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.

Restoration Is Complex, But We Shouldn’t Shy from the Challenge

Many of us don’t realize just how much natural beauty surrounds us in northeast Illinois or that even as the most populous part of the state, we are also home to the richest diversity of wildlife. A February 2018 story in the Chicago Tribune highlights the difficult reality of caring for all these special places. It is true that many ecological restoration projects amount to very little when conducted the wrong way or when inadequate resources are allocated for long-term care.

But none of this should negate the importance of ecological restoration. Restoration is the process of returning the land to a healthy state for nature, wildlife, and people. The Tribune article suggested one of the best ways to achieve this goal would be to prevent the sources of natural area degradation, but that’s just impractical: decades of urbanization and development coupled with ordinary human interaction with the land have reduced the health of natural areas, but we can correct that through restoration.

Success in these projects requires careful consideration of the sites we choose to restore, and it is imperative to involve local communities and volunteers in the process to foster greater responsibility and greater appreciation for the land and water. And when restoration projects are done correctly, the results speak for themselves.


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A recent study prepared by Stantec Consulting valued the return of two restoration projects managed by Openlands for the Forest Preserves of Cook County. It shows that short and long-term gains from restoring natural, recreational, and cultural features of Forest Preserves produced financial benefits that are worth more than eight times their costs. We’ve also seen how restoring pre-European settlement wetlands can dramatically reduce water pollution and localized flooding, with less water running off into streets and into basements. Flooding is reduced, visitation increases, and the local economic benefits.

These restoration sites — Deer Grove East and Tinley Creek Wetlands —were chosen explicitly for their ability to impact the bigger picture, and while restoration ecology is a young science, it is informed by rigorous data, showing us which sites hold potential for high quality restoration even in the face of a changing climate.

If we, as conservationists, continue to toil away on restoration projects without seeing how all the pieces fit together and without reaching out to the communities who live nearby, we will continue wasting our resources. Here, where the Great Lakes meet the Great Plaines, it is our collective responsibility to care for these landscapes and to protect what’s left for the benefit of people and nature.


As part of the O’Hare Modernization Program, Openlands managed the restoration of five sites in the Des Plaines River Valley. Following restoration, several of these sites were enrolled in the Illinois Nature Preserve System. For more information, please contact Land@openlands.org.

Invenergy Helps Restore Land and Water in the Chicago Region

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Openlands is pleased to announce our newest corporate member, Invenergy! Invenergy is a leader in environmentally responsible development of clean and renewable energy, and Openlands is tremendously pleased to share news of their support for protecting lands and waters and for building a conservation community in the region.

Openlands protects the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region to ensure cleaner air and water, protect natural habitats and wildlife, and help balance and enrich our lives. One major way Invenergy is assisting Openlands achieve our mission is by providing support for restoration of natural areas. Restoration is the process of returning the land to a healthy state for nature, wildlife, and people. Decades of urbanization and development coupled with ordinary human interaction with the land have reduced the health of many natural areas, but we can correct that through restoration.

Invenergy is providing vital support to Openlands as we gear up for 2018: with their help, Openlands will continue to build an 11,500-acre wildlife refuge along the Illinois-Wisconsin border; we can better restore ecologically-significant natural areas; and we will make sure these special places are accessible to all people.


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Building Habitats across a Regional Landscape

Along the Illinois-Wisconsin border, Openlands is working to build Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2012. Hackmatack aims to restore and connect a landscape carved by glaciers over the centuries. It includes large blocks of grasslands, wet prairies, and natural stream watercourses. As land is protected for Hackmatack, the refuge will offer growing opportunities for wildlife viewing, hunting, fishing, photography, environmental education, and more.

The diverse habitat found in the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge area is home to over 100 species of concern that were identified during the 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ecological assessment within the greater Hackmatack area, including bald eagles, bobolinks, lake sturgeon, and the eastern prairie fringed orchid! The landscapes of the region are living remnants of the last Ice Age, and the streams that wind through the refuge are some of the purest waters in Illinois.

Over time, Hackmatack will become a mosaic of protected lands that provide habitats large enough for wildlife to thrive, recreation and education opportunities for people, and economic support for local communities.


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Data-Driven Conservation

In addition to protecting landscapes on a large scale, Openlands leads strategic restorations of natural areas that have substantial potential to provide havens for migrating wildlife and to improve natural resources. Openlands will often assess projects based on how restoration will impact the site’s hydrology — the way water interacts with land at a natural area. Wetland areas in particular are often highly prioritized for restoration.

Focusing on water in restoration projects makes sense: not only does it help manage our most precious natural resources, but it can also substantially reduce local flooding and reduce pollution in our water. Wetlands both provide excellent habitat for birds and animals, and their unique soils and plants can also store massive amounts of stormwater, which means far less local flooding. The more stormwater we can retain on-site, the less of it runs off into streets and into basements. When streets and homes do flood, the stormwater becomes very polluted before receding into rivers and lakes. When that stormwater is held in wetlands, however, it is filtered as it returns to rivers, and cleaner rivers mean more migrating wildlife and cleaner water for communities downstream.

Data and monitoring of sites before restoration can help determine which projects can achieve the highest impact. For example, we are working to improve the hydrology of sites like Bartel Grassland and Bobolink Meadow, Deer Grove East Forest Preserve, and Messenger Woods. Each of these sites were chosen for their potential to hold stormwater and improve water quality in the Upper Des Plaines River Watershed (water which eventually reaches the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico).


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Connecting with the Land

Not to be left out of the equation is the connection between people and the land. Even in urban areas, nature is all around us, and Openlands works on a variety of levels to make nature can thrive — even in residential areas — and that people have opportunities to appreciate these amazing places.

Our Birds in my Neighborhood program introduces Chicago Public Schools students to the common birds of the region through a research project and field trips as a way to foster greater appreciation of both birds and the natural world. A single class lesson can inspire a group of students to become expert birders. In May 2017 for example, the students from Chicago’s Ruiz Elementary spotted 44 different species in one afternoon while on a field trip to a local park!

In the end, Openlands wants to make sure these special places are accessible to people from all walks of life. Invenergy’s commitment provides critical support to protecting ecologically sensitive areas and habitats, and Invenergy assists Openlands as we further our mission to connect people to nature where they live.


Invenergy is a leader in environmentally responsible development of clean and renewable energy. We are committed to being a responsible community partner with Openlands who shares our desire to protect the Greater Chicago & Great Lakes region’s natural habitats.

For more information on Openlands Corporate Membership, please contact development@openlands.org.

Protecting the Very Best of Illinois’ Natural Landscapes

Illinois is where the Great Lakes meet the Great Plains; many of our landscapes are thousands of years in the making and contain some of the world’s rarest ecosystems. Often they stretch across state lines into Wisconsin and Indiana, and they do not respect political jurisdictions such as counties or townships. Nature needs advocates with a regional focus to see how the pieces fit together.

Our region in northeast Illinois presents a challenge: some of the most biologically diverse landscapes and habitats are situated among the most heavily populated areas in the Chicago metropolitan region.

How do we balance the needs to protect, preserve, and restore these natural areas while ensuring they complement the quality of life of the region’s residents? We dedicate them as an Illinois Nature Preserve.


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The Illinois Nature Preserves are living museums, home to tallgrass prairie, oak savannas, sandstone bluffs, ravine ecosystems, and hundreds of rare wildlife species. Nature preserves offer a haven to plant and animal species listed as state- or federally-threatened or endangered — over 600 sites across the state provide safe habitat to 20% of Illinois’ conservation priority species. These are some of the only places in Illinois that many of these species can survive, let alone thrive.

As cities and urban areas expanded across Illinois in the post-war period, significant threats loomed to the native landscapes of Illinois. These threats of real estate development prompted the Illinois General Assembly to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC) in 1963.

To create a system of natural areas representative of Illinois’ landscape, the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act charges the Nature Preserve Commission to preserve existing natural areas, acquire new areas and endangered species habitat for protection and public benefit, and manage nature preserves to ensure their ecological health is passed on to future generations. INPC designations offer significant legal protections to natural areas in perpetuity. This commitment to preserve the state’s rare natural treasures made Illinois the first state to create such an innovative land protection program.

Today, the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission promotes the preservation of these significant lands, and provides leadership in their stewardship, management, and protection. The Commission has received international accolades and has become a national model, with more than a dozen states following Illinois’ lead in creating systems to protect critical open space.

In the summer of 2017, Illinois took a major step to help protect these places by enacting the Illinois Natural Areas Stewardship Act. The Natural Areas Stewardship Act allows nonprofit conservation organizations like Openlands to conduct needed stewardship and restoration projects on lands enrolled in the Illinois Nature Preserve System.


Deer Grove East

Passing the stewardship bill in Springfield was an important milestone, but it was just the beginning of a process to protect better the Illinois Nature Preserves. Now comes the meaningful work to restore and steward these landscapes for everyone to enjoy.

But the very best thing about these landscapes is that you can visit all of them. Illinois Nature Preserves are open to the public, they offer opportunities to experience wildlife unparalleled in Illinois, and they are often excellent destinations for outdoor recreation. Below are listed but a few of the many protected landscapes worth exploring in northeast Illinois:

No matter the season and no matter where you go, Openlands encourages you to explore the protected landscapes of our region. If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagrammer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find at a nature preserve! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.


Openlands has helped acquire, restore, and maintain more than 40 sites in the Illinois Nature Preserve system, such as Glacial Park, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, and Deer Grove East. For more information, please contact Land@Openlands.org.

Conservation Policy Updates from the Federal and Local Levels

Last winter, Openlands promised to keep you, our constituents and supporters, up-to-date on news and policy proposals impacting conservation in our region. Conservation issues remain in the headlines and in the forefront of political discussions, and below we have updates on issues from transportation to clean water, how these issues are unfolding, and how you can help.

First, recognize what we have accomplished: all signs suggest that your advocacy for the Great Lakes was a success, as funding has been included in federal budget proposals for the next fiscal year. That means $300 million will still support regional and international efforts to clean, restore, and protect the Great Lakes. We expect a congressional vote on a federal budget in December, but it may come sooner — we will alert you to any actions impacting conservation.

In the last several weeks, we have also learned more about the White House’s proposals to reduce protections for 10 National Monuments. Openlands adamantly opposes any effort to curtail protections for conserved federal lands. If enacted, these changes will likely require legislative action. Our neighbors in the West supported us when we sought federal protections for landscapes in Illinois, so we are calling on our state’s elected leadership to show them the same support by opposing any changes to the National Monuments.

And while the White House, the EPA, and the Department of the Interior may be dominating the headlines, state-wide and local decisions are impacting our environment on a daily basis.


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Regionally, Openlands, along with our conservation partners, local farmers, and farm organizations, helped to defeat a transportation proposal which would have threatened the vitality of clean water resources, natural areas like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, and precious farmland in our region. In late August, the federal Surface Transportation Board rejected a plan from Great Lake Basin Transportation, Inc. to build a 261-mile railway line that neglected to consider the region’s existing plans for sustainable growth. Openlands believes transportation and infrastructure projects should not jeopardize our natural resources — and this proposal plainly ignored the negative impacts on the environment.

In Will County, Openlands is advocating at all levels for growth to complement and enhance Midewin and surrounding natural and agricultural landscapes. Our ongoing efforts to support Midewin include advocating for smart growth in the area. For instance, Openlands and our partners worked with Will County to adopt a freight plan that calls for consciously locating roads and development to preserve the natural and agricultural heritage in the Midewin area.

The devastation wrought by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria has given new urgency to our projects to control stormwater and to reduce urban flooding. We are moving forward with solutions to make our region more resilient in order to face a changing climate. For example, our ecological restoration projects and our Space to Grow partnership aim to manage stormwater more effectively. Flooding this past July in McHenry, Kane, and Lake counties—only the most recent flooding event here—are but a glimpse of what we may face as climate change makes storms larger and more unpredictable. The catastrophic flooding in Houston caused by Hurricane Harvey underscored the human and ecological devastation that occurs when massive amounts of rain fall within a limited period of time on a major metropolitan area.


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We have also been working with several aldermen in Chicago to form an Urban Forestry Advisory Board. Trees shade nearly 17% of Chicago, and convey a wide range of economic, social, and environmental benefits to residents. However, Chicago’s urban forest faces a growing list of threats — both natural, like the Emerald Ash Borer, and  those human-made, such as lax enforcement of tree protection laws. This advisory board will convene public and private stakeholders to brainstorm and implement workable solutions to Chicago’s most pressing forestry problems. We are aiming to introduce a City Council ordinance soon, and we will need your support to help it pass.

Openlands has kept a very close eye on the planning for the future of Chicago’s Jackson Park. We have advocated for an update to the 1999 plan for Chicago’s south parks, and we are pleased that an update is being prepared. All summer, however, the Chicago Park District promised more specific information on the future of these parks, yet at the most recent public meetings, we were once again given nothing new and were told everything is preliminary. Without data, the Park District, nor the city, nor its residents can make informed decisions about our parks.

In the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Openlands has been assisting in the implementation of the Next Century Conservation Plan, which aims to protect an additional 20,000 acres and restore 30,000 acres. Openlands has contributed research that identifies sources of political support among Cook County residents and which documents the overwhelming financial benefits of restoring natural areas in the Forest Preserves. We have recently completed the restoration of Deer Grove East, and we continue to work in partnership with the county board to support funding for some of Cook County’s most beloved places to get outside.


From our founding, Openlands has worked to connect people to nature. These are the issues we are keeping an eye on at the moment, and we know that with your engagement, we can succeed. Openlands remains committed to building community at the local level through education, empowerment, and access to nature. We remain committed to inclusion, public participation in decision making, and science-based actions. And we remain committed to protecting open spaces and natural resources for generations to come. We promise to continue updating you as policy issues impact our region and on ways to make your voice heard.

How To: Self-Guided Bird Walk

The following entry was written by Openlands Education Programs Coordinator, John Cawood. In his position, John helps to manage our Birds in my Neighborhood® program.

Want to go on a self-guided bird walk? Here are some tips!

Recently I had the joy of leading a bird walk with fourth grade students in Ms. Coleman’s class at Lavizzo Elementary, as a part of Openlands Birds in my Neighborhood Program. Lavizzo is in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood on the south side, just west of Lake Calumet, and there is a high level of bird activity year-round. How do I know? The kids told me! They told me of the sparrows, blue jays, robins, cardinals, hawks, ducks, and geese that they had seen in their neighborhood. They told me that sometimes the birds are building nests, looking for food, singing in the trees, or soaring high in the sky. Then each student researched a bird and told me all about what they had learned.


Before we went out on a bird walk around the schoolyard, they also told me what you need to do in order to see birds. Here are their suggestions:

  1. Be quiet, so that you don’t scare the birds away. Also, if you are quiet then you might even be able to hear them sing.
  2. Try not to shout when you see a bird; just point so that other people can see the bird too.
  3. Be sneaky. Move slowly and quietly so you don’t scare the birds away.
  4. Be observant. Birds could be on the ground, behind a bush, in a tree, or in the sky, so look everywhere!
  5. If you are using binoculars, be very careful with them. Make sure they are focused so that you can see through them clearly.
  6. If the others in your group don’t seem to be doing the things you need to do to see birds, quietly remind them. That if they are observant, quiet, and slow moving, everyone has a better chance of seeing more birds.

This is a great list! Ms. Coleman has a lot of smart kids in her class. If you decide to go on a bird walk in your neighborhood, using their list will definitely help you to see more birds.


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If you are looking for suggestions for binoculars (you don’t need binoculars to see birds, but they do help with Rule #4 on the Lavizzo List), Birds in my Neighborhood uses the Leupold BX-1 Yosemite 8×30 model. They cost around $100, and are very sturdy and easy to hold on to. You can also hit Rule #4 by going birding with multiple people. Having a larger group presumably means that there are more eyes looking around for birds, but don’t forget Rule #6!

If you need a guide to help you along the way, Forest Preserves of Cook County offer a printable bird ID checklist. Our friends at the Field Museum offer some excellent guides to ID common Chicagoland birds including common sparrows, common winter birds, and common summer birds.

Lastly, don’t let these lists intimidate you – one of the best parts of birding is that anyone can do it!


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Where to Go

During migratory season in the spring (April-June) and in the fall (September-October), there is no better birding spot in the Chicago area, and arguably the entire Great Lakes region, than Chicago’s Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary. If you travel further north, Illinois Beach State Park provides great birding opportunities along Lake Michigan, as well as in its expansive wetlands. Situated along the border of the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyway, the Great Lakes region is immensely important for migratory birds.

Forests, grasslands, wetlands, and open water like at Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, or Deer Grove East are great locations to find birds. But you can even witness an impressive array of birds in a local park or in your neighborhood. Be sure to post the list of everything you see on www.ebird.org, and check out their hotspot map, which shows what everyone else is seeing in your area.

Bird life in the Chicago region is breathtaking at this time of year, so have a wonderful time on your trip – be it in your own neighborhood, at your local park or forest preserve, or at a larger natural area.

Finally, if you’re a photographer or avid Instagramer, bring your camera or phone and show the world the birds you spot! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on Openlands’ stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.


Birds in my Neighborhood is taught by volunteers at Chicago Public Schools that have gardens created through Openlands Building School Gardens program. The goal is to acquaint students and teachers with the common birds in their garden, neighborhood, and city through in-class lessons and field trips. Each student is given a journal as an educational tool with prompts for writing about birds.

For more information, please contact schools@openlands.org.

Birds in my Neighborhood Explores Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

On Saturday, May 13, the students and families of Ms. Caponigro’s third grade class at Peck Elementary headed to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie for a Birds in my Neighborhood® field trip. Around 50 members of the Peck community spent the day spotting birds, searching for bison, and exploring the bunkerfields of Midewin.

Birds in my Neighborhood is taught by volunteers at Chicago Public Schools that have gardens created through Openlands Building School Gardens program. The goal is to acquaint students and teachers with the common birds in their garden, neighborhood, and city through in-class lessons and field trips. Each student is given a journal as an educational tool with prompts for writing about birds.

Ms. Caponigro’s third grade class learned about Chicago’s birds in the classroom, and had already completed two bird walks on school grounds and in Marquette Park. Saturday was an extra field trip, and one of the first Saturday field trips that Openlands has helped facilitate, and the result was spectacular.


Birds, Bison, and Bunkers

The field trip to Midewin started early at the Visitors Center where our friends from the Forest Service offered a brief overview of the area’s ecological and cultural history. Ms. Caponigro (Ms. Cap to her students) helped everyone in the group get acquainted with Midewin by translating the overview into Spanish.

“The Saturday field trip to Midewin was an amazing experience for our students and their families. To see such an expanse of nature and to learn about the history of the space along with identifying birds was something many of us will never forget,” explained Ms. Cap.

Openlands volunteers then led the students on a bird walk along the Explosives Road trail, and the families divided into two groups – one walk facilitated in Spanish and the other in English. Both students and families successfully spotted and identified many of the species using a bilingual guide provided by Forest Preserves of Cook County.

The third graders correctly identified a tremendous array of bird species including great blue herons, turkey vultures, eastern kingbirds, killdeer, blue jays, common yellowthroat, white-crowned sparrows, song sparrows, dickcissel, bobolinks, red-winged blackbirds, eastern meadowlarks, a scarlet tanager (pictured above), American goldfinches, red-tailed hawks, and more!

In the afternoon, the families had time to explore the retired US army ammunition bunkers that dot the Midewin landscape and after a lunch break, we headed up to Iron Bridge Trailhead in search of the bison herd. By the end of the day, most of the students were proclaiming it the best field trip ever.

Midewin is truly a breath-taking place to visit. At 19,000 acres, it is the largest open space in the Chicago region, it contains 22 miles of mixed use trails, and the biological diversity present is simply stunning. One student, speaking somewhat overwhelmed, expressed their disbelief not just at the number of bird species they saw, but that so many bird species even existed!


An Important Grassland Habitat

Massive open spaces like Midewin are vital for numerous reasons: they are home to some of Illinois’ last fragments of native prairie and they offer shelter to hundreds of species in need of conservation support. But research also demonstrates that positive experiences in nature with a trusted adult are an indicator of future environmental stewards, and this data drives our education work.

For Openlands, schools are the intersection of people and nature. Our Space to Grow partnership transforms CPS schoolyards into green campuses and gardens after seeking community input to address its needs, and schools are where we often gather communities for gardening workshops and to plant trees. Those trees and gardens become home to wildlife for students to learn about through Birds in my Neighborhood, and together, these communities foster new voices and new generations in the conservation movement.

When we forge new partnerships with schools, we listen to the needs of communities. For example, when Openlands began these Saturday field trips, we reached out to schools that we knew have an established interest in the nature of our region. Peck Elementary, located in Chicago’s West Elsdon neighborhood has been one of those inspiring schools. Peck was one of the first schools to sign up for Building School Gardens, and they were among the first schools to embrace a Birds in my Neighborhood curriculum. Ms. Cap has dozens of stories of her former students returning to her classroom to discuss birds, and her students have always appreciated the Birds in my Neighborhood class lessons.

“The bus ride back was buzzing with nature disscussions. Not to mention all the jealous comments on Monday from kids who didn’t attend,” said Ms. Cap.

Sharing these experiences with students demonstrates the value of conserved public lands, and furthers our mission to connect the residents of the Chicago region to the nature around them.


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Peck’s field trip to Midewin was a tremendous success. Many thanks go out to our Birds in my Neighborhood volunteers, the Forest Service staff who helped with site orientation, and to the staff at the Midewin Visitors Center, who offered us their shaded outdoor lunchroom for our break.

Saturday field trips to Midewin are made possible by the generous support of BNSF Railway and US Forest Service – International Programs. And of course, we couldn’t make these field trips happen without the passionate support of teachers like Ms. Cap and our generous Openlands members.


Ready to discover Midewin for yourself? We have a few suggestions on where to start.

If you are interested in becoming a Birds in my Neighborhood volunteer, please contact schools@openlands.org. If you wish to support the program, please contact development@openlands.org or call 312.863.6261.

A Refuge in the Wild

It will come as no surprise that residents of the Chicago region all too often experience nature in fragments – at their local park, in a community garden, with a migrating sandhill crane passing overhead. But when we have space to run wild, and when nature has room to demonstrate a mighty vastness, it only takes a few moments before it speaks to us in a primeval and wordless language.

On the doorstep of Chicago, we have such a place in Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. The 11,500 acres of Hackmatack will soon offer the chance to explore and appreciate nature’s majesty on a whole new level. Here, we’ll be able to share our favorite activities with our families, kids will learn about and understand the value of nature, and this will be a place we can all fill with memories which will endure for lifetimes. All of this will be possible because this land is public, it belongs to all of us.

Updated: Congress has passed a budget that significantly increases support for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Learn more…


“I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.”
-Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Wide Open Spaces

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established the National Wildlife Refuge System, which has since grown into a system of over 560 conservation sites, today encompassing more than 150,000,000 acres of public land. The primary goal of the Refuge System is to protect and enhance habitat for wildlife, while providing public benefit, such as educational resources, recreation opportunities, and support for local economies.

Hackmatack, formally established in 2012, is the first such refuge within 100 miles of Chicago, making it accessible to the 12 million people who live within an hour’s drive of the refuge. As an urban wildlife refuge, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service aims to offer access and resources to America’s increasingly diverse population.

Outdoor recreation is estimated to contribute $646 billion to the U.S. economy every year, and the refuge is at the heart of that opportunity. In Hackmatack and its adjoining areas, runners and hikers will be able to explore miles of trails winding through sun-dappled burr oak savannas and prairies teeming with wildflowers. Cyclists can pause beneath its massive skies as they travel along the Grand Illinois Trail. Birders will be able to comb native grasslands for Dickcissels or restored wetlands for migrating Whooping Cranes. Fishermen and sportsmen can wade through some of the highest-quality headwater streams in the region. Kayakers and paddle boarders can slip slowly down the Nippersink Creek as it meanders through open fields, lush woodlands, and verdant flowerbeds. And photographers will be able to capture a unique landscape of glacier-carved ridges adorned with valleys of wildflowers and pierced with pristine streams, all lingering from the last Ice Age.

Public access to open space is the guiding vision for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, but the designation in 2012 was just the start of a long journey to build the refuge. We are currently restoring the first acres of Hackmatack, but public-private partnerships and local enthusiasm driving the vision forward.


Forging Partnerships

In March 2012, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its environmental assessment for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. The assessment recommended a version of the refuge that would link existing state, county, and federal conservation lands with newly acquired land and conservation corridors.

After gaining support from the public, the congressional delegations of both Illinois and Wisconsin, as well as from their respective governors, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar formally declared protected status for the refuge in August 2012.

Today, Openlands and our partners are in the process of developing four core areas in Illinois and Wisconsin that link existing conservation sites and create the necessary scale needed for wildlife to thrive, which translates to thousands of acres of protected wetlands and havens for recovering wildlife populations. While restoration work is concentrated in these cores, we are also working with private partners to link the cores via migratory corridors.

While Openlands is able to acquire new parcels from willing sellers andhelp restore them to be a part of Hackmatack, federal support for the refuge is critical. Federal land protection ensures that important resources are forever available to America’s future generations. It secures drinking water supplies, provides wildlife habitat, creates recreation opportunities, and maintains ecosystems that support agriculture, tourism, and other economic activity. These areas will be protected from pollution and continue supplying clean water to agriculture. These considerations drove the locals’ decision to seek federal protection as a national wildlife refuge.

This is a new approach to conservation and a new way to protect open space on the scale we need for wildlife to thrive. We have to tackle the challenge with our partners acre-by-acre, parcel-by-parcel to protect these places so everyone can share places like Hackmatack.


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The open spaces of the American landscape have always been part of our national identity. Hackmatack is a dream built from the bottom up, drawing together the skills and talents of conservation non-profits, local business owners, sportsmen, and private citizens.

Foresight and planning for the Chicago Wilderness Region established many different and superb ways for people to be connected with and inspired by nature. Whether at the local park or forest preserve, or at vast open spaces like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, connections to nature are vital to all people. Chicago is the third largest metropolitan region in the country, but we lack equal access to America’s public lands. Cutting support of the National Wildlife Refuges will rob us of our right to enjoy America’s public lands.

The Essential Role of Pollinators

Pollinator species – such as bees, butterflies, bats, and birds – may be small, but they play massive roles in our lives every day. From assisting in food production to providing ecological services, pollinators are central to many critical processes in the environment. Increased threats posed by habitat loss, disease, and climate change have contributed to the global decline of many pollinator species and made pollinator conservation all the more important.

Nearly all the plants in the world need to be pollinated in order to reproduce effectively, and pollinators assist in this among over 80% of the world’s flowering plants. These plants, in turn, sequester and store carbon by absorbing CO2, the second most abundant greenhouse gas. They improve air quality and can help filter clean water. The United States grows more than 100 crops that rely on or benefit from pollinators, which contribute an estimated $3 billion to the economy.


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In many cases, pollinators serve as keystone species, meaning they play an essential role in the foundations of an ecosystem. For instance, bumble bees pollinate fruit-bearing plants which not only support agriculture, but also provide the diet to numerous other species in a given ecosystem.

Despite their vital role, pollinators need conservation support. Climate change has imperiled half of all North American bird species and pollinator habitats are becoming fragmented or disappearing rapidly in the face of development. Excessive or careless use of pesticides can wipe out whole communities of pollinators.

Individual populations are at risk as well. North American populations of the monarch butterfly and the rusty patched bumble bee, for example, have experienced significant declines over the last 20 years, prompting the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to consider additional protection for these once-abundant species under the Endangered Species Act.

In Illinois alone, there are nearly 2,500 native pollinator species that support our flowering and food plant populations. Illinois also serves as an important migratory route for monarchs and other pollinators that need appropriate habitat to help them survive and reproduce as they travel.


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Openlands and ComEd recognize the importance of the many programs, partnerships, and individual actions that residents of Illinois are taking to conserve pollinators, support their habitat, and protect pollinator-dependent plants and food crops. As a response to this growing awareness, ComEd has announced a special focus on pollinator conservation for the 2018 cycle of the ComEd Green Region grants.

Grants of up to $10,000 support open space projects that focus on planning, acquisition, and improvements to local parks, natural areas, and recreation resources. Grant recipients can use Green Region grants in combination with other funding sources to cover a portion of the expenses associated with developing and/or supporting their open space programs.

Across our region, pollinator-friendly projects incorporate habitat in public spaces, from new outdoor classrooms to natural area restoration to community gardens. ComEd’s commitment is helping communities recognize how everyone can play a role in protecting pollinators.


For more information on the grants program, please visit www.openlands.org/greenregion.

Photo (top): Brandon Hayes

Volunteers Sow the Seeds of Hackmatack

This winter, Openlands has organized a series of volunteer workdays at Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. With the help of these great volunteers, we have begun the process of restoring two sites within the boundaries of the refuge.

Hackmatack was established as a permanent National Wildlife Refuge in 2012, but from the beginning, it has been a partnership of local communities and local governments working to bring the vision to life. Friends and neighbors came together to earn the federal designation, but now the real work of building the refuge acre-by-acre has begun.


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Braving the Cold…

On the chilly morning of January 28, the Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge hosted a seed planting workday on the Perricone Tract with the help of Openlands and the McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD). Volunteers spread 100 lbs of native prairie seed mix, kindly donated by FermiLab, along the site’s eastern edge, which will grow in to help restore this tract.

In 2016, Openlands purchased the Perricone Tract in Woodstock, IL as part of our ongoing work in Hackmatack. This 27-acre parcel contains remnant sedge meadow and a lovely meandering stretch of the Nippersink Creek. Openlands partnered with the Nippersink Watershed Association to protect the Perricone Tract and received a generous grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to support the site’s acquisition and restoration.

The seeding planting workday laid the foundation for more prairie restoration work in the coming spring, which will be led by our partners at MCCD and funded by our Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation grant.


…And Enjoying the Unseasonably Warm

Following the seed planting, a second group of volunteers, again in partnership with Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, helped begin restoration efforts at the Blackmon Tract in Richmond, an open space site in the refuge boundaries that is owned by Openlands.

Back in the fall of 2016, Openlands acquired this 11-acre site in the Tamarack Core Area of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. It contains oak woodlands, a high-quality wetland area, and wonderful opportunities for restoring native natural communities and creating public access for Hackmatack. The acquisition of the Blackmon property was made possible through the leadership and support of the Grand Victoria Foundation, which awarded a generous grant to Openlands for the land purchase.

On February 19, a hard-working group of nearly 30 people joined us on an unseasonably warm day to pick up trash and clear invasive brush from the Blackmon Tract. We were happy to count members from several groups among our volunteers, including Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, Boy Scout Troop 340 from Spring Grove, and EPIC Volunteering from Palos. Spotting a bald eagle circling slowly overhead topped off a great day filled with laughter, a little bit of sweat, and a lot of sunshine.


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When restored, the landscapes protected at Hackmatack will once again offer a home to the mosaics of native plants and wildflowers, the mazes of pristine streams, and the rich variety of wildlife. Essential to Openlands’ vision is not just protecting these rare habitats, but also ensuring everyone can share in the nature at Hackmatack. Whether through participating in restoration days or by introducing best practices to support wildlife near their homes, the local residents are making great strides to restore this area for the benefit of all.


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Local partnerships make Hackmatack a unique model for conservation and our volunteers helped sow the seeds for future partnerships uniting around a shared vision for Hackmatack. We will be hosting more workdays at these sites soon. For more information, please contact Openlands Conservation Manager, Aimee Collins, at acollins@openlands.org or call 312.863.6257.

Openlands send many thanks to our volunteers for their support and to our sponsors who provide critical support for restoration!