New Farm Bill Signed Into Law

On December 20, 2018, the President signed into law the new Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is among the most important and comprehensive laws Congress makes. It authorizes the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), crop insurance, urban forestry, and conservation and local food programs.

Overall, the new Farm Bill does many favorable things:

  • Critically important for our communities is that work requirements on supplemental nutrition assistance recipients remain mostly unchanged.
  • Key local food offerings are consolidated into the new Local Agricultural Market Program and given increased and permanently authorized funding.
  • Beginning and socially-disadvantaged farmer supports, which are underutilized in greater Chicago, are consolidated and given permanently increased funding under the new Farmer Opportunities Training and Opportunities Program.
  • The Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program has dedicated, increased funding of $5 million in each of the next five years.
  • Harmful exemptions from endangered species laws for agrochemical uses are rejected along with other damaging regulatory rollbacks.
  • Misguided forest management provisions are mostly ignored.

This Farm Bill is a mixed bag for conservation, but there are a few more highlights on the plus side:

  • The Environmental Quality Incentive Program, which pays farmers to make improvements that conserve water, reduce erosion, and improve habitat, is increased to more than $2 billion.
  • The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program that permanently protects farmland is increased by 80% (to $450 million) and will allow land trusts to do buy-protect-sell transactions.
  • Regional conservation partnerships are allocated another $50 million (up to $300 million).

However, overall conservation funding remains $5 billion lower than what conservation programs received before 2014. This means that increases to some conservation programs come at the expense of other conservation initiatives. Most notably, this Farm Bill, cuts $800 million (45%) from the Conservation Stewardship Program (“CSP”). CSP is widely regarded as the most effective program for improving wildlife habitat, water quality, and “whole farm” conservation solutions. It is so popular that less than half of farmers who apply for funding currently receive it. After these cuts, only about ¼ of farmer-applicants who want to do comprehensive resource conservation will be funded.

The overall impact from this shift in conservation funding will cost Illinois roughly $14 million per year, according to staff analysis and adjustments of a report by the University of Illinois. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that CSP creates nearly $4 in economic and environmental values for every $1 it costs, leaving Illinois with a net loss of $56 million. Openlands will try to reduce this loss by leading efforts to better utilize Farm Bill resources in Illinois, such as seeking funding for agricultural conservation easements on places like Hoffmann Farm.

Thank you to all of you who made your voice heard in support of SNAP and a conservation-friendly Farm Bill. Learn more about how Openlands is working improve local food systems and protect farmland in our region.

Have You Discovered the Garfield Park Conservatory?

Step in to Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory and step back in time and to a whole different world. Between the towering trees, tropical plants, vibrant flowers, the gorgeous displays, and stunning architecture, it almost feels more like an immersive art experience than a walk through the garden.

The Conservatory is truly one of Chicago’s greatest treasures: it houses one of the country’s best horticultural collections and gorgeous landscaping, it is an architectural wonder with elements designed by the famous landscape architect Jens Jensen, and it is an excellent community asset. You can spend your day wandering among the collections of plants, enjoying a free guided tour or educational program, or letting your kids explore nature in their own way, making it a great spot for visitors of all ages.

The Garfield Park Conservatory is owned and operated by the Chicago Park District and is home to thousands of plant species, spread through eight different indoor gardens. In the warmer months, visitors can spend some extra time wandering the 10-acres of outdoor gardens.

There are definitely some spectacular spots in the Conservatory to snap a photo, so be sure to bring your camera or phone and share what you find. Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure! And something to keep in mind: the Conservatory is a pretty great spot for a date.

Unpacking the National Climate Assessment and What We Can Do

On Black Friday, the White House released the much anticipated Fourth National Climate Assessment, a sweeping Federal review of the impact of climate change on the natural environment, agriculture, human health, forests, transportation, and natural resources. The report, which was authored by scientists from 13 Federal agencies and climatologists from across the country, documents in explicit terms the changes to our climate that have already occurred in the United States.

The report paints a grim future for the country and the Midwest region, going so far as to declare that, “without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property, and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.”

And all of this needs to be held in light of the United Nations’ 2018 Emissions Gap Report, released on November 27, which states that even at the current pace of emissions reductions, the world is falling far short of the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement.

Climate science can be cumbersome and reading about these reports no doubt will lead to some anxiety for many of us. But we want to prepare you with information and talking points so you can advocate for climate action right now. 


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“Species and ecosystems, including the important freshwater resources of the Great Lakes, are typically most at risk when climate stressors, like temperature increases, interact with land-use change, habitat loss, pollution, nutrient inputs, and nonnative invasive species.”

Fourth National Climate Assessment, Chapter 21 — Midwest

On the whole, Illinois has actually fared somewhat well relative to the rest of the planet, which is to say that we are not experiencing the upsurge in natural disasters like the California wildfires, the devastating heatwaves in Australia, or the destructive hurricanes in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The changes we have felt are more subtle, and inaction will cause those changes to accelerate exponentially over the century.

1. It’s not too late to do something

One of the most important things to always keep in mind is that it is not too late to act. The 2015 Paris Agreement created a global framework wherein signatory countries would work to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The goal is to keep global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) — at that point, we must still expect significant changes in our climate, but we will avert catastrophe. Additionally, the Paris Agreement set the aspirational goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees (2.7 F) to create a type of  safety net. There is still a chance that we can reach that goal.

2. Climate projections are viewed on a scale, and we can act to reduce and prevent some impacts

Climate change reports often present their findings with both a best case scenario and a worst case scenario. For the Chicago region, the worst case scenario is we end the century with a climate similar to that of present-day Dallas or Phoenix.

Both the Fourth National Climate Assessment and the landmark report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued in October 2018 emphasize the importance of what are known as mitigation and adaptation tactics to address this crisis.

Mitigation is the process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing efforts to pull greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Adaptation refers to the actions we can take to prepare for the impacts and reduce the risks of climate change.

Openlands believes our response to the threat of climate change must be two-fold, embracing both of these strategies, and using solutions based in nature to put carbon back in the ground. As Chicago’s regional land trust, Openlands is uniquely positioned to leverage land conservation with community climate action and to ensure that our region seizes the opportunity to pioneer innovative solutions to the climate crisis.

3. Forests and land conservation are more important than ever

Both the report from the Federal Government and IPCC stress the importance of forests and land conservation as central elements in preventing climate change from wreaking ecological devastation. Large, healthy woodlands with hardy native species and vast sweeping prairies filled with grasses and deep-rooted plants suck in and absorb massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere while providing havens for wildlife.

The National Climate Assessment states that, “species and ecosystems, including the important freshwater resources of the Great Lakes, are typically most at risk when climate stressors, like temperature increases, interact with land-use change, habitat loss, pollution, nutrient inputs, and nonnative invasive species.” The good news is that so many of these risks can be avoided today.

For one, we know how to protect clean water resources: we know that plants and open space can manage stormwater, removing harmful pollution and keeping adjacent waterways healthy. Trees in urban areas not only pull pollution and carbon from the air, but also lower temperatures on the ground, but across the region we need to care for these resources better and plant many more trees. And we know that restoring natural areas leads to healthier landscapes that mitigate greenhouse gases more efficiently. Ecological restoration has additional benefits beyond absorbing carbon, which include flood relief, pollution reduction, controlling invasive species, improved water quality, and better habitat for wildlife.

Focusing our efforts on protecting existing forest preserves and parks, restoring natural areas, and using these nature-based solutions all help mitigate emissions and adapt our neighborhoods and communities to a changing climate.

Chicago Neighborhoods

4. Heat, Humidity, and Human Health

Unfortunately, we have to expect that increased temperatures will unleash new complications to human health in our region. Higher temperatures and higher humidity increase the risk for heat stress, the ferocity of storms, mold and fungal disease such as oak wilt, and the potential for poor air quality resulting from smog. We can expect to see these hazards affecting those with asthma and chronic health conditions.

In both the best and worst case scenarios, we can expect greater occurrence of painful 100-degree days. This undoubtedly will result in higher utility bills and strain on transportation infrastructure. Increased heat and humidity will further impact human labor, particularly in sectors tied closely with the climate such as agriculture.

5. Agriculture in the Midwest is at Risk

The United States produces nearly $330 billion in agricultural commodities annually. Agriculture is vulnerable to direct impacts on crops and livestock from changing climate conditions and extreme weather events, as well as indirect impacts like new insects and diseases. While heat stress on crops in the Midwest has been minimal, increased spring rainfall has made planting more challenging and wet conditions in the fall can impact the timing and quality of a harvest.

Central to every study of the agricultural impacts of climate change is the assumption that farmland will always be available. While more than 80% of land in Illinois is farmland, keep in mind that we have some of the best soil in the world for growing food. We need to think of this soil as a key natural resource — and protect it like one.

Openlands is working right now to ensure that the farmland in our region stays as healthy farmland, rather than being sold off for another big box store. We also work with farmers to implement adaptive practices on their land. Integrating native prairie plants into row crops, for example, has been shown to reduce sediment and nutrient loss from fields, as well as improve biodiversity and ecosystem services, such as flood control and carbon sequestration.

6. Water Levels in the Great Lakes

There have been lots of news stories this year showing how water levels in Lake Michigan are at near-historic highs and there’s a temptation to claim prematurely a link to climate change. The reality is that we are not sure what is going to happen with water levels in the future. We can expect the Great Lakes region will get warmer and to experience warmer winters, meaning there will be greater evaporation from the lakes year-round. But we are also expected to receive far more precipitation than we have historically; therefore, water inputs to the lakes will be higher. We are unsure how climate change will impact the stable cycle of evaporation and precipitation that has governed the Great Lakes for millennia. You can read more about that here.

7. Climate change is felt most by the most vulnerable

Much like poverty, disease, crime, or debt, climate change can affect anyone, but the effects are concentrated among those who are most vulnerable. Children, elderly adults, and frontline communities will feel the health impacts of a changing climate the most. Frontline communities are often low-income and communities of color and tend to face disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards, pollution (such as congested highways or power plants), inequitable access to green space, and poor air quality leading to higher rates of asthma.

In 1963, Openlands was founded as a social justice organization charged with the purpose of preserving green space because nature is vital to the well-being of all people. Since that time we have steered our region towards sustainability and now we are committed to guiding our region through climate change. We can’t do it without you.


All the information in this blog post can be found in greater detail in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which again was written and reviewed by 13 Federal agencies. The report is presented online in a user-friendly manner; you can find information on particular regions, issues, or themes; and we strong encourage you to take some time to read through the report. For more information, please contact climate@openlands.org.

Have You Discovered Ryerson Woods?

Wandering the trails at Ryerson Woods you may feel as if you’re exploring forests far from the Chicago suburbs. This oak woodland is home to some remnants of our region’s ecological past and it’s a great place to spend the day outside.

Located on the banks of the Des Plaines River in southern Lake County, the Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area is 565-acre preserve managed by the Lake County Forest Preserves. Ryerson Woods supports some of Illinois’ most pristine woodlands and several state threatened and endangered species. Two rare ecosystems — flatwoods and a floodplain forest — can be found here. Much of Ryerson Woods has been protected as an Illinois Nature Preserve.

Ryerson Woods makes a great day-trip for outdoor enthusiasts. The trails are well maintained and the area is pretty flat, so it won’t be your most strenuous hike, but there’s plenty to enjoy. And part of the beauty of Ryerson comes from its year-round accessibility: the trails are open to cross-country skiing in the winter (when there’s at least 4″ of snow) and it’s treasure to see in late October as the leaves turn. If you’re looking for somewhere new to explore or even if you’ve been before, make sure it’s on your list of places to get outside in our region.

How the 2018 Midterms Impact Conservation

The 2018 Midterm elections are (almost) over, and the results are important for conservation. New leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives, Illinois Governor’s Mansion, and on county boards throughout our region offers opportunities to re-assert conservation priorities at all levels of government. Here are a few results that are especially noteworthy:

  • Federal: The greater Chicago region will have new leadership in two House of Representative Districts: the 6th District, which encompasses Deer Grove Forest Preserve and many other forest preserves in Cook, McHenry, Kane, and Lake counties, and the 14th District, which includes Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Both winning candidates have strong backgrounds in science and healthcare.
  • Illinois: Many candidates who campaigned on environmental and renewable energy topics won statewide offices, including Governor, Attorney General, and Treasurer. A strong slate of State House and Senate candidates will also be working with Openlands and our partners to advance strong environmental policies in Springfield.
  • Other states: Wisconsin will also have a new Governor, who can re-assert wetlands and air quality protections that were waived by his predecessor. Proving that open space has national and bipartisan appeal, California, Georgia, the City of Austin, and at least 46 other state and local governments passed open space funding referenda worth more than $5.7 billion this year, according to the Trust for Public Land’s LandVote database. However, Washington State voters failed again to pass a sweeping carbon tax program.
  • Local governments: Closer to home, county boards will now include more familiar (and friendly) faces. They will also include many new names, including 6 new Commissioners in Cook County, as well as new party leadership of county boards in Lake and Will counties. Strong leaders at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District were re-elected and another long-time champion for clean water was added to their ranks.

Thank you for voting to elect such a strong slate of environmental leaders to govern us, and please turn out again during Chicago’s citywide elections on February 26, 2019. We at Openlands will continue to work collaboratively with new and returning elected officials to advance conservation issues at all levels of government. We invite you to continue telling these elected officials that conservation matters to us all!


We need you to continue making your voice heard with our elected officials, even today. Take a look at our ongoing advocacy campaigns and speak up today for our environment.

Helping Restore the Tree Canopy at Indian Ridge Marsh

On the chilly morning of Saturday, October 13, Openlands teamed-up with partners on Chicago’s Southeast Side for a tree planting at Indian Ridge Marsh. Joining us at the planting were team members from the Student Conservation Association (SCA), Audubon Great Lakes, the Chicago Park District, The Wetlands Initiative (TWI), and the U Chicago Lab School.

Indian Ridge Marsh is a 154-acre native marsh and wet prairie habitat in the Calumet region. It sits as part of an extraordinary network of adjacent natural areas on the Southeast Side including Wolf Lake, the Calumet River, Big Marsh, and Lake Calumet. The Calumet Wetlands Working Group — which includes The Wetlands Institute, the Chicago Park District, and Audubon Great Lakes — has been restoring Indian Ridge Marsh since 2016 as part of an important conservation effort that will inform restoration and management of remnant wetland sites across the Calumet area.

Healthy and stewarded natural areas are part of the green mosaic of vibrant, resilient urban environments. They help clean our air, manage stormwater, house our region’s biodiversity, and provide a place of respite from our hectic urban centers. Due to pressure of invasive species, climate change, and development, it is essential to actively manage these open spaces, with native tree planting as a key component.

Volunteers spent their morning planting trees and shrubs in the natural areas at Indian Ridge Marsh. We planted bur oaks, swamp white oaks, and hop-hornbeam, as well as hazelnut trees, hackberry trees, dogwoods, and more! The morning was organized as part of the Openlands TreePlanters Grants program, which provides communities in Chicago and southern Cook County plant new trees in their neighborhood.

“A big thank you to our partners at the Park District, SCA, TWI, Audubon Great Lakes, and Lab School for providing crews, equipment, knowledge, and enthusiasm to plant these trees,” said Michael Dugan, Openlands Director of Forestry. “This was truly a collaborative effort of conservation organizations, stewards, and volunteers in our city and region.”

You can check out our photos from the community tree planting below. If you’re interested in volunteering with Openlands tree planting program, check out our upcoming events here. Our applications for the Spring 2019 TreePlanters Grants will open in January. For more information, please contact trees@openlands.org.


Look for Bison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Saturday, November 3 is National Bison Day and you can celebrate the holiday by visiting Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie! In honor of the holiday, Midewin is throwing a party and volunteers and staff will be on hand to visit with people while they look for the bison herd. Spend the day wandering the prairie, learning about Midewin’s history, and join a guided hike with the US Forest Service.

In 2015, a herd of American bison were introduced to Midewin as part of a 20-year ecological restoration experiment, and the herd has since grown in size. In 2016, President Obama declared the American bison as the national mammal due to its historic, cultural, and ecological ties to North America.

The US Forest Service, who manages Midewin, and the Forest Preserve District of Will County are co-hosting a community-wide bison outreach with events across Will County, so you can couple your trip to Midewin with a visit in downtown Wilmington.

This is a great opportunity to enjoy Midewin, the largest open space in the Chicago region. You can view some of the scheduled activities for the day here or spend the day exploring Midewin for yourself. Check out our recommended hikes here or rent canoes and enjoy a trip on the Kankakee River Water Trail.

Photo: Rick Short, USDA

The 19,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is the first national tallgrass prairie in our nation’s history. Established in 1996, it is considered one of the most important conservation initiatives in Illinois of the 20th century and was established as a direct result of leadership and advocacy by Openlands. In addition to advocating for the former Joliet Arsenal to become Midewin, Openlands worked in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and other organizations to develop The Prairie Plan for the restoration of a unique prairie ecosystem. In 1997, Openlands helped organize the conference, “From Bison to Buffalo Grass,” which envisioned the return of bison as an integral part of prairie restoration efforts. Learn more at Openlands.org/Midewin.

Peoples Gas Steps Up for School Gardens

Peoples Gas

Openlands is thrilled to announce Peoples Gas as the Principal Sponsor of the Building School Gardens program for the next three years. Their generous support will allow Openlands’ ongoing efforts to provide support and resources to Chicago Public Schools that have already installed gardens through the program.

Launched in 2007, the Building School Gardens program currently supports 58 Chicago Public Schools. Openlands hosts workshops for teachers, leads garden workdays for the school community, and works closely with leadership at the schools to create sustainable gardens and expand environmental education. Through this program, approximately 33,000 students are directly impacted by the school gardens each day in addition to the hundreds of teachers, parents, and community members.

“We are thrilled to support this initiative to provide students the opportunity to learn and play in an environment that encourages them to connect with nature and learn about it in a hands-on way,” said Mary Houpt, Peoples Gas Manager of Community Partnerships.

Photo: Allison Williams

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Coming Soon — School Field Trips!

With the generous support of Peoples Gas, Openlands is now excited to announce that we can expand the Building School Gardens program to provide deeper connections to nature for students and their families during weekend trips to nearby large-scale landscapes such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Deer Grove Forest Preserve, or Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge.

Family field trips to some of the region’s best natural areas are a phenomenal way to ground what students learn in their outdoor classrooms and through environmental education lessons. Research also demonstrates that positive experiences in nature with a trusted adult are an predictor of future environmental stewards, and this informs the core of our education programs. Openlands is excited to have this new layer in our school partnerships because we know deeper relationships will lead to stronger advocates for the environment.

“A school campus is often the heart of a neighborhood and having a school with lush gardens and safe green spaces makes people want to stay, visit, and be present in their community,” said Openlands’ Vice President of Community Conservation Daniella Pereira. “Hosting workshops for the teachers, working with the students, and having the support from families and school staff has been essential to building the relationships that make a green campus a true asset. We’re honored to be invited into these school communities and we are so excited to keep the work going with the support of Peoples Gas.”


Peoples Gas, a subsidiary of WEC Energy Group (NYSE: WEC), is a regulated natural gas delivery company that serves approximately 830,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers in the city of Chicago. You can find more information about natural gas safety, energy efficiency and other energy-related topics at peoplesgasdelivery.com.


Openlands commits to long-term relationships with our Chicago Public School partners, working with students to see nature in a school garden, around their neighborhoods, and across landscapes. As our expertise in environmental education has grown over the years, we have developed new programs to help students recognize the nature around them and to engage entire school communities in conservation.

For more information on our education programs, please contact schools@openlands.org.

Have You Discovered Busse Woods?

Head out to the northwest suburbs and explore one of the largest forest preserves in Cook County! With over 3,500 acres of conserved open space, winding mixed-use trails, open pastures and picnic areas, paddling opportunities, wildlife viewing, and more, Busse Woods is one of the region’s best outdoor recreation destinations. Whether you’re an experienced kayaker, a trail runner, a family looking for a great picnic, or a nature lover, this place has something for everyone.

Busse Woods is pretty huge, and there’s so much to unpack and explore within the forest preserve, which makes it quite a fun time. With so much to do there, you’ll probably want to spend a whole day there. And while Busse Woods is great year-round, know that you’ll get some excellent views of fall colors as you explore this massive forest.

If you’re intrigued, be sure to plan ahead for your day. The main trail loop is nearly eight miles roundtrip, but it is definitely doable. The trail is pretty flat, paved throughout, and shaded for about half of the trip. There are a number of places to rest along the way. Plan three to four hours, depending on your pace, and bring plenty of snacks and water. If you’re thinking of a shorter trip, consider the portions of the trail surrounding Busse Lake as it’ll provide some excellent views — not to mention a cool breeze on a warm day.

Busse Woods is also home to the unique Busse Forest Nature Preserve, one of the richest and most diverse natural areas in the Cook County forest preserves, and has been designated an National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service.

FYI: if you’re trying to figure it out, it’s pronounced “bus-see”.

Links, Livestock, and Local Food

Openlands works to promote and protect healthy lands across northeastern Illinois. With so much of our region dedicated to agriculture, this vision must include farmland, so we support small and local farmers, interested in conservation-friendly land management practices, to secure new land for sustainable agriculture.

In late 2017, Openlands identified a unique opportunity for agricultural land protection: the Plum Tree National property, an approximately 265-acre former golf course located in rural McHenry County, just outside the small farm town of Harvard, Illinois. Abandoned golf courses typically feature vacant or naturalized areas, substantial acreage, and existing infrastructure that could support a logical transition from golf course use to agricultural operations. These features make golf course properties an attractive option for farmers looking for large tracts of land.

Openlands hoped to convert the site to agricultural grazing to help increase opportunities for sustainable local food farming. We also wanted to provide financial support for a farmer to implement the infrastructure that was required to make the business viable and profitable with the assistance of Food:Land:Opportunity.

However, when we conducted soil sampling during the initial due diligence process, we found soil contamination that rendered the property unfit for a swift and economical transition into grazing use. This meant the project couldn’t proceed, but we realized that we have learned a number of important lessons. Openlands’ experience with the Plum Tree National property revealed that golf course properties may present other unique challenges. To plan ahead for those challenges, we published a new report to assist farmers, land trusts, and other conservation agencies think through the work.

Full Report: Links, Livestock, and Local Food — Challenges of Converting a Golf Course Into a Sustainable Local Food Operation


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Although the project to create a local grazing operation on the former Plum Tree National golf course property did not come to fruition, Openlands remains hopeful about the possibilities of such land use conversions in the future. As golf courses trend towards closure and sale across the U.S., more such properties will become available in the coming years. Additionally, we hope that our experience can serve as an example for land conservation organizations across the country.

As Chicago’s regional land trust and one of the only land trusts to work in a major metropolitan area, Openlands is uniquely positioned to test innovative land protection models like this. We recognize that these lessons need to be learned and we are willing to take these risk, conduct these studies, and share the results to better inform the land trust community across the country. The story of Plum Tree can inform other opportunities for Openlands, and these lessons will help protect more agricultural land and help to localize food systems across the country.


Food:Land:Opportunity supports Openlands’ work testing new and innovative models that combine agriculture and land conservation, including the Plum Tree National project.

For more information, please contact Aimee Collins, Director of Regional Conservation at acollins@openlands.org.