, to Grand Victoria Foundation and the Natural Resources Conservation Service for their vital support, and to the early leadership in this project provided by Liberty Prairie Foundation and Food:Land:Opportunity, an initiative of the Kinship Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, funded by the Searle Funds at the Chicago Community Trust.

For more information on Openlands’ regional land conservation work or on Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, please contact land@openlands.org.