Jerry Adelmann: The Natural






Jerry Adelmann, conservationist.

Jerry Adelmann, conservationist.

Looking for new ways to connect with nature this summer in the Chicago area? We tracked down Openlands President Jerry Adelmann, recipient of the Frances K. Hutchinson Medal for Conservation, to share some ideas with us for new ways and places to get outdoors during our short-lived warm weather months.

Adelmann emphasized how crucial it is to not let a summer’s day go by without a green connection – creating a relationship where we take care of and enjoy the earth and the earth, in turn, nurtures us.

“There’s a web of green all around us, look no further than the tree in front of your home or apartment that you might help mulch, or work in a community garden. The natural areas of the Chicago metropolitan region are among our greatest assets, enhancing quality of life and property values, protecting ecosystems, and improving our health. 

In Japan they have ‘forest bathing,’ where the people go out and purposefully breathe fresh air in the woods to relieve stress. A recent survey in Sweden showed that patients in a hospital who have a window with a view of trees and nature heal faster.”

 How do we find a green connection in the city and its surrounding areas?

There are 60 miles in Illinois bordering on Lake Michigan, and one half of that is in Chicago. There is very little other public ownership elsewhere in the Chicago area. Just 25 miles north of Chicago near Ft. Sheridan is one of our most spectacular beaches, a mile of shoreline which brings to life the rich history of our region and links it to the critical environmental issues of today.

The Openlands Lakeshore Preserve features remnants of the last Ice Age, high bluffs deposited by glaciers, and remnants of natural prairie, oak savanna, and shoreline plant communities. The hikes along the beach are terrific, and there are excellent examples of public art.

Serious birders check off rarities on their Life Lists frequently in Chicago, often just outside the Loop. That’s a real local advantage.

We have a major flyway where you can see thousands of birds twice a year as they migrate. The Magic Hedge at Montrose is spectacular to behold. When you paddle on the Calumet River, you see blue herons and egrets. Osprey nest on Powderhorn Lake within our City limits. Throughout the year we have the “Birds in My Neighborhood” program, which gives volunteers the pleasure of working with Chicago Public School students on birding adventures close to home and in the Indiana Dunes National Park, where last year students saw two bald eagles.

Taking care of trees is one of your key initiatives. How do individuals get involved?

There are about 3.59 million trees in Chicago, with their canopies covering 19 percent of the city. Urban forests include the trees in front of your house and trees in parks and preserves. When they are properly planted and cared for, they can protect our health, save energy, reduce costs to taxpayers, and sometimes simply provide a much-needed place of solace. If we lost all the trees in the seven-county metropolitan county we would lose $51 billion in residential energy savings, storm water capture, carbon storage, and pollution removal.

 Right now, the ash trees are dying due to the emerald borer beetle, and at a much faster rate than what we saw with the loss of the Dutch elm. Because of this insect, the Chicago region is losing one-fifth of the large shade trees in the city and surrounding region.

What are other summer outdoor opportunities that we might not have tried?

Take or rent a canoe or kayak and paddle on the nearby Calumet water trails. Thorn Creek and the Upper Little Calumet River are shallow streams with wooded banks, perfect for beginners. The Cal-Sag Channel, the Lower Little Calumet, and the Calumet Rivers are deep, engineered channels with barge and powerboat traffic, perfect for experts. Calumet also offers paddling on Wolf Lake and Powderhorn Lake. Many canoe and kayak access and exit points exist.

 What ecological volunteer opportunities do you offer?

Since 1991, more than 1500 volunteers have been trained in planting, mulching, and advocacy for trees through our TreeKeepers program. If you need trees in your neighborhood, you can apply for a grant to purchase them as well as planting assistance in return for a promise to care for them. You can also adopt a tree on a parkway or in a park, both through Openlands. 

Illinois Water Trailkeepers is a volunteer stewardship program of Openlands and Illinois Paddling Council. Volunteers adopt a stretch of water trail and paddle it regularly, reporting on conditions, and in some cases, organizing clean ups to keep trails passable and enjoyable.

Openlands has so many fine programs and partnerships. What else are you working on?

We are all about people, places, and policy in our stewardship of the land. When it was founded in 1963, there were no conservation programs in the U.S. except for the Green Belt Alliance in San Francisco. There are 700 acres of pavements around the Chicago public schools, and there is a partnership with the City, CPS, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to remove pavements to get more water into the ground and have more green space for the students, just one of many programs we are working on now.

Jerry takes his own advice to heart when it comes to green space. Each summer weekend he returns to the home his family built in Lockport in 1842, close to the Illinois Michigan Canal, which opened in 1848.

“In 1832, Potawatomi Chief Shabbona warned my great-great-great-grandfather to flee to Fort Dearborn because of the imminent Black Hawk War. Thanks to the Chief, I am here today. We still have the Chief’s powderhorn.”


Jerry, at home in nature.

Jerry, at home in nature.

Jerry, who received undergraduate and graduate degrees at Georgetown and George Washington University, has been involved with Openlands since 1980. In 1988, he was named Executive Director. Since around that time, he has not only initiatives throughout the Midwest, but has been dedicated to conservation and historic preservation in China, as well. His hard work has garnered him a place on as an emeritus member of National Board of Advisors of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and many invitations to lecture all over the United States and across the globe.


To learn more about Openlands initiatives, visit their website: