By Ann Marie Scheidler
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KATRINA WITTKAMP
By Ann Marie Scheidler
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KATRINA WITTKAMP
Often when it comes to conservation, timing is everything.
In 2020, Lake Forest Open Lands (LFOLA) was about to begin restoring a 17- acre property they had acquired in 2007 that had sat largely untouched for 13 years. Located in the middle of a residential neighborhood at the heart of Lake Forest, Westleigh Meadow had been part of one of the community’s last working farms. Its prairie, upland, woodland, and wetland habitats had become highly degraded since the farm was shuttered in the early 2000s.
Coincidentally, after several years of searching for an affordable and geographically accessible conservation project, the Lake-Cook Chapter of the Audubon Society inquired about working with LFOLA on Westleigh Meadow. LFOLA was very interested in collaborating on the restoration as well as having the Lake-Cook Audubon’s expertise on creating bird-related activities to bring people to the site.
Illinois Audubon Society is a nonprofit organization that practices conservation, but also enjoys bird watching and studying birds and wildlife. Organized in 1897, the Illinois Audubon Society is the state’s oldest conservation organization that functions as a land trust to protect and enhance Illinois’ unique habitats and to educate the public about them.
“We had this idea that Westleigh Meadow could be our first universal access site that was intended for birding engagement,” says LFOLA President Ryan London. “Folks of all abilities will be able to enter this site and traverse all of the trails and boardwalks. This piece of property is really unique in what it offers as a bird habitat.”
The partnership between the two organizations kicked off in earnest the spring of 2021. Lake-Cook installed eight Eastern Bluebird boxes, funded an LFOLA-installed Purple Martin system, and recruited dedicated monitors for both projects. In June 2021, a Lake-Cook volunteer began monitoring resident and breeding birds in an effort that has identified 32 nesting species to date.
“You need to have people watching these sites and seeing that things are going as they should,” says long-time volunteer for both LFOLA and Lake Cook Audubon Maureen Marsh. “We discovered we have 21 new Purple Martins since the system was installed on the site, eating bugs for us naturally.”
London also notes that how birds respond to Westleigh Meadow gives the restoration team important information. “The birds give us so much feedback on the work we’re doing,” he says. “We can see what they like and what they don’t.”
The Westleigh Meadow project marks the first-grant based partnership of an Illinois Audubon Society chapter with a local nonprofit organization like LFOLA. The Lake-Cook Chapter, which covers Lake and Cook counties, not only participated in workdays at the site but also contributed funding for habitat restoration and equipment through a grant secured for the project by Illinois Audubon in September 2021. The Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation’s Community Stewardship Challenge Grant promised to match up to $7,000 raised at a 3-to-1 ratio for a total of $21,000. Lake Cook Audubon raised that $7,000 in just seven weeks and by July 2022 had also exceeded the 400 volunteer hours required to qualify for an additional $4,000 in grant funds. The sum plus an additional $5,000 for prescribed burn equipment included in the original grant brought the chapter’s total contribution to $30,000.
“Normally, a nonprofit like ours would only go through all that work if it benefited their own land,” says Jo Fessett, Executive Director of the Illinois Audubon Society, which owns and manages 17 sanctuaries throughout the state. “This truly is a volunteer success story and a land trust’s dream scenario.”
With the accessible design of Westleigh Meadow complete LFOLA is actively raising funds to begin the trail construction. LFOLA hopes that work will be complete sometime in early 2024.
Westleigh Meadow is a continuation of LFOLA’s commitment to engaging the community creatively in its conservation efforts. An Earth Day celebration, the Native Plant and Tree Sale and Cattails & Cocktails are among the many opportunities LFOLA provides for residents this spring to become involved in stewarding local natural treasures. There is nothing LFOLA appreciates more than when neighbors reach out and express interest in preserving their properties in ways that are in harmony with the organization’s restoration measures.
“We really see all of Lake Forest as one connected matrix of habitats,” London says. “We look forward to more of our community joining us in preserving it.”
To learn more about the Westleigh Meadow and how you might become involved with LFOLA, visit lfola.org.
Since its establishment in 1967, Lake Forest Open Lands has permanently preserved, restored, and maintained more than 900 acres of local native landscapes including prairies, savannas, woodlands, wetlands, and ravines for the benefit and enjoyment of the local communities. There are over 16 miles of walking trails that are open to the public year-round. Considered a leader among land trusts, Lake Forest Open Lands often serves as a resource to other emerging conservation groups in communities nationwide. In 2009, Lake Forest Open Lands became the first Illinois land trust to be accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, a mark of distinction in land conservation.
LFOLA is an independently funded conservation and educational organization devoted to the acquisition and stewardship of its natural landscapes, and to ensuring all generations have a meaningful, lasting connection to nature and to the land. They strive to engage and expand the community’s commitment to the preservation and conservation of the community’s historic and highly unique natural landscapes.