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Celebrating Environmental Excellence

November 20, 2023 12:42 PM

The Chicago Wilderness Alliance (CWA) has recognized the Lake County Forest Preserves with two prestigious awards.

Restoration work at Greenbelt Forest Preserve in North Chicago was honored with a Platinum- level Excellence in Ecological Restoration award. And the esteemed George B. Rabb Force of Nature Award for 2023 celebrates the Chiwaukee Prairie–Illinois Beach Lake Plain Partnership, a regional collaborative project initiated by the Forest Preserves in 2010.

One of the key initiatives of CWA is to restore the health of local nature, spanning portions of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.

“We are thrilled to receive such prestigious accolades,” said Alex Ty Kovach, executive director of the Lake County Forest Preserves. “The recognition shows our team’s passion and dedication to restoration and shines light on the power of collaboration through the Lake Plain Partnership.”

The Force of Nature Award "highlights bold and exceptional work being done on behalf of nature in our region," said Elizabeth Kessler, chairperson of the Alliance. "The Lake Plain Partnership stood out among a very strong slate of nominations."

“The Partnership was established to more effectively and efficiently protect and manage the unique, high-quality natural features of the Chiwaukee Prairie–Illinois Beach Lake Plain,” said Gary Glowacki, manager of conservation ecology at the Forest Preserves. “It has become a widely appreciated model for its abilities to leverage funding, implement large-scale habitat management practices across state lines and multiple jurisdictional boundaries, and develop innovative strategies for controlling invasive species.”

The Lake Plain is the most ecologically significant and economically important stretch of natural Lake Michigan coastline in northeastern Illinois and southeastern Wisconsin. Lake Plain wetlands and associated prairie and savanna ecosystems provide habitat for more than 930 native plant and 300 animal species, including four federally-protected and 63 state-protected species. The significance of the Lake Plain led to its recognition as a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 2015.

Partners include the Lake County Forest Preserves, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Nature Conservancy Wisconsin, Chiwaukee Prairie Preservation Fund, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Village of Winthrop Harbor, Waukegan Park District, Zion Park District and Village of Pleasant Prairie.

Greenbelt Forest Preserve Restoration

Nearly seven years ago, the Forest Preserves began restoration of Greenbelt. To date, approximately 230 acres of the 595-acre preserve have been improved. Greenbelt sits at the headwaters of the East Fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River. Known as the Skokie River, it drains south into the Chicago River.

Greenbelt was once a large, high-quality prairie and wetland but was degraded over time by development, altered hydrology and an influx of invasive species. Restoration is important because it helps rebuild what has been lost. "Restoring land helps connect fragmented environments. It provides a place for native plants and wildlife. It increases biodiversity and makes our landscapes sustainable for future generations,” said Matt Ueltzen, manager of restoration ecology. This is the fifth restoration initiative by the Lake County Forest Preserves to receive a Platinum-level Excellence in Ecological Restoration award from CWA.

Prior to restoration, portions of the Greenbelt site were used for agriculture and cattle grazing. Restoration activities include removal of common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and other woody invasive plants, prescribed burning and planting of native seeds and shrubs. Wetlands have been rehydrated by removing drain tiles and sewer tiles. Drain tiles are perforated underground pipes that lower the water table to encourage crop growth.

The success of the work is indicated by recent sightings of threated and endangered plant and animal species. “We are proud of our ongoing efforts to restore Greenbelt Forest Preserve," said Restoration Ecologist Dan Sandacz. “We’re nursing the area back to health with tremendous success, and we are committed to completing the job.”