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An Urgent Opportunity with America the Beautiful

With the release of the newest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which states that a 1.5 C increase in global temperature is guaranteed to arrive within two decades, humans can no longer delay taking every step necessary to curb the worst effects of the climate crisis.

While the report offers a stark future, it comes on the heels of an urgent and opportunistic plan of action that the US must implement to avoid massive biodiversity loss and the grim future the IPCC report portrays.

In July 2021, the United Nations, through its Convention on Biological Diversity, announced its Global Framework for Managing Nature Through 2030; an evolving plan which provides the first international agreement on biodiversity loss, to guide actions worldwide to “preserve and protect nature and its essential services to people.”  Through this plan, the U.N. aims to stem and reverse ecological destruction across the globe, officially calling for the protection of at least 30 percent of the globe’s land and waters.

This call to action may sound familiar, as the United States is already acting on this directive through the America the Beautiful initiative. In it, the Biden Administration called everyone – local communities through to states and federal agencies – to meet the moment and conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.  Since that directive, an expansive process has begun to engage people, from agricultural and forest landowners, fishermen, tribes, local officials – emphasizing the need to listen and respond to those living in our most divested communities to identify where the greatest needs and opportunities are for conservation. 

This comes not a moment too soon. As the only conservation organization looking expansively at the tri-state metropolitan region, Openlands is committed to acting boldly to ensure our region not only participates in this initiative but leads.  As we move forward collaboratively, four priorities drive our work:

  1. Communities that experience divestment bear the brunt of this risk, living with more contamination, flooding and heat, more volatile working conditions, and a diminished quality of life, with less access to healthy open lands and waters. America the Beautiful must center these communities to ensure equity and a more just future. As Openlands works to restore areas along the Little Calumet River Area, we are working in lockstep with communities to amplify the nationally important cultural heritage and history through the African American Heritage Water Trail and imagine a future with more access and opportunity for recreation and enjoyment of the river, and its natural and economic benefits with the Little Calumet Conservation Action Plan.
  2. Lost biodiversity means more than the disappearance of iconic wildlife and beautiful places – it means putting our future food and water supplies at risk. Through the American the Beautiful initiative, conservation must partner with agricultural and farming communities to promote regenerative and organic farming practices (Cover crops, no till, etc.), nutrient reduction practices, and agricultural easements that will protect soil, animals and insects, and our food and water. Openlands’ work in partnership with the Farm Foundation is laying the foundation for the future of both agriculture and conservation.
  3. Protecting more land and water does not mean we sacrifice economic growth, in our region or any other part of the US. Instituting the adoption of compatible land use plans, bringing in conservation strategies to zoning and agency approvals and revamping regulations around resource protections can help fight climate change and build a more viable economic future for us all. Openlands is proud to be a stakeholder in Moving Will County, an initiative advocating to cluster freight in order to encourage business and at the same time preserve Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, centennial farms, and other natural resources in what is known as the Prairie Parklands.
  4. Finally, we must accelerate the speed and scale of conservation in our region, supporting work on the ground to protect and restore land and waterways. Restored prairies and woodlands sequester more carbon, soak up more rainwater, and clean our air and soil more effectively than degraded or unprotected areas. Ensuring our government agencies, non-profits, business, and residents have the tools and resources needed to properly care for the land is simple, effective, and essential. Our restoration work across the region demonstrates that bringing the land back to health increases biodiversity, reduces flood waters, and makes us more resilient to climate change.

With the American the Beautiful initiative, we can prevent a catastrophic chain reaction and create a healthier, more just, and prosperous world for future generations. For change to be meaningful, it starts with all of us. To join the effort, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Tell Congress how important the America the Beautiful initiative is to Northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region.
  2. Advocate that Congress pass the RENEW Conservation Corps Act and create a new Civilian Conservation Corps, which would provide over a million good-paying jobs to restore and maintain our open space, from urban parks and rivers to our prairies and wildlands. 
  3. Get involved with Openlands or numerous other conservation organizations, agencies, and groups that are actively advocating for and moving the America the Beautiful Initiative forward through land protection, restoration, forestry, and more.

For all of us to withstand adversity and spring back from devastating weather events that we’ve seen from California to Connecticut, we must immediately invest in conservation initiatives and infrastructure that are collaborative and inclusive, restore biodiversity, and empower a green economy with good-paying jobs in communities that need it most.

The time to act is now.

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