Program Helps Communities

Restore Health of Lake Michigan Ravines

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.


Northeastern Illinois, along the shore of Lake Michigan, was histori­cally the site of deep ravines that ranged from 10 feet to 75 feet high, but over time the growth of cities has destroyed many of these natural drainage areas. By filling in these 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 ravines are also home to locally rare plant species, including paper birch and star-flower. Of the remaining ravines, 60 percent 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. 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.

Resource Challenges Addressed

  • Erosion
  • Increased stormwater runoff
  • Loss of native species


A view of Lake Michigan through the trees in a ravine.

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 credit: Alliance for the Great Lakes.

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.

People plant native plants in an Illinois ravine ecosystem.

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 credit: Alliance for the Great Lakes.

People plant native species on a hill side slope.

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 credit Alliance for the Great Lakes.