It's not Christmas, and it's not Chicago's birthday. So what's with the great big gift that has just been plunked down on our proverbial doorstep?
Look at it, all wrapped in forest and swooping goldfinches: a huge chunk of undeveloped lakefront land featuring the highest-quality ravine on the North Shore and more than a mile of bluff-fronted lakefront.We can unwrap our present Monday, when the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve on the former Ft. Sheridan opens to the public and we can start to play -- gently -- in our new nature-spot toy.
The road makes for easy access into the most ecological-rich example of a North Shore ravine.
The walls soar 70 feet above your head. Around you, the ravine and bluffs are home to thick forest, not the open savannas found just to the west. On a recent appetite-whetting visit, a chipmunk scurried across the road as a goldfinch party erupted on tall yellow wildflowers.
"They love the sunflowers," said Gerald Adelmann, executive director of Openlands, who didn't seem unhappy to be giving a preview tour on a sunlit afternoon.
The road is an amazing boon for visitors. And, ironically, it has actually protected the ravine.
The other 30-odd ravines of the North Shore have been severely eroded by runoff water coursing down their fragile sides. But here, the water flows down concrete gutters onto the road and then into storm sewers beneath the road.
"The road saved the ravine," Adelmann said.
But the road could not protect the ravine from private development, which was what Highland Park officials told U.S Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) they had in mind.
Kirk, determined to get the site donated for use as a nature area, began contacting organizations to find one willing to take possession. Owning and managing such a huge site was a tall order. Though Openlands had long advocated for turning Ft. Sheridan into a nature site, it was initially reluctant to take it; the organization had never before owned land in perpetuity.
But Kirk was persuasive, Adelmann said: "He said, 'Either you people take it, or it becomes a gated community.'"
Openlands took it. In 2004, legislation authored by Kirk transferred ownership of the 77-acre site from the Navy to Openlands.
The transfer was free, but nothing else was. The group got a $4 million grant from the Grand Victoria Foundation, which it has used for restoration. It has raised an additional $5.2 million of a hoped-for $12 million to pay for further restoration and education programs.
"The spring after the first [prescribed] burn, it was amazing to see the increase in spring ephemerals -- the trillium, the bloodroot," Adelmann said.
And if the ravine doesn't float your boat, check out the lakefront.
Forget the whizzing bikes and nearby traffic of the city's lakefront. Like the adjacent but shorter Lake County Forest Preserve lakefront at Ft. Sheridan, this is nothing but lake. The path disappears after a few hundred yards. After that, you walk on the beach.
Don't expect volleyball nets or boardwalks. "This is for people to experience nature," Adelmann said, pausing to admire the delicate lavender flowers of a sea rocket plant in the sand.
Do expect the preserve's beauty to deepen. "It will get more gorgeous every year," predicted renowned Chicago-area botanist Gerould Wilhelm, as restoration coaxes the ravine into a state of ecological health that conservationists can only imagine.
We can write thank-you notes any time.
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If you go
Directions: Enter the town of Ft. Sheridan from Old Elm Road and Sheridan Road, just north of Highwood. Go east on Old Elm Road. Turn right on Leonard Wood West, which turns into Lyster Road. At the intersection with Westover Road, park on either street. Walk east on Westover to the top of the paved road into the ravine and head down.
Information: Visit tiny.cc/openlandslakeshorepreserve.
Take a tour
For more reasons to visit the new Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, check out our photo gallery at chicagotribune .com/openlands.