Land donation adds to Fort Sheridan Preserve shoreline

By Gregory Harutunian For Chronicle Media

The former Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, a 71.4-acre parcel, is now part of the Lake County Forest Preserve District holdings at Fort Sheridan. (Photo courtesy of the Lake County Forest Preserve District)

The Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve now has more than two miles of shoreline frontage on Lake Michigan, after the donation of a 71.4-acre parcel.

The Lake County Forest Preserve District is also intending to develop a master plan that will be incorporated into the preserve for public uses.

Chicago-based Openlands donated the parcel, along with a $1.3 million endowment for its maintenance and care to the Forest Preserve District, last summer. The group had acquired the parcel in sections, between 2007 and 2010, which was initially part of the Fort Sheridan U.S. Army Base.

“They are a land trust that looks for the opportunity to donate lands that will be kept as open space in perpetuity,” said Rebekah Snyder, the district’s director of community engagement and partnership. “When they transferred the land, they also transferred $1.3 million and raised the money specifically to care for that preserve, as a charitable organization.

“If you think about it, they were staying true to their donors by making the one-time cash donation for that land. The gift was placed in the Preservation Foundation, the charitable partner of the Forest Preserve District, and was placed into an endowment account. This way, it can generate funds annually throughout the life of the account.”

Snyder also said that Openlands has partnered with the district for several decades on other sites, such as the Deerpath Preserve in Lake Forest. Openlands completed work to restore the Fort Sheridan parcel, with the district seeking to continue that tradition in maintaining it.

The parcel contains a lakeside blufftop overlook, as well as several endangered and threatened plant

A bluff overlook and staircase lead to Lake Michigan. With the additional acreage, there is now two miles of shoreline frontage at the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve. (Photo courtesy of the Lake County Forest Preserve District)

species now in the district’s cultivation care. Public access to a trail and ravine is available for hikers and nature walks.

“Fort Sheridan is one of the most preferred places that seasoned hikers appreciate because it offers all kinds of pristine terrain with sea, woods, and fields,” said Dr. John Minarcik, an avid hiker. “Surrounded by nature, it is a perfect setting that matches the

abutting Army cemetery. It’s very peaceful there. You feel pride, and gratefulness for their sacrifice.”

The cemetery was a key component for a memorandum of agreement between the federal government and the Lake County Forest Preserve District, nearly a decade after Fort Sheridan closed in 1989. Approximately 250 acres of land was transferred to the district, and a condition for the district to maintain the Fort Sheridan National Cemetery in perpetuity.

The acreage also came with an 18-hole golf course in poor condition. Renovation bids and temporary fixes were unfeasible, and it was understood to remain an open space.

In 2019, the federal Department of Veteran Affairs sought a transfer of acreage from the district for cemetery expansion. The district would also be released from the maintenance requirement, as part of the discussions.

“They reached out, we had a conversation with the VA, for 5 acres,” said Snyder. “We had gauged public opinion to work with them to expand. It was approved by the county board, but the Forest Preserve District didn’t have the authority. It received approval at the state level. Negotiations are ongoing and reaching a conclusion for 4.7 acres.”

The Fort Sheridan Preserve is open every day, and available with the overlook and trail on the recently attached acreage. Future efforts are being reviewed for public use that would include accommodations and ultimately result in a new master plan for the landscape.

“We intend to do a new master plan to incorporate into the preserve, such as comfort facilities to our standard, although funding is not in place,” said Snyder. “It is on our draft funding list, along with a possible referendum question on the Nov. 5 general election ballot. Tentatively, it’s still to be researched.”