Reflecting on Openlands’ Legacy in the Environmental Movement 

The year was 1970 and Chicago, like cities across the country, had been marked by a decade of massive change and tension in the cultural consciousness. An air of protest moved through the country, as individuals were mobilized by the sight of horrifying images from the Vietnam War, and protests swept through Chicago at the Democratic National Convention of 1968. Racial tensions were high, as the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death that same year destabilized the spirit of the Black Chicagoans and ignited riots on the West Side that left entire neighborhoods in ashes. Redlining divided the city even deeper and white flight and sprawl moved wealthier, middle-class to the suburbs of every major city. 

Yet, among the many racial and political issues that divided many Americans during the 60’s, one issue united the country: the need for environmental protection. Unlike today, where environmental issues have become largely bipartisan, the first Earth Day brought together people from both sides of the political aisle due to the recognition that pollution and waste needed firm regulations.  

This coming Saturday, April 22, we celebrate the 53rd anniversary of the first Earth Day, when Senator Gaylord Nelson created an official day of action to force environmental issues and the urgent need to create regulatory mechanisms that protect the health of our planet into the national consciousness and government agenda. On that day in 1970, Openlands was a young organization at the cutting edge of environmentalism. Prior to Openlands’ establishment in 1963, there were no conservation organizations focused on land preservation and environmental protection in large cities. The beginning of the 1970’s marked the beginning of a decade that would shape environmental policy, both nationally and locally in Chicago, and set the stage for Openlands’ 60 years of conservation leadership. 

The first Earth Day was pivotal in bringing together millions of Americans and the previously fragmented environmental movement. Here in Chicago, Openlands played a key role in helping organize the city’s first Earth Day, which included plans that spanned a whole week and that ended with a rally at the Civic Center, now Daley Plaza. 

Prior to April 22, 1970, while there were scattered activist efforts to address certain environmental issues, such as stopping the use of deadly pesticides, as illuminated by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and the reduction of city smog, there was no official movement that brought together all environmental issues under one umbrella or that supported the creation of green organizations and careers.  

In Chicago, concerns about pesticides, pollution, sprawl patterns were developing, especially due to the expansion of highways, which led to the development of prime farmland and prairies. Prior to the founding of Openlands, there were no environmental organizations in the Chicago region to address these issues. That is, until George Overton, who was involved in fresh air camps that exposed inner city youth to nature and founding President Jeffrey Short, a conservationist focused on saving biodiversity and rare prairie ecosystems from extinction, came together to seek the preservation and development of recreation and conservation resources in northeastern Illinois.  

Originally established as a project of the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago in a state with no official land use policy, Openlands originated as an environmental hub where people could turn to for taking environmental action. In its first decade, Openlands took on significant projects in Illinois and beyond, such as the preservation of Beall Woods, a prime oak-hickory forest that is now a state park, and the protection of the Indiana Dunes. Openlands also played a key role in laying the groundwork for the Illinois Prairie Path, which was the first greenway plan in the nation, the promotion of the McHenry County Conservation District, and support for preservation of the Illinois & Michigan Canal corridor. However, while Openlands was beginning to take action in the Chicago region, on a national scale, environmental issues were on the political backburner, and there was no Clean Air or Clean Water Act and little regulation of hazardous waste. 

That all changed when Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who was concerned about sprawl and the destruction of open space in his home state, conceived of a day of national environmental awareness. Because Senator Nelson was unable to push environmental issues to the top of the national agenda, he hired young staffers and used inspiration from the anti-war protest teach-ins to organize the first Earth Day. His office took out a full-page ad in the New York Times advertising the first official day of action, and more than 12,000 events took place across the country. As many as 20 million Americans (every 1 in 10) got involved, including the closing of 5th Avenue in New York City, which drew 200,000 people, and a teach-in at the University of Michigan, which drew 15,000. Thousands of events took place in communities across the country at churches, schools, and in front of government buildings. 

In Chicago, every college hosted events, and Oak Park River Forest High School hosted an entire week of Earth Day events, which Openlands staff participated in. Earth Day changed the course of many Americans lives and of national policy. According to environmental historian Adam Rome, the first Earth Day was incredibly empowering and gave individuals a sense they could do anything, and it demonstrated the power of collective action. Organizing large events and coming together with others who share concern for an issue serves as a profound educational experience and can motivate individuals to work together to make lasting change.  

In many ways, Openlands was created out of the shifting cultural consciousness that birthed Earth Day, and since its founding has been committed to connecting people to nature in the Chicago region and serving as a convener and facilitator that transcends geopolitical boundaries. 

At a time when climate issues present a very real existential threat to the present and future of biodiversity and humanity, it is easy to get overwhelmed about the scale of change required to change our trajectory. However, looking back at the first Earth Day is one way to maintain hope and momentum. Americans from all political backgrounds came together and made commitments to do something different and create change. 

Openlands’ Op-Ed in Crain’s Chicago Business Urges the Next Mayor to Prioritize the Environment

With one day left before Chicagoans choose their next mayor, residents hold the fate of the next four years of environmental policy in their hands. In a recent op-ed published in Crain’s Chicago Business, Openlands’ CEO Jerry Adelmann explains why Chicagoans are not exempt from climate-related risks and why environmental issues need to be taken off the back burner and made a priority by the next mayor.

The op-ed focuses on the following key ideas:

  1. Cities are on the front lines of climate change and as the third-largest city in the United States, Chicago has a responsibility to lead the world in creating a climate-resilient and environmentally friendly urban area.
  2. Chicago needs to reinstate a Department of Environment and create an overarching city plan to increase greenspaces and green jobs, and restore critical ecosystems like prairies and wetlands that improve water quality and support wildlife.
  3. Environmental justice, nature-based solutions, and regional collaboration need to be key areas of focus. The next administration needs to bring community leaders to the forefront of decision-making and create inclusive policies that protect historically marginalized communities.
  4. Growing and maintaining Chicago’s tree canopy should be a priority for the next mayor, as trees are one of the most basic and critical nature-based solutions to the climate crisis. The new mayor needs to provide staffing and support to the newly elected Urban Forestry Advisory Board and adopt the Board’s policy recommendations.
  5. Cities contribute to the biodiversity crisis through pollution, overexploitation, and habitat fragmentation. The next mayor needs to transcend political boundaries and pass habitat-friendly laws and policies across the metropolitan area.
  6. The Department of Environment should leverage the Inflation Reduction Act and help to identify, apply, secure, and manage new funds and serve as a regional hub for collaboration.

Crain’s Chicago Business subscribers can view the full article here.

Connecting Children to Nature with Birds in My Neighborhood

This week marks the first week of spring, and with the warmer weather and increased sunlight comes more opportunities to get outside and enjoy the many benefits of nature. Spring also marks an important period for bird watching as birds begin their spring migration.  

In the past, bird watching was often stereotyped as being an activity mostly enjoyed by older adults wearing long vests and deerstalker hats. However, birdwatching is incredibly accessible to all, and more and more people of all ages and backgrounds are discovering the joys and benefits of birdwatching.  

Bird watching is one of the primary tools used by Openlands to get youth outside and help them foster an appreciation for nature, and over 8,000 students have learned about the joys of nature and birdwatching through our Birds in My Neighborhood® (BIMN) program. Established in 2013, BIMN introduces students in the Chicago Public School system between Pre-K and fifth grade to common birds of the region through in-class lessons and field trips. In partnership with the US Forest Service International, this classroom-based and volunteer-driven program is offered to schools in the City of Chicago, McHenry County, and Lake County, Illinois.  

Because birds are all around, bird watching is incredibly accessible and affordable. Birds exist just outside the classroom doors, and while binoculars can be used, they are not necessary. All that is required for bird watching is your eyes and sense of focus to tap into observational skills. Birdwatching fosters a connection to nature through the process of observing the natural world and using the senses to identify the sounds and sights around. The BIMN program teaches children to slow down, think, process, and listen. In a world where children spend increasing amounts of time focused on screens, the experience of learning to focus their eyes and ears on nature is invaluable.  

Kids love a field trip, and the BIMN field excursions give students a sense of freedom while also teaching them deep reflection skills through the use of take-home journals, where they document key learnings and process their experience. This year, Openlands will also be providing journals in Spanish for bilingual students.     

While most of Openlands bird-watching programs are focused on youth education, adults can get involved by becoming a volunteer with Birds in My Neighborhood. Volunteers are an essential part of the program, as BIMN relies on volunteers to assist our in-school programs. Volunteers help run the program by working with teachers to schedule two classroom visits and a field trip to a local natural area. Volunteers are not required to be experienced birders, however; passion for connecting youth to nature is a must.  

The BIMN program also aims to inspire teachers to find more unique ways to engage students in their classrooms, and to seek out other opportunities to further enrich their students. After inviting the BIMN into her classroom, CPS teacher at Wadsworth STEM School Cynthia Brawner wrote a “Neighborhood Birds 101″ proposal through DonorsChoose, and she received funding for binoculars, wooden birdhouses, and books including a field guide and journal for her students. 

According to Openlands’ Education and Outreach Coordinator, Lillian Holden, bird watching is one of the best entry-level ways to get outside and connected to nature, making it an excellent activity for all people, including children and people who don’t consider themselves to be outdoorsy. A teacher from Saucedo Elementary explains how BIMN transforms students into advocates for nature, “I always see such growth and learned knowledge in the students after going through the program. Students actively become aware of the species found in their urban setting.” 

According to Lillian, for people new to birding, spring migration is one of the best times to get started. During this time of year, trees and flowers begin to bloom, inviting hundreds of species of songbirds and tropical species travelling over the Midwest and to stop for food and rest on their journeys. Chicago is one of the biggest bird migratory routes in North America, known as the Mississippi flyaway, and birds can be spotted near water, especially Lake Michigan, and near woods and grasslands.   

Top left to right: Lillian Holden, Kelly Escarcega, Danielle Russell. Bottom left to right: Jorge Garcia, Jessica Fong.

Openlands Education team (pictured) recently welcomed new staff members Jorge Garcia, Volunteer Coordinator for BIMN, as well as Kelly Escarcega, Openlands’ new School Gardens Coordinator. Along with Director of Education Jessica Fong, School Garden Coordinator Danielle Russell, and Lillian Holden, the team will continue to provide nature-based education programs for students, teachers, and volunteers throughout the Chicagoland region. To get involved with the education community, join the first-ever Green and Growing Summit on May 6th! Updates will be posted on our events page and social media.   

Celebrating Stories of Black Excellence along the African American Heritage Water Trail

The Calumet region contains internationally significant history and stories of Black excellence from the past 180 years in the Chicago area. Flowing through the region are the Little Calumet River and Cal-Sag Channel, which pass through several south-side Chicago neighborhoods and the remarkable stories of African Americans who settled along the river. This waterway is a witness to freedom seekers who traveled the Underground Railroad, trailblazers who defied discrimination and became Tuskegee Airmen, and pioneers in the struggle for civil rights and environmental justice. In 2020, Openlands, in partnership with neighboring communities, developed the African American Heritage Water Trail brochure and story map, which serve as a catalog and inventory of the major sites of Black history along seven miles of the Little Calumet River and Cal-Sag Channel, from the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Beaubien Woods to the Village of Robbins, so that anybody can explore and appreciate this valuable and inspiring history. 

Three years after the creation of the African American Heritage Water Trail brochure and story map, one of the sites highlighted by the Water Trail, Chicago’s Finest Marina and historical Ton Farm, boasts a new feature: signage. A new marker has been placed on the corner of 134th Street and St. Lawrence Avenue, the former site of Ton Farm and the current location of Chicago’s Finest Marina, educating all those who pass by about the history of Ton Farm as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The sign was created by the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project with a National Park Service Network to Freedom grant. The installment of what will be the first of many signs to commemorate the Ton Farm site marks an important step forward in the evolution of the African American Heritage Water Trail. While exciting press like a feature in the New York Times has introduced the Trail to the world, installing signage is a critical step in establishing the region as a Heritage Area for passersby.  

The installation of signage at stops along the Trail will infuse the area with new meaning and reconnect the place with the memory of the land, water, and former slaves who traversed the Little Calumet River on their journey to a free life. Formerly the location of Ton Farm, the site was a place where freedom seekers sought refuge on their journey north. The Ton family was one of several Dutch families that settled in the area between 1847 and 1849. People escaping slavery in the South used what was known as the “Riverdale Crossing,” now the Indiana Avenue Bridge just west of Chicago’s Finest Marina, before stopping to rest with the Ton family, who then helped transport them via covered wagon up through Chicago or Detroit and eventually Canada. Reaching Canada was the ultimate goal for freedom seekers, as they were not guaranteed safety even in northern states. The National Park Service accepted the Jan and Aagje Ton Farm site into the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom registry in 2019. 

According to Laura Barghusen, Openlands’ Blueways Director, the importance of signage for placemaking cannot be overstated: “If people are coming to the area for reasons other than the trail, signage raises people’s awareness in a way that nothing else will. For example, Ron [Gaines, owner of Chicago’s Finest Marina] rents his place out for family reunions. With the sign in place, people who are coming down for events are suddenly going to see that it is also an Underground Railroad site.”  

As humans, we are all typophiles. The term topophilia was coined by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan and refers to the emotional bond that a person has with their environment —a person’s mental, emotional, and cognitive ties to a place. While places exist whether or not people feel connected to them, having a strong sense of place is what bonds us to the places we inhabit and helps us feel connected to our surroundings and community, whether it be our neighborhood or a single tree. Developing a sense of place in nature can help us feel more connected to the outdoors and motivated to take care of the natural wonders that surround us. In places that contain important history, signs act as a way of establishing an emotional connection to the place for visitors. 

While the significant places along the trail have existed for the past 180 years, the creation of the trail and its new signage is an important form of placemaking that provides visitors with a way to connect to the history of the region. When thinking about Black Americans and history, stories are often focused on land as a concept. The trail takes a unique approach to Black history, as it focuses on water and the way in which the Little Calumet River flows and connects the history of the region through time and space. By learning more about the stories of those who previously traversed along the trail, all while paddling and taking in the sound of lapping water and bird songs, lush green trees, and fresh air, visitors are given a deeply embodied, multisensory experience of nature and history.   

Each time someone visits sites along the African American Heritage Water Trail, whether a visitor or resident, they take an active role in the placemaking of the area by contributing new memories to the trail. We invite you to plan a paddle trip this summer to enjoy the beauty and history of the trail using our story map.  

Openlands’ Lillian Holden Discusses the Historical Significance of Chicago’s Finest Marina on NBC5

Openlands’ Education and Community Outreach Coordinator, Lillian Holden, was interviewed by NBC5 Chicago about the historical significance of Chicago’s Finest Marina, which is the oldest Black-owned marina in the Chicago region and sits on the former Ton Farm property, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Openlands and Community Leaders Talk about the African American Heritage Water Trail on Fox 32

Openlands’ Education and Outreach Coordinator Lillian Holden was interviewed by Fox 32 on Sunday, February 12 for a video segment about the African American Heritage Water Trail and the historically significant landmarks along the trail that represent over 100 years of Black history in the region. Ronald Gaines, owner of Chicago’s Finest Marina, and Adella Bass, a community organizer who is helping restore the Little Calumet, were also interviewed.

Celebrating the Passage of the Charitable Conservation Easement Program Integrity Act

Conservation easements play a critical role in landscape conservation and the preservation of wildlife habitat. And thanks to the passage of the Charitable Conservation Easement Program Integrity Act (CCEPIA) in late December, the integrity of conservation easements now receives permanent protection like the land that easements preserve. The Act, which is part of the omnibus spending bill, will play a powerful role in stopping the abuse of conservation easements by tax cheats, saving billions in taxpayer dollars. 

A conservation easement is a voluntary and legal agreement that allows landowners to retain desired rights to their private land while protecting a property’s important natural features like woodlands, water sources, and native plantings. Landowners keep many of their rights, including the right to own and use the land, sell it, or pass it on to their heirs, but give up the right to cut down or destroy the parts of the property protected in the easement.  

Currently, conservation easements save around 40 million acres of open space and wildlife habitat in the United States and provide tax incentives for landowners, with land trusts stewarding about half of those 40 million acres. Conservation easements are a critical part of achieving the goal of conserving 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. Easements are a pillar of Openlands’ land preservation work, and over the past 40 years, Openlands has assisted over 100 communities across northeastern Illinois in acquiring land and conservation easements to directly preserve over 15,000 acres of open space. 

In 2015, Congress increased tax incentives to encourage landowners to use conservation easements. Unfortunately, a small number of bad actors have abused this system, taking advantage of tax break benefits for their own gain. In doing so, they jeopardized the reputation of conservation easements. According to the most recent publicly available IRS data, investors claimed nearly $36 billion in unwarranted deductions between 2010 and 2018. 

To put that into perspective, approximately 2,000 to 2,500 conservation donations are made annually for truly charitable purposes, resulting in about $1 billion in claimed deductions per year. Meanwhile, between 2016 and 2018, the IRS found $22 billion in unwarranted tax deductions claimed on fewer than 300 easements. And while the number of bad actors is small, the discovery by the IRS of this tax abuse called into question the entire system and connected the concept of conservation easements with fraud in the public eye. The CCPEIA puts an end to these abuses and will protect the federal conservation easement tax incentive and preserve the integrity of our tax laws and the conservation community as a whole. 

Conservation easements like the one protecting Hoffman Farm in McHenry County can create a family legacy that ensures the enjoyment of the land for future generations. Elena Spiegelhoff, who grew up playing among the natural wonders of the property, inherited the family farm in McHenry County and wanted to protect the farmland and natural features she had known since childhood. Through a partnership between McHenry County Conservation District and Openlands, the 153 acres that sit within the greater Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge are now permanently protected. Openlands is now working with a sustainable farmer to keep the land healthy and productive in its new role as a native plant nursery. You can hear more from Elena about the process in the video below.

While conservation easements are often used on private land, they can directly benefit the public, as in the case of North Park Village Nature Center located on the northwest side of Chicago. Formerly the site of the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, the sprawling campus grounds provided fresh air for patients and a natural setting for the treatment of tuberculosis. After the Sanitarium’s doors closed in 1974, the public gained access to the site and recognized the over 140 acres of natural areas as a special nature hub within the city. Throughout the years, multiple development plans were proposed for the area, but thanks to the help of Openlands’ collaboration with the local community and an advisory council, it was decided that the site would remain in the hands of the City through a conservation easement with Openlands, who would ensure the open space would stay protected. This was the first time that Openlands applied a conservation easement to publicly owned property.

You can learn more about how to protect your land in perpetuity with a conservation easement through Openlands here.