Program helps Communities Restore Health of Lake Michigan Ravines

Project Summary: Groups in Northeastern Illinois are focused on restoring ravine habitat by working with private landowners to reintroduce native plants. These plants will help to decrease erosion, thereby preventing sediment build-up in Lake Michigan and protecting valuable fish and wildlife habitat.
Ravines, like the one here, drain into Lake Michigan. Minimizing sediment loss is important for the health of the ravine ecosystem and for Lake Michigan. Photo courtesy of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Ravines, like the one here, drain into Lake Michigan. Minimizing sediment loss is important for the health of the ravine ecosystem and for Lake Michigan. Photo courtesy of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Project name: Illinois Ravine Education and Restoration

Location: Northeastern Illinois

Description: Northeastern Illinois, along the shore of Lake Michigan, was historically the site of deep ravines that ranged from 10 feet to 75 feet high. These ravines used to drain almost 670 square miles of Illinois forest, wetlands, and other landscapes into Lake Michigan. The growth of cities and neighborhoods as well as the construction of roads, stores, and other hard surfaces has left only 88 square miles of natural landscape to help deal with rain water. By filling in the natural drainage areas in the landscape, communities have put more of a strain on the remaining drainage areas, funneling the same quantity of water through fewer and fewer streams, increasing erosion. The remaining ravines are also home to locally rare plant species, including paper birch, white pine, beech, arbor vitae, Canadian buffalo-berry, and star-flower. Protecting these ravines will help the Great Lakes by reducing the sediment that flows into Lake Michigan, while providing a varied habitat that will benefit wildlife around the Lakes.

Contractors plant native species throughout the steep slopes of one of the ravines to reduce soil loss through erosion. High levels of eroded sediment in Lake Michigan is bad for fish, commercial boat traffic, and can lead to harmful algal blooms. Photo courtesy of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Contractors plant native species throughout the steep slopes of one of the ravines to reduce soil loss through erosion. High levels of eroded sediment in Lake Michigan is bad for fish, commercial boat traffic, and can lead to harmful algal blooms. Photo courtesy of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Sixty percent of the remaining ravines are on residential property and due to this high level of development effective ravine protection involves educating public and private landowners on how to care for these important ecosystems. Individual decisions by these landowners that might seem simple—like removing plants from the edge of the yard or climbing up and down the hill leading into the ravine—could unintentionally increase erosion and sediment build up in the ravine and in Lake Michigan. To help educate landowners on behaviors and decisions that support the health of the ravine, as well as to understand the current state of ravine health, local groups have established the Lake Michigan Watershed Ecosystem Partnership. Over the past four years the partnership worked to develop guides to help assess the state of ravine health quickly—helping the group understand what work needs to be done to support each ravine and how landowners can contribute. The assessments from these guides led organizations to plant native species throughout the ravine to bolster the ecosystem and slow or prevent erosion, thereby reducing sediment from entering nearby Lake Michigan and increasing the diversity of the ecosystem for local wildlife.

Approximate cost of project: $297,332, with $150,000 coming from Sustain Our Great Lakes—an organization partially funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Susanne Masi and Ken Klick walk down a ravine as part of the monitoring program. This monitoring program will help determine what restoration work needs to be done to improve wildlife habitat in the ravine and minimize the erosion of sediment into the Great Lakes. Photo courtesy of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Susanne Masi and Ken Klick walk down a ravine as part of the monitoring program. This monitoring program will help determine what restoration work needs to be done to improve wildlife habitat in the ravine and minimize the erosion of sediment into the Great Lakes. Photo courtesy of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Resource challenges addressed: erosion, increased stormwater runoff, loss of native species

Key partners (public and private): Great Lakes Restoration Initiative through Sustain Our Great Lakes, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Lake County Forest Preserve District, Chicago Botanic Garden, Conservation Research Institute, Illinois Natural History Survey, Northwater Consulting, Openlands, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Types of jobs created: contractors to plant seedlings, local nurseries, ecologists, biologists, and digital mapping technicians

Results and accomplishments: Since 2011, vegetation already existing in the ravine ecosystems has been assessed and 13 rare species are being monitored. With the results of the ravine assessment in hand, the Lake Michigan Watershed Ecosystem Partnership planted 43,000 native plants and 1,000 native shrubs in critical areas to slow or prevent erosion, preventing sediment from entering nearby Lake Michigan. In addition to planting native species, invasive plants were also removed from several sites in over 80 hours of work, increasing habitat for native wildlife. A new monitoring protocol was developed by this project to more quickly assess ravine health and it ended up cutting assessment time by 90 percent. The assessment of these ravines and others nearby will continue, with the hopes of educating private land owners throughout the area in the best ways to care for their ravine ecosystems.

Originally published: May 21, 2014

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