Conservation and Engagement

From 2015 to 2020, Friends has cleared hundreds of acres of river-edge forest preserves, of which 135 were specifically targeted for turtle nesting by the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC). The net result was that at five locations along the river system, turtle nesting success increased from zero to 60%.  Forest Preserves of Cook County senior biologist Chris Anchor has called this the most successful partnership in which he has engaged.

In 2019 Friends cleared 81 acres in the Crooked Creek subwatershed and leveraged funds that allowed the FPCC to clear 126 more. The result is a vastly improved landscape within a FPCC priority area that improves habitat for all kinds of wildlife including red-headed woodpeckers, a species recognized as in need of conservation by state and federal government, and the federally endangered Hine’s emerald dragonfly. Efforts to clear 189 more acres will begin soon.

In 2019 Friends also removed the human-made barriers that blocked access to Mill Creek, a high-quality creek much needed by fish for spawning, nursery and foraging functions. Within a few months of the removal, five new fish species colonized the 2½ mile creek bringing a host of benefits for a wide array of wildlife species including native mussels which, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, may be the most endangered group of animals in North America.

In 2018, 16 years after Friends targeted the removal of the North Branch Dam on Chicago’s north side and proved it was possible, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers replaced it with a series of rock-and-riffle pools to benefit fish, mussels, and other wildlife including great blue herons who are now hunting regularly at LaBagh Woods where they were rarely seen before.

Core to our success has been the engagement of volunteers including canoe guides who began taking people out on the river a decade before there were public launches anywhere in the system. We have had more than 67,000 volunteers participate in Chicago River Day, an annual day of service founded in 1992 that has resulted in the removal of over 550 tons of trash and invasive plant material in and along the river.

In 2013 Friends of the Chicago River, Friends of the Forest Preserves, and FPCC established the Centennial Volunteers partnership in recognition of the Forest Preserves’ centennial anniversary and the need to increase community engagement to restore these nationally significant preserves. To date, Centennial Volunteers have logged 51,000 hours at nine river-edge preserves dramatically improving the health of the landscape. This work is bolstered by Friends’ River Action Days, a mission-driven, fee-for-service effort that engages hundreds of corporate team members each year, as well as our Adopt A River School program which enabled students from 15 schools to log over 2,000 hours on conservation-related projects in the last school year alone. Adopt a River Schools is a part of our Chicago River School Network which is building the next generation of stewards and has impacted over 400,000 to date.

These highlights are just some of the ways that we are improving the health of the river and natural lands along it—and our efforts to drive the development of the river as a protected blue/green corridor of public natural open space will provide connectivity and make our other efforts more successful.