State of the Beach/State Reports/IL/Beach Ecology

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Illinois Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access76
Water Quality65
Beach Erosion6-
Erosion Response-3
Beach Fill6-
Shoreline Structures7 3
Beach Ecology1-
Surfing Areas35
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


To the casual observer, beaches may simply appear as barren stretches of sand - beautiful, but largely devoid of life or ecological processes. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Sandy beaches not only provide habitat for numerous species of plants and animals, they also serve as breeding grounds for many species that are not residential to the beach. Additionally, beaches function as areas of high primary production. Seaweeds and other kinds of algae flourish in shallow, coastal waters, and beaches serve as repositories for these important inputs to the food chain. In this way, beaches support a rich web of life including worms, bivalves, and crustaceans. This community of species attracts predators such as seabirds, which depend on sandy beaches for their foraging activities. In short, sandy beaches are diverse and productive systems that serve as a critical link between marine and terrestrial environments.

Erosion of the beach, whether it is “natural” erosion or erosion exacerbated by interruptions to historical sand supply, can negatively impact beach ecology by removing habitat. Other threats to ecological systems at the beach include beach grooming and other beach maintenance activities. Even our attempts at beach restoration may disrupt the ecological health of the beach. Imported sand may smother natural habitat. The grain size and color of imported sand may influence the reproductive habits of species that utilize sandy beaches for these functions.

In the interest of promoting better monitoring of sandy beach systems, the Surfrider Foundation would like to see the implementation of a standardized methodology for assessing ecological health. We believe that in combination, the identified metrics such as those described below can function to provide a revealing picture of the status of beach systems. We believe that a standardized and systematic procedure for assessing ecological health is essential to meeting the goals of ecosystem-based management. And, we believe that the adoption of such a procedure will function to better inform decision makers, and help bridge the gap that continues to exist between science and policy. The Surfrider Foundation proposes that four different metrics be used to complete ecological health assessments of sandy beaches. These metrics include

  1. quality of habitat,
  2. status of ‘indicator’ species,
  3. maintenance of species richness, and
  4. management practices.

It is envisioned that beach systems would receive a grade (i.e., A through F), which describes the beach’s performance against each of these metrics. In instances where information is unavailable, beaches would be assigned an incomplete for that metric. Based on the beach’s overall performance against the four metrics, an “ecological health” score would be identified.


Rapid changes in land use and expanding urban development prompted the Illinois General Assembly to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC) in 1963 to create a system of natural areas representative of Illinois’ landscape. The Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act (525 ILCS 30) governs the Commission and charges it to preserve, protect, and defend natural areas and endangered species habitat for public benefit.

This commitment to preserve the state’s rare natural treasures made Illinois the first state to create such an innovative land protection program. The INPC is now a national model, and more than a dozen states have followed its lead. In 1992, the INPC received international acclaim when it was recognized at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro as an “efficient and effective model of how to provide long-term protection for high quality natural areas.”

The mission of the INPC is to assist private and public landowners in protecting high quality natural areas and habitats of endangered and threatened species in perpetuity, through voluntary dedication or registration of such lands into the Illinois Nature Preserves System. The Commission promotes the preservation of these significant lands and provides leadership in their stewardship, management and protection.


The Dead River and the surrounding dunes and marsh at Illinois Beach State Park preserve an analog of the setting at which Chicago was founded on the banks of the Chicago River.

A portion of Illinois Beach State Park became the first nature preserve in 1964. Since then, protection afforded by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC) has expanded to 71,700 acres of private and public land in 93 of Illinois' 102 counties. Nature preserves provide unique opportunities for recreation, critical scientific study, and education. Many publicly owned nature preserves are open to the public for hiking and watching nature. Each year the INPC issues 400-500 research permits for biologists, scientists, and students to study and monitor rare species of plants and animals. This research can lead to improved ways to protect endangered plants and animals. The nature preserves system serves as a natural storehouse of genetic material, some of which could provide the chemical basis for new drugs and medicines. While protecting the last few remnants of our state’s natural heritage, nature preserves also provide living classrooms to benefit future generations.

INPC areas located within the ICMP boundary are as follows:

  • Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve
  • Illinois Beach Nature Preserve
  • Lyons Prairie and Woods Nature Preserve
  • North Dunes Nature Preserve
  • Powderhorn Prairie and Marsh Nature Preserve
  • Spring Bluff Nature Preserve

In 1978, Illinois completed the nation’s first Natural Areas Inventory to document remaining natural communities and rare species habitats. The Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (INAI) is a comprehensive effort to find, evaluate, describe, and classify the best examples of Illinois' natural heritage, including high quality natural communities and endangered habitats. INAI areas are "environmentally sensitive resources" that are considered to be "irreplaceable assets" of the state. All state agencies and local governments in Illinois are required by law to consult with the IDNR whenever actions that could jeopardize these resources are contemplated. The INAI serves as a guide for the INPC when determining the eligibility of lands for protection. The INAI served as a prototype for many other states.

Currently there are only 654 high quality undisturbed natural communities in the state. Approximately half of these areas are unprotected and are in danger of being destroyed. Each year, 12 to 15 new nature preserves are dedicated after a thorough and detailed study of an area protecting them into the future. Although the IDNR updates the INAI quarterly, a more extensive update is being made to take advantage of the new knowledge and scientific discoveries made in the last 25 years about landscape science, restoration, and the dynamics of wildlife corridors. The new inventory will identify local and statewide areas of significance, and consider the potential for restoring natural areas. A Geographical Information System will be used for recording and protecting information about the site, and a website will be created where the public can access site information and area partnerships.

Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (INAI) sites located within the ICMP boundary are as follows:

  • 130th Street Marsh
  • Blair Woods
  • Blodgett Bluff
  • Burnham Prairie
  • Crabtree Farm Woods
  • Dolton Avenue Prairie
  • Fort Sheridan Bluff
  • Fort Sheridan Site
  • Glencoe Botanical Area
  • Hubbard Woods Site
  • Illinois Beach
  • Illinois Dunes North
  • Lake Bluff Woods
  • Lake Calumet
  • Lyons Woods
  • McCormick Ravine
  • Montrose Beach Dune
  • Powderhorn Lake and Prairie
  • Ravinia Bluff
  • Waukegan Beach
  • Wolf Lake

Ecosystem Monitoring

A state-of-the-environment report published in 1994, titled The Changing Illinois Environment: Critical Trends concluded that ecosystems in Illinois are deteriorating and their natural functions are being disrupted by fragmentation and stress. This report recommended that the state begin collecting statewide data on both the extent and condition of its ecosystems in order to determine the most effective and economical natural resources policy. Thus, the IDNR created the Critical Trends Assessment Program (CTAP) that developed the data collection tools and programs needed to monitor trends in Illinois ecosystems. CTAP completed an atlas of Illinois land cover, an inventory of resource rich areas, and 30 regional watershed assessments. The team consists of staff from IDNR’s Office of Realty and Environmental Planning, Illinois Natural History Survey, Illinois State Geological Survey, Illinois State Water Survey, Illinois Waste Management and Research Center, and the Illinois State Museum.

The inventory of resource rich areas helped to establish priorities for the state’s Conservation 2000 Ecosystems Program. Most of the program’s Ecosystem Partnerships have at their core a resource-rich area. Ecosystem Partnerships are made up of individuals and interest groups that work together to maintain and enhance ecological and economic conditions within a defined boundary. The Ecosystem Partnerships that are working within the ICMP boundary are the Lake Michigan Watershed, Chicago Wilderness, and Lake Calumet. As Ecosystem Partnerships were formed, CTAP prepared regional “Critical Trends” reports for their areas. Usually based on watershed boundaries, the reports describe an area’s geology, water resources, living resources, socio-economics, environmental quality, and archaeological resources. They are designed to provide the baseline information the partnerships need to set priorities and develop management plans.

Two assessment reports have been prepared on areas within the ICMP boundary. The Chicago River/Lake Shore: An Inventory of the Region’s Resources (October 2004) provides an excellent discussion on the various terrains and natural habitats that evolved, and the nature preserves and natural areas that exist today, along with a description of the current threats to these natural communities. The other report is titled The Calumet Area: An Inventory of the Region’s Resources. This report includes a description of changes in this region’s prairies, rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands, forests, and savannas. It also included sidebars on the black-crowned night herons, exotic species invasion, and dedicated nature preserves in the area.

The Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project (GLEAM) evaluates multiple stressors affecting the Great Lakes ecosystem. GLEAM merges spatial data layers representing all major categories of stressors to the Great Lakes, ranging from climate change and land-based pollution to invasive species, into a single map of cumulative stress. The synthesis of this information into a single map enhances our ability to manage and restore the Great Lakes ecosystem. The final map can be used to assess stressor impacts at locations with significant human benefits and to evaluate conservation and restoration opportunities.

NOAA's Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps provide a concise summary of coastal resources that are at risk if an oil spill occurs nearby. Examples of at-risk resources include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal Services Center, in partnership with NatureServe and others are developing the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS), a standard ecological classification system that is universally applicable for coastal and marine systems and complementary to existing wetland and upland systems.

Other Coastal Ecosystems

NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) conducts high-quality research and provides scientific leadership on important issues in both Great Lakes and marine coastal environments leading to new knowledge, tools, approaches, awareness, and service.

GLERL is a multi-disciplinary environmental research laboratory that provides a solid scientific understanding, as well as the leadership necessary for the wise use and management of Great Lakes and coastal marine environments.

CTAP has developed a long-term monitoring network that will provide current information on the condition of the major natural ecosystems. This information will support efforts to preserve, restore, and manage ecosystems across the state. Under the CTAP monitoring plan, CTAP scientists from the Natural History Survey conduct detailed biological inventories of 150 randomly selected sites (30 per year rotating on a five-year cycle) for each of four habitat types—forests, streams, wetlands, and grasslands. CTAP measures ecological indicators such as the presence of threatened and endangered species, species richness, species diversity, and dominance of native vs. non-native species. In streams, aquatic insects are the primary assemblage used as indicators of condition. CTAP seeks to develop a base of practical, real-world information that will help shape effective and economical environmental policies for the future on a sound ecosystem basis.

Trained volunteers in the EcoWatch network carry out less detailed biological surveys at several hundred sites. Together the two groups collect a representative set of biological indicators that measure environmental quality. The indicators include information on plants, birds, fishes, and aquatic insects that will track changes in the four ecosystems. As data accumulates over the years, regional and statewide trends will become apparent.

Contact Info

Frank Pisani
Program Development Engineer
Office of Water Resources

Michael Chrzastowski
ICMP Coastal Resource Coordinator / Senior Coastal Geologist
Engineering and Coastal Geology Section
Illinois State Geological Survey

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