The new leader of Lake Forest Open Lands is a veteran of the nonprofit organization
By David AF Sweet
Growing up in Lake Bluff, one of Ryan London’s earliest memories was of nature – a fitting memory for the new leader of Lake Forest Open Lands (LFOLA).
“My neighbor growing up had a native garden before anyone knew what it was. I remember transplanting trilliums and pulpit desks there, and she was telling me all about the spring wildflowers,” said London, a graduate of Lake Forest High School.
Unlike the four previous Lake Forest Open Lands presidents, London didn’t just grow up in the area; he has spent his entire career with the nonprofit. After starting as an intern in 1999, he joined full-time in 2002 after a stint as an arborist. For the past seven years, he has been heavily involved in the largest restoration and infrastructure project in the history of the LFOLA: the Jean and John Greene Nature Preserve at McCormick Ravine.
This 61-acre strip that begins off Sheridan Road and ends at Lake Michigan adjoins the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve. LFOLA has spent millions of dollars building bridges, creating trails and more across the space, much of which is encompassed by multiple ravines.
London helped guide an Army Corps restoration to connect the ravine and its creek to Lake Michigan in 2015. Pipes and invasive species were removed, along with more than 1,000 dead ash trees. Around 100,000 plants have been added to the slopes of the reserve, which is scheduled to open this fall.
At the same time, London – the reserve’s project manager – helped design a trail system. Aside from a 60-foot staircase that leads down to Lake Michigan, the major trails are fully handicapped accessible.
“The value of nature is so important for physical and mental health that we want everyone to have access to it,” he said. London noted an initiative this fall to procure an electric wheelchair that can go anywhere on the LFOLA trails.
The new chairman – who lives in Lake Forest with his wife, Jill – is looking forward to the big autumn fundraiser, Bagpipes & Bonfire, which is due to take place on Sunday, September 25 at Middlefork Farm Nature Reserve.
“I can’t think of a better way to spend a fall afternoon seeing how beautiful these preserves are,” London said. “Last year it was a guessing game with the state about whether we would be allowed to get together. This year we will continue the theme of making it more accessible and bringing back classic entertainment and family favorites. »
Events like Bagpipes & Bonfire are crucial to enabling 55-year-old Lake Forest Open Lands to purchase, restore and maintain land – as well as eradicate relentless invasive species such as buckthorn – as it does not receive any local tax. Aside from the fall party – which includes everything from Highland dancers to muscle men trying to knock over 25ft logs – LFOLA has more than 1,100 members who pay a minimum of $65 a year to support its preserves , which off the footpaths and cross-country ski trails include grasslands and savannahs, which are home to blazing stars and prairie bobolinks.
One of London’s priorities is to expand community engagement in land conservation.
“We’re going to look at how we engage with people,” he said. “Gregory Bateson said, ‘The major problems of the world are the result of the difference between the way nature works and the way people think.’ This sums up an opportunity for conservation groups to deliver this message.
“A big challenge now is that there are a lot of new residents who have moved into our community over the past three years. We need to let them know who we are, what we do and why we do it. Communication and engagement are things we are always working on.
As he reflected on his role, London shared a story that highlights LFOLA’s impact in our community.
“I had someone contact me a few weeks into my transition into this role following cancer treatment and wanted to let us know how much she appreciated having this open space to relax. and change the ideas she was confronted with.
“It’s pretty incredible to think about. We always talk about the science behind what we do, but someone’s ability to heal and renew at such a difficult time makes me want to come into the office every day.