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Replace his rimless glasses with a pince-nez, add a bristling mustache, and Jerry Adelmann, the vigorous 60-year-old president and CEO of Openlands, would bear more than a passing resemblance to another exceptional conservationist: Theodore Roosevelt. But unlike TR, the Openlands chief hasn’t had the benefit of presidential fiat to make his green dreams a reality. Instead, by forging partnerships among activists, politicians, businesspeople, and ordinary citizens, Adelmann has managed to save large swaths of the local landscape for future generations. “Cities are not usually thought of as a nature preservation area,” he says. “But Openlands is interested in all the dimensions of green space: urban gardens, prairies, ball fields.”
Even in a 30-year career rich in ecological accomplishments, 2009 stands out as a banner year for Adelmann. Last fall his organization introduced its Openlands Lakeshore Preserve: 77 acres of woodlands, bluffs, and ravines situated on the Lake Michigan shoreline in the southern part of Fort Sheridan. Formerly owned by the U.S. Navy, the property might have become a gated community had Openlands not taken possession. The government didn’t charge for the land, but the organization’s ongoing capital campaign has raised more than 75 percent of a planned $12 million to ensure the site’s viability in perpetuity.
A native of Lockport, Adelmann realized in the late 1970s that the land southwest of Chicago, perceived by many as a blighted rust belt, actually held great potential. He was especially drawn to the region along the old Illinois & Michigan Canal, a 19th-century relic that had once provided an invaluable link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. “Envisioning [as he puts it today] a future grounded in the past,” Adelmann not only created a thriving modern-day canal corridor—which connected 49 communities along 120 miles of waterways—but he also invented a whole new kind of national park. Today, the National Park Service recognizes nearly 50 national heritage areas—and Adelmann’s canal corridor was the first.
His partner in the canal project was a Chicago-based land-conservation group known then as the Open Lands Project. After overseeing the canal corridor for several years, Adelmann assumed leadership of Openlands in 1988. “I love this region, and I love what I do,” he says. “There is always something new and exciting to do.”
Or as Teddy Roosevelt told a Chicago audience 111 years ago: “Far better it is to dare mighty things.”
Photograph by Ryan Robinson; Assistant: Mark Doddato Styling: Courtney Rust Hair and Makeup: Ashley Condron and Carley Martin/Artists by Timothy Priano