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John Sentell - Lake Forest Open Lands

John Sentell.Lfola.2

John Sentell, President and CEO
Lake Forest Open Lands Association


Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Chamber of Commerce: What was the inspiration behind the formation of Lake Forest Open Lands?

John Sentell: In June, Lake Forest Open Lands (LFOLA) will celebrate its 55th birthday.  We are one of the oldest and most established conservation land trusts in the nation.

LFOLA was started in 1967 by passionate visionaries who saw the remarkable beauty of our community’s open spaces and rare habitats under threat by advancing development, and they wanted to save it.  Our area is blessed with a remarkable natural history and incredible biodiversity – lakeshore, ravines, woodlands, prairies, wetlands, and savanna – and some of these habitats are globally rare.  And we live among it all!  The founders of Lake Forest Open Lands wanted to maintain the historic beauty and value of these places before they were gone. I think they’d be proud of our success.

Today, we steward over 800 acres, six nature preserves (and two more coming in the near future), over 12 miles of hiking trails open to the public and vibrant education and outreach programs throughout our community.



LFLBC: What is the one thing you want people to know about LFOLA?

JS: That’s a hard question!  There are so many moving parts and wonderful achievements within our organization.

First, I think many people don’t realize that Lake Forest Open Lands is a completely independent, non-profit organization. The hard work from our dedicated staff of 14 and a volunteer board is supported entirely through voluntary contributions. All the work to preserve and care for the open spaces we cherish does not receive any local taxpayer dollars – we receive no funding from the City, the County, or the State. Everything we do is supported by membership and private donations.

I suppose another surprise might be that our preserved landscapes are not just beautiful, but are recognized as some of the rarest, highest quality native landscapes in our entire state.  We have many threatened and endangered species within our preserves, and over 271 different bird species.  In some respect it’s almost as if we live within a small national park.



LFLBC: What is the organization’s vision?
JS:  Our long-term vision is for all to embrace living within a “conservation community.” Lake Forest Open Lands vision is to have the place we live, work, and raise our families to be a community where nature is central to the way we live. One of the most gratifying results of a conservation community is that by preserving our natural heritage -- we improve our quality of life where we live and connect families, friends, and generations.

And we have many exciting future plans! We are currently working hard to get two new nature preserves open in the next couple of years.  Planning and investment continues at the Jean and John Greene Nature Preserve at McCormick Ravine to get it open to the public.  It’s truly spectacular. It’s a highly complex endeavor to not only restore the habitat, but to install the new trails, bridges and infrastructure to make a great user experience.  It will be worth the wait. We are working carefully to do it right.

We also are planning the trails and boardwalks for another future nature preserve -- a preserved parcel at 770 Westleigh Road – across from our West Skokie Nature preserve. This is also a dynamite little gem in the center of town.

And of course, when we preserve land, we must also continue our regular work that includes battling invasives and stewarding and propagating our rare local species.

But we’re not done preserving new properties.  We have other exciting projects we’re working on to preserve. Stay tuned!



LFLBC: How has the pandemic affected Open Lands?

JS: The current situation across our nation has pushed us to think and work in new and different ways. But in a way it has also been very rewarding for the work we do at LFOLA.  I think this past year we’ve all rediscovered how connected we are to nature and the benefits it provides.

When it seemed everything closed during the pandemic, Lake Forest Open Lands worked hard to keep our six public nature preserves open so people could get outside and experience nature. It is humbling to hear from so many in our community how important it has been to get out in nature and visit our preserves.  People are incredibly appreciative that they have these outdoor areas to recreate, recuperate – or get out of the house for some much-needed fresh air. Just getting outside in nature lifts your spirits.

Like so many others, our organization also feels the impact of the pandemic, but our work goes on. Land stewardship continues – we’re spreading seeds, mowing trails, attacking invasives, checking bird boxes, and planting trees. Our environmental education programming has found the intersection of nature and technology to create interactive activity guides and scavenger hunts for each preserve.




LFLBC: How do you give back to the community?

JS: The relationship between LFOLA and the community is symbiotic.  A passion for nature is part of the history and fabric of our community – it helps define who we are. The fact that we have protected over 800 acres of open space and offer miles and miles of trails in our public nature preserves is a gift the community has given to itself.  It’s really a remarkable achievement, and something we can all be proud of.  These preserved landscapes are open to the public 365 days a year.

LFOLA works hard to provide myriad ways to become connected nature: The opportunity to visit a nature preserve just outside your door; advising people how to help nature by planting native species in their yard; welcoming volunteers to help with land restoration; providing educational programs and internships.  There are so many ways our community shares in our efforts and success.

A meaningful way we give back is through LFOLA’s robust nature education and outreach programming. During the past year, our programming did not stop—we shifted to self-guided and staff-guided nature experiences. For example, we provided opportunities for outside adventures one-on-one with our trained field educators, or by simply using one of our prepared adventure kits. We’re expanding programming this summer to offer something every day of the week--for kids, youth, adults, and seniors.

Every day of the week this summer we have a variety of programs for both kids and adults to experience the “wild side” of our community.  For example:

  • On Monday’s we plan to have a “senior stroll”
  • We’re continuing to offer our Tuesday on the Trail guided hikes
  • Wednesday we’ll be hosting Family Campfires
  • Every Thursday we’ll offer Guided Bird Walks
  • And on the second Friday of each month we’ll continue our popular Conservation Cocktails events
  • On Fridays for older youth we have programs for junior restoration ecologists

Visit our website at for details


LFLBC: How can people participate and help?

JS: It’s my hope that everyone who appreciates the beauty and recreational resource of our open spaces will become a member of LFOLA!

I’m proud that about one-fifth of Lake Forest households are members of Lake Forest Open Lands.  I believe this commitment to nature is one thing that really differentiates who we are as a community.  It’s something we can all take pride in! And I believe that a $65 annual membership for a family is an incredible return on investment for all that we all enjoy.  It’s my hope that everyone who appreciates these places will become a member of LFOLA!

Another great way to help LFOLA and nature is by introducing native plants into your garden. Why? Because the incredibly valuable natural order—biodiversity­—that once defined and helped “protect” where we live has been severely impacted by development. Put another way, the naturally diverse plants of our local woodlands, prairies, savannas and ravines have been replaced by introduced lawns and a mono-culture of non-native ornamentals. Our yards have become part of the problem.  By planting natives in some of your yard you can become part of the solution.

You can find a nice selection of native plants to purchase by attending LFOLA’s Go Native! Plant & Tree Sale on May 22 (8am-1pm) at Mellody Farm Nature Preserve. Or pre-order online at  Natives will not only make your yard lovely but help the birds and pollinators we all depend upon.

And our Cattails & Cocktails home event is a fun way to help support our mission.  Go online to order special dinners from The Other Door in Lake Bluff from May 20 - 23.