Openlands Lakeshore Preserve offers wealth of plant diversity
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The grand opening of the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, a one-of-a-kind natural area offering a wealth of unique recreational and educational opportunities, is planned for 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10.
Situated on 77 acres of picturesque lakefront in Highland Park, the preserve is part of the former Fort Sheridan military base. It features lush ravines, towering bluffs and more than a mile of Lake Michigan shoreline. The free public event is hosted by Openlands, founded in 1963 to protect the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region.
"Openlands Lakeshore Preserve enables people to explore a unique natural environment that had been off limits to the public for over a hundred years," said Openlands President and CEO Jerry Adelmann.
Of the 60 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline in Illinois, only half are open to the public, and 26 of those miles are in Chicago city limits.
Among the site's physical improvements are a meandering milelong trail along the upland area of the site's bluffs — some rising 70 feet above the beach — and several scenic overlooks. All new pathways and parking areas are accessible to visitors in wheelchairs.
Another enhancement is an innovative interpretive plan that helps people understand the area's unique attributes. A key element is a series of site-specific artworks:
• Arc of Nature, a 32-by-50-foot mural designed by Chicago Public Art Group artists Ginny Sykes and Augustina Droze, combines layers of aluminum, mosaic glass tile, and painted surfaces to help explain the site's rich geological and biological histories and ongoing revitalization.
• Vivian Visser's Erode, a cascade of driftwood down one slope of Bartlett Ravine, underscores the area's topography. The preserve's three major ravines, Bartlett, Van Horne and Schenk, formed primarily 10,000 and 5,500 years ago. Over the millennia, rain and snowmelt streams carved channels in the landscape as they drained into a much lower and more distant Lake Michigan.
• Sharon Bladholm's "The Soil is Alive," a series of detailed cast-bronze relief sculptures, depict microorganisms present in the soil, providing the nourishment needed to sustain the diversity of plant life at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve. More than 150 native plants can be found at the preserve, including six state-endangered or threatened species, such as Buffalo berry and Seaside spurge.
• Color Posts, three, 12-foot-high multicolor prisms by botanical illustrator Olivia Petrides, echoes and highlights the natural hues found in the land, the foliage and waters of the lake.
"The public art projects at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve create a strong visual vocabulary that's intended to transcend language barriers," site curator Lisa Roberts said. "We want people to connect with the landscape at a more affective and experiential level and expand the way they might normally see and interact with nature."
Additionally, the artworks supplement a leading-edge curriculum that utilizes the preserve as a living laboratory to teach science, math, and social studies to students in area elementary and high school students.
Lake Michigan ravines also provide hints of the region's biologically rich and sustainable future.
Because they're situated on former military property, where access was restricted, the preserve's ravines experienced limited human impact and are exceptional examples of V-shaped incision into the glacial moraine.
"They portray a cross-section of a topography that's uncommon in the Chicago area, helping to inform our overall geological impression of this region," said Mike Chrzastowski, senior coastal geologist for the Illinois State Geological Survey.
But modern life began to take its toll on the ravines. Concentrated stormwaters sliced into vegetated slopes that were once more stable. Invasive species found their niches.
In 2007, two major grants — $4 million from the Grand Victoria Foundation and $2 million from the Hamill Family Foundation — jump-started the first phase of site improvements, which focused on extensive ecosystem restoration efforts in Bartlett Ravine.
"We could see that we were losing something special here," says Openlands Land Preservation Director Robert Megquier.
Openlands has protected and restored many woods, prairies, wetlands and other natural areas, but a ravine system, with its steep slopes and reduced exposure to sunlight, presented different challenges.
"Restoring a ravine to good health is a fairly new proposition. We couldn't borrow techniques used elsewhere because they don't really exist. Mostly, we had to adapt and improvise," Megquier added.
That improvisation included a regimen of controlled burns — a common practice for eliminating invasive species on prairies and oak savannas — but a more complex endeavor given grades approaching 45-degree angles, a long history of fire suppression in the area, and the ravine's erratic updrafts.
Another innovation was the application of a special hydro-mulch that clung to steep inclines and didn't end up at the bottom of the ravine when it rained.
Today, the ravine restoration at the preserve, the largest undertaking of its kind in the Midwest, serves as a model for similar projects across the nation.
"Bartlett Ravine contains a very rare amalgamation of plant life ... it's completely unlike any other timber tract on the planet, and it sustains a tremendous amount of biodiversity," said botanist Gerould Wilhelm, who co-authored the definitive "Plants of the Chicago Region."
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