It’s a Saturday in spring and a community group has gathered to plant the next generation of trees throughout their neighborhood. They are buzzing with excitement and groups form circles to stretch. You are leading a group and you teach them how to correctly plant the trees in front of their homes. Two kids name their trees “Barky” and “Leafy”. The community now has forty new trees to care for and steward.
The following week, you are in historic Jackson Park, overlooking Lake Michigan. Surrounded by large, mature trees, you provide mulch and water for smaller trees that were planted the previous year. As you revisit the park, you feel a sense of pride watching these young trees grow and thrive.
The next month, you work alongside a group of dedicated volunteers called TreeKeepers. You use a variety of tools to strategically cut off branches, assisting the trees in developing a healthy form and growth structure. The group gathers at the end of the workday, feeling rewarded in the work accomplished.
At the end of the summer, you sit on a tree limb forty feet high. You spent the entire day learning how to use ropes, harnesses and hitches, ascending and descending a group of trees over and over. This is the highest point you have climbed so far and you feel accomplished. Looking out over the landscape, you think, “I could get used to this view”.
Three months later, you receive a full-time job offer from a tree care company for a tree climber position.
Interested? If so, the Openlands Forestry Training Program could be the right fit for you.
Since 2018, the Forestry Training Program has provided interested individuals paid hands-on field experiences, trainings and professional development opportunities in arboriculture. Over eight months, trainees experience the full life-cycle of an urban tree by selecting trees at the nursery, planting trees, conducting tree establishment maintenance (watering, mulching and pruning), and inventorying established trees.
The community tree planting events in spring and fall are a highlight of the program. “Meeting and connecting with people from different communities was always a great time,” 2019 Forestry Trainee Glenn explains. “Everybody just has the same vision and goal in mind to help the Earth and Chicago’s green landscape.” Past trainees are currently pursuing or have obtained jobs in urban forestry or conservation.
“This program was life-changing”, Shayne expressed, “I didn’t even know I wanted to do this and now I see this as my future career.”
Trainees meet with and learn from industry professionals in commercial arboriculture, municipal forestry, and those in advocacy and research roles to help establish long-term connections in the field. By learning and engaging with experts, trainees leave the program with a well-rounded experience and confidence to pursue positions in the tree care industry.
“The coolest part of the program, was getting to work with an awesome team, meeting so many people, and getting exposed to a lot of really cool opportunities. All of the skills I’ve learned throughout this time has allowed me now to focus on where I’m going to go and what I want to do after the program.”– Shayne, 2019 Forestry Trainee
Openlands hopes to continue inspiring future arborists and advocates for Chicagoland’s urban forest through the Forestry Training Program. Whether you’re a current practitioner seeking change or a novice who just likes being outside, this program could be the right fit for you! Follow Openlands on Facebook, Twitter and, Instagram to see what the 2020 Forestry Trainees are up to! If you have any questions or inquiries about the program, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
On August 8, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the Land and Climate Change report, which details the impacts of land use on the climate and the impacts of climate change on land. The report is upfront in its message: the ways humans use land impact the climate, and now we have the choice to either change our behavior to avoid catastrophe or double-down on our current efforts. Either way, the report indicates both tremendous risk and peril to our global livelihood and ability to adequately produce food and shelter.
This report adds to the increasingly clear message that the climate equation is far more complex than greenhouse gas emissions and reduction strategies. Yes, we need to decarbonize the global economy; dramatically reduce consumption patterns; and limit new extraction of natural resources. But we also need to fundamentally transform how and where most of our basic economic activities – such as farming, transportation, and housing – take place.
One of the key takeaways from this report is the reminder that land and the ways we use land have a very precarious relationship with the climate. Land can offer tremendous benefits towards influencing the climate by mitigating air temperatures and pulling carbon from the atmosphere, for example. But land, when mismanaged and abused, can also make destructive contributions to emissions, particularly when we convert natural areas and natural resources for the development of things like highways, sprawl, or mining. We have completely reshaped global landscapes and ecosystems to support our production of food, timber, clothing, and energy, and those combined land-uses now contribute about 22% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
The particular focus on emissions from land use in this report is alarming. As global populations continue to grow, become more affluent, and change consumption patterns, emissions from land uses are only expected to rise, which presents the need to overhaul how we produce food, how we manage natural resources, and how we protect land.
Land as a part of the ecosystem
Both the science and the task are daunting: how to undo arguably 250 years of emissions, still maintain the quality of life found in wealthy industrialized nations while providing for gains sought by poorer nations? In the search for answers, land and nature can lead the way.
In a truly functioning ecosystem, no resource is wasted, and every square inch provides a service – sometimes with ruthless efficiency. Simply, land and land use in a truly functioning ecosystem provides several functions: food, shelter, clean water, waste receptacle, and so on. While humans have technologically advanced since the industrial revolution, we have gone backwards in many ways and must look to nature for both inspiration and answers.
In terms of the IPCC report, humans no longer have the luxury of viewing land and land-use for single functions and to provide single benefits. Instead, land-use must mimic nature and provide two if not three essential functions or benefits in order to begin to solve our climate problems. For example, dwellings and structures should not only provide housing, offices, commerce, or manufacturing sites, but also include vegetation rich structures like green roofs that lower ambient air temperatures and serve as habitat. Urban forests, likewise, shade structures and intercept rainwater, while providing myriad other benefits like providing oxygen and helping improve the mental health of residents. Ideally, agriculture should not just provide food for humans, but also provide a symbiotic habitat for bugs, birds, and pollinators, and serve as a greater carbon sink than they currently contribute.
What’s striking about the recent UN report is the recognition that we don’t have unlimited land where these activities can take place, so we need to get much better at doing several things at once.
We know the solutions we can enact both for reducing our global emissions and for using land to our advantage against the looming climate crisis, but we face enormous societal, economic, and political challenges. Protecting and stewarding natural areas, supporting sustainable agriculture, and expanding the urban forest are all cited as solutions in the IPCC report. Similarly, these are all priorities for Openlands, and we will continue to lead on a regional scale. To do so, however, we need our elected officials to get serious about addressing this crisis by devoting the necessary resources to sustaining a healthy, habitable climate. Those resources and that leadership cannot come soon enough, and we are all responsible for holding our leaders accountable to deliver them.
Adopting Societal Approaches for Land Management
To some, this notion that land must now have multiple uses or provide multiple benefits may be foreign, but once again, we can say that we know the answers needed here. In terms of agriculture, what’s generally good for long-term farming is also good for the climate. As the IPCC report indicates, conservation practices build soil health in a way that holds carbon and puts it into crops, and crops are fuller and healthier because of it. But building soil health is an investment that sometimes takes years to pay for itself and farmers who are selling into globally competitive commodity crop markets can’t always afford to invest in their soils today. That’s where policies like the Federal Farm Bill need to incentivize conservation practices in order to bridge this affordability gap. Unfortunately, by failing to even acknowledge climate change and by cutting $5 billion from conservation-friendly programs, the 2018 Farm Bill did nowhere near enough to address the circumstances outlined in the latest UN report. Since farmland is key for these considerations not only because it’s where we produce food, but also because it’s the vast majority of land in the Midwest, we must change our societal approach, relationship and perception to both farming and our food.
The IPCC report also explicitly calls for better protection and stewardship of forests, which play a key role in mitigating climate. Countries like China, India, and Ethiopia have answered this call and are each planting billions of trees this year alone. They recognize that healthy forests are key to keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and prolonging a hospitable climate. Consequently, they are prioritizing precious public resources to re-establishing the forests they’ve lost, even when so many competing and dire needs exist. The Chicago region must follow the examples of those like China, India, and Ethiopia as well as the recommendations of the IPCC report. We must conserve and protect more natural areas, restore more ecosystems to health to strengthen carbon mitigation and climate resiliency, prevent further conversion of natural and agricultural lands to development, and localize our food systems to reduce emissions from food production.
While the continuing onslaught of news in the IPCC report on the climate is again grim, it is important to remember that we still have the ability to prevent a climate crisis. We as a society need to do a better job at protecting forests, assigning uses to and managing land, and producing food. And yes, as the IPCC report indicates, changing our dietary habits to local sources of food and eating less meat are important steps to take to reduce our personal carbon footprint to a sustainable level. But there is hope. The IPCC executive summary concludes by stating:
“Actions can be taken in the near-term, based on existing knowledge, to address desertification, land degradation and food security while supporting longer-term responses that enable adaptation and mitigation to climate change…”
Near-term action to address climate change adaptation and mitigation, desertification, land degradation and food security can bring social, ecological, economic, and development co-benefits. Co-benefits can contribute to poverty eradication and more resilient livelihoods for those who are vulnerable. With record spring rains in the Midwest, heatwaves in Europe, devastating wildfires in the Amazon and across Central Africa, and the warmest month ever recorded this past July, we are all looking a little vulnerable right now.
Despite those challenges, it is comforting to know that the authors of the IPCC report, as well as the United Nations delegates who can veto any portion of the executive summary, think we can handle this.
Photo: Patrick Williams
Read more about Openlands’ efforts to address the climate crisis or email email@example.com for more information.
The 700-page Natural Resources Management Act (S. 47) was signed into law on March 12, 2019. The Act is a sweeping plan to provide Federal support for public lands and conservation across the country, and contains many major gains.
Ninety-two of 100 Senators and 363 of 435 Representatives voted for this bill. Such consensus represents a level of bipartisanship that is rare in Washington and once again demonstrates that conserving public land, wildlife, and nature is important to everyone and is good public policy!
Included in the plan is the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), one of the country’s most vital conservation programs, which had previously expired in 2018. Reauthorization of the LWCF happened because of such sustained public advocacy from so many individuals across the country, including you. For your time and support, we thank you.
The Natural Resources Management Act is being lauded as a major victory for conservation in the media. It is certainly big news, and as is the case with such a complex policy issue, there are significant gains, some concerning new programs, and several actionable items for our region to turn this new funding into a vibrant conservation legacy. We’ve broken that down for you here.
- Land and Water Conservation Fund: Title 3 permanently authorizes, but does not fully fund, the Land & Water Conservation Fund. This important program uses royalties from offshore drilling to acquire and protect public lands. Through this vital program, Starved Rock State Park, the Illinois Prairie Path, Deer Grove East Forest Preserve, Volo Bog, Chain’O’Lakes State Park, the I&M Canal trail system, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Illinois Beach State Park, Kennicott Grove, and park districts from Chicago to Highland Park to Naperville have all received funding.
- American Discovery Trail: Section 2503 authorizes signage, but no formal designation, of the American Discovery Trail (ADT). The ADT is the first coast-to-coast non-motorized trail. It runs 6,800 miles from Delaware to California and along utilizes four Illinois trails: Old Plank Road, I&M Canal, Hennepin Canal, and Great River.
- Invasive Species: Section 7001 imparts new authorities to Federal agencies for protecting against invasive species, like Buckthorn and Asian Carp.
- Private Land Conservation: Section 3002 creates a landowner education program that will provides information about incentives that landowners receive from conserving private lands.
- Every Kid Outdoors: Section 9001 permanently encodes the Every Kid Outdoors Act, which allows free entrance to Federal lands for fourth grade students.
The Bill also set a course for future public lands policy. Some of this new direction is concerning.
- Wildlife Management: State wildlife management decisions are given priority over Federal wildlife protections. This means that Federally protected species and their habitats can be managed in completely different ways (or not at all) in each state. This jeopardizes efforts to protect species across state lines, such as sandhill cranes in Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. With your help, we are fighting a proposal to defer Illinois’ management decisions to Federal agencies, which would create an uncertain legal framework in which neither state nor federal government is responsible for protecting at-risk wildlife.
- National Heritage Areas: Six National Heritage Areas are added (a plus) but no additional money is provided for the program, which jeopardizes support for existing Heritage Areas like the I&M Canal.
- Land and Water Conservation Fund: LWCF will be required to fund hunting access.
- Pipelines: Land protections continue to be sacrificed for oil and gas infrastructure. For example, provisions for pipeline development in National Parks, specifically in Denali, are included in the plan. This builds upon a dangerous precedent of expanding fossil fuel development and transmission in National Parks and conservation areas across the country.
- Off-road vehicle use in Federally-owned sensitive conservation areas will be expanded.
What Needs to Happen Next
Given these many pros and cons, Openlands believes Congress needs to take up the following programs to truly breathe life into the Natural Resources Management Act.
- Provide full funding for the Land & Water Conservation Fund
- Keep pipelines and off-road vehicles out of Federal conservation areas
- Increase funding for public lands programs, like National Heritage Areas, so that they can meet the needs of newly-designated conservation areas.
- Formally designate the Calumet National Heritage Area to complement the new Indiana Dunes National Park.
- Prioritize the needs of threatened and endangered species, regardless of state wildlife management authority
- Designate Discovery Trails as a formal category of the National Trails System
Openlands is committed to keeping you informed on public lands news like this. We will continue to monitor both the victories and threats to healthy lands and waters across the Chicago region. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
On February 15, 2019, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was upgraded to a National Park, the country’s 61st. The greater Chicago region now has a National Park. Members of the Indiana and Illinois conservation communities have worked for decades to bring about this important designation, and we send our congratulations to them for all their hard work.
The “upgrade” was included in a large spending bill and formally changed the name of Indiana Dunes and as well as a visitor center. But hard work remains in front of us: Indiana Dunes National Park deserves more just than a new name. It deserves to be part of a restored natural and cultural landscape that attracts visitors from throughout the world and the millions of people who live within a few hours drive.
To host such an internationally acclaimed attraction, we need to treat the Dunes like the treasure they are. We must hold industry accountable when it irresponsibly dumps toxic chemicals into surrounding waterways. We must piece back together the mosaic of dunes and swales, oak savannas and prairies, lakes and rivers that once covered this region. In doing so, we must recognize the importance of this area plays in the lives of residents – past and present – who have made their homes here.
All that takes more than a name change. It merits significantly increased and sustained funding for the Park itself by Federal, state, local, and private stakeholders. It also merits Congressional designation of the Calumet National Heritage Area – the region between Hyde Park and Michigan City, Indiana – where extraordinary natural areas and technological innovation co-evolved for generations.
We extend a big ‘thank you’ to our representatives in Congress and ask they do more to make Indiana Dunes National Park a place worthy of mention next to Yellowstone, Isle Royale, and America’s other “Greatest Places.”
Conservation efforts surrounding the Indiana Dunes and its unique ecosystems date back to 1899. The First World War halted protection due to a shift in national priorities, but in 1926 the site was designated as Indiana Dunes State Park. In 1966, the site was officially authorized as a National Lakeshore and Openlands played an integral role in this designation. We strongly encourage you to visit.
Photos from a Birds in my Neighborhood field trip to Indiana Dunes, June 2018.
Illinois needs to get serious on climate change before it hits our economy hard. California’s largest utility provider, Pacific Gas & Electric, has announced that they have literally been bankrupted by climate change. Faulty PG&E equipment has been cited as the source for many of the devastating wildfires that swept across California in 2017 and 2018, and facing an estimated $17B – $30B in liabilities, the company publicly announced plans to file for Chapter 11 on January 29, 2019.
Climate change is a principal factor in the intensity of those fires, and while Illinois won’t face the same threats as California, it’s only a matter of time until we are dealing with our own climate-fueled disaster. Climate change will have a different face in Illinois, and we will see the costs add up in healthcare, urban and rural flooding, crop failure, and strained infrastructure. The wrong thing to do in these instances would be to subsidize the costs, liabilities, and risks with new burdens on utility and tax payers. The right thing to do is investing in strategies that reduce our collective risks and protect our communities from the changes we must expect.
The reality is that we are starting to run out of time to act on climate change, so we need to transition our economy to clean energy, and just as importantly, we need to scale up strategies that help put carbon back in the ground. We must prioritize solutions that offer multiple benefits for each single investment.
Photo (top): Jasmin Shah
Nature-based solutions to climate change are cost-effective models that simultaneously provide environmental, societal, and economic benefits and help build climate resilience. Healthy, natural lands put carbon back in the soil, but Illinois’ Department of Natural Resources, county conservation districts, and forest preserves are starved for funding to care for their land. Money focused here would create healthier lands, provide public recreation, and build community resiliency.
Tree-lined streets and urban parks reduce both air pollution and air temperatures, together lowering the number of hospital visits, missed school days, and exorbitant energy bills. Through our Space to Grow program, for example, Openlands works in partnership with government agencies, other non-profits, and private sector entities to reduce neighborhood flooding while providing improved schoolyards and community green space. Illinois needs more thinking like this.
Land can no longer have one primary designated use, but rather must have multiple functions. We need many more public-private partnerships that provide funding, knowledge, and expertise both to implement the strategies we know will work and to pioneer new solutions that deliver multiple benefits for climate resiliency. As the PG&E example indicates, we know these costs are coming if we do nothing, and we know the actions we can take to prevent it. Gov. Pritzker has committed Illinois to the US Climate Alliance, and that’s an important start, but we need far more help if we’re going to get serious in tackling this challenge.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com.
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.
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
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 Lands in Harmony 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.
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.
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.
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.