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Tawny Flechtner/MEDILL

Openlands official Bob Megquier walks down the old U.S. Army base road that runs through the middle of Bartlett Ravine. Ironically, it was the road that supported the structural integrity of the ravine and kept the land from slumping inwards.

Preserve offers glimpse into lakeshore's past--and future

by Tawny Flechtner and Leslie Streicher
March 02, 2010


Tawny Flechtner/MEDILL

Marram grass is a naturally occuring plant in northern Illinois and once blanketed the western coast of Lake Michigan with dunes. Openlands officials restored a small marram grass population at the Bartlett Ravine.


Tawny Flechtner/MEDILL

The white birch stands out from the rest of the pack with its snowy bark and slim trunk. It is also a rare find in this part of the state.


Leslie Streicher/MEDILL

The Lakeshore Preserve on the western coast of Lake Michigan used to house an active U.S. Army base. Now, old structures reminiscent of that time are swallowed by the waves.


Tawny Flechtner and Leslie Streicher/MEDILL

Graduates of the Openlands TreeKeepers program are the only volunteers in Chicago permitted to plant and maintain trees on city, park, and forest preserve land.

What is the floristic quality assessment?

The floristic quality assessment measures the quality of native plant life in a given area. It rates a species of plants on a scale of zero to 10, also known as the coefficient of conservatism, or C value. The higher the number, the more conservative a plant species is. Conservative plants are defined as non-weedy, sustainable and representative of a high-quality habitat that existed before the presence of invasive species. Conservative plants help establish a balanced, healthy ecosystem.

After C values are calculated for individual plant species in a given area, the numbers are averaged to determine how valuable the land is. Again, the higher the number, the more valuable the land area is. And the better chance the land has of being restored.

Explaining C values further:

Exceptionally high-quality vegetation (greater than 5.0): Characterized by native plant species that retain significant quality and ecological integrity of the native plant life. These areas have a very high capability of being restored. For northern Illinois, these plants include mature trees, such as oaks, sugar maple, dogwood, northern bush honeysuckle and red honeysuckle. 

High-quality vegetation (between 4.5 and 4.9): Characterized by native plant species that have the potential to be restored to the exceptionally high-floristic quality category. Plant species that usually receive this rating are black-haw shrubs and choke cherry shrubs. Dogwood and northern bush honeysuckle are also sometimes in this group for northern Illinois. 

Moderate-quality vegetation (between 4.0 and 4.4): This category often sees high areas of shading due to dense shrubbery. These areas are more difficult to restore because native and non-native plants are in co-habitation. 

Low-quality vegetation (less than 4.0): These areas show where significance invasive populations thrive. Full restoration of these areas is nearly impossible.

Source: Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, Conservation Design Forum

For one Chicago area botanist, renewing the land is the same as renewing the spirit.

Gerould Wilhelm, botanist and author of “Plants of the Chicago Region,” has had a 30-year love affair with the unique ravine ecosystems along Lake Michigan’s western shore. It’s no surprise then, that when Openlands, one of the nation’s oldest metropolitan conservation organizations, decided to restore one of these areas, Wilhelm came on board as a consultant.

“When you start restoring this way, you kind of become a human being again,” he said. “The restoration reengages you, in an almost holy way, with the land, the earth, creation itself, and you sort of find your humanity there.”

Wilhelm is one of many who have enjoyed the fruits of Openlands restoration projects over the years. The organization has provided the Chicago area with resources to create, maintain and expand its natural areas since 1963. To date, these span more than 55,000 acres of prairies, wetlands, parks, forest preserves and urban gardens.

The Lakeshore Preserve project, which includes the Bartlett Ravine near Highland Park, is what Openlands communications director Charles Mutscheller calls “the crown gem” of these achievements.

The preserve is unique among the organization’s projects. In the past, it has purchased lands for restoration when public agencies couldn’t front the money themselves. The property would then be handed over once a given agency assembled the requisite funds.

This time, with the Lakeshore Preserve, Openlands is not letting go of a good thing.

“You must understand there is no place like it. It’s a unique place of remnant lakeshore ravines along the western side of the lake, which otherwise was prairie with scattered oak timber,” Wilhelm said. “Here you have deep ravines, almost maritime ravines, and bluffs right here in the middle of the great prairies of the west.”

Bartlett Ravine is a small valley that has formed over time by water running into Lake Michigan. Its raised bluffs, which soar as high as 90 feet above the lake, stand in striking contrast to the typically flat northern Illinois landscape.

“The Fort Sheridan Lakeshore site is interesting because the Bartlett Ravine is one of the few that runs back into the lake,” said University of Chicago assistant professor of evolutionary ecology Justin Borevitz. “The archive of the dunes on the west side of Lake Michigan is different from that of the Indiana Dunes on the south side.”

He explained the value of being able to examine variations across different—but similar—lakeshore ecology systems.

“I like to look at climate differences between the west side of the lake and the south side and how populations might have migrated around the lake in the past,” Borevitz said. “I’d like to know how changing temperature and moisture patterns shape the population variation in a few key species that we’re working on."

The geological rarity of the site works in tandem with the rarity of its flora to produce what he characterized as a distinctive opportunity to study the minutiae of evolutionary biology.

Wilhelm agreed. “The flora is quite rich and distinctive, quite unusual for Illinois and certainly this far south in the lake shore,” he said.

Wilhelm and Borevitz listed several species found in the ravine, such as marram grass, white birch and buffalo berry, whose rarity in the region imbues the preserve with both aesthetic and scientific value.

Scientists use the floristic quality assessment to measure the value of plant life in areas such as the ravine. A plant species is assigned a coefficient of conservatism, or C value, ranging from zero to 10 based on its relationship to the ecological integrity of the area. The higher the number, the more valuable the plant.

After each plant species is assessed, scientists average the C values of a given area together to determine the overall worth of the landscape.

Nearly half of the ravine’s acreage is rated at or above a 5 for floristic value, or exceptionally high-quality vegetation. With numbers like these, it’s easy to argue the ravine is worth restoring.

Openlands set out to do just that when it acquired the lakeshore property, formerly part of the Fort Sheridan Army post, in 2006. Restoration began that year, with help from a $4 million contribution from the Grand Victoria Foundation, an organization that seeks to assist communities in their efforts to improve education, economic development and the environment.

There was much work to be done, according to Wilhelm, who has said that he has contributed his professional input to both master and tactical plans for restoration of the ravine to its “aboriginal condition.”

“[The ravine has] become quite infested with a few weedy trees actually, quite a number of weedy trees over the last 70 or 80 years,” Wilhelm said. “So we got rid of those, and we re-engaged the annual landscape burns, which the Indians would have been practicing before settlement.”

Not everyone is a fan of this particular tactic, he said.

“I think probably there are people who are not comfortable with the fact that we have to burn it on a regular basis, but we’re pretty careful to conduct the burns so that the smoke doesn’t carry into the homes, but rather, out and away over the lake.”

Wilhelm explained that the use burns and other techniques employed in the lakeshore restoration are the product of science, trial and error, and attentiveness to the response of the living landscape.

“It’s a question of the actual, specific things we have to cut, how we go about it from a specific physical standpoint, how we treat the slopes—there’s been a lot of discussion and a lot of checking ourselves,” he said.

“That’s not a controversy. It simply requires an intense humility and an ability to think not so much about what we were taught in college, but about what the plants and animals of the ravine teach us about the best way to manage them so that they will flourish instead of languish,” Wilhelm added.

A centerpiece of the Openlands initiative is public education of restoration practices.

Bob Megquier, the director of land preservation at Openlands, said the future of places like the ravine depends on younger generations.

“If they don’t understand why we’re doing it then the practices we are carrying out here are nothing more than [temporary] gardening,” he said.

Openlands developed an on-site curriculum for elementary schools in hopes of recruiting a new wave of environmentally aware citizens.

Last fall, they welcomed 12 school groups of third, fourth and fifth graders eager to learn about the lake, ravines and bluffs. But most importantly, Megquier said, the students learned how they can help nurture ailing ecosystems back to health.

In attendance were Chicago-area schools, such as Hayt and Palmer Elementary Schools, and regional schools, such as Diamond Lake Elementary School in Mundelein and Dewey Elementary School in Evanston. Education at the preserve also reaches beyond the ravine itself.

“They are on-site for a day, but also have in-class activities,” Megquier said. “Education is in the form of school curriculum and also on-site interpretation.”

The program is expected to expand next fall when the preserve opens tours for an additional 12 high school groups.

In the meantime, there is still plenty going on at the Lakeshore Preserve.

Art installations will be displayed across the landscape in the spring, an attraction Megquier hopes will broaden the site’s appeal and draw more visitors.

“We have commissioned four artists to interpret the site as they see it,” he said, describing how one display will cascade down a steep pitch in homage to the ravine’s rare, sloping landscape.

And along with new trails and interpretive signs telling visitors about the site, the preserve is set to usher in a new wave of appreciators.

“The goal of restoration is to not only preserve this landscape forever but also preserve a cultural respect for the landscape that also lasts forever,” he said.

Before we can generate a cultural respect for the land, Wilhelm said we need to start thinking twice before we pave over prairies to build parking lots.

“What’s happened is that our culture has become disconnected from the actual real world, the beautiful world,” he said. “We must integrate our youth and our children back into a world where the value system is one more evocative of caring and nurturing rather than destroying or dominating.”