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Celebrating National Wetlands Month

It’s National Wetlands Month, and in celebration of these important ecosystems, we are highlighting a few of the major wetland restoration initiatives that Openlands has taken part in in the Chicago region. Wetlands are areas where water covers the soil or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or for varying periods of time during the year. Rivers, lakes, streams, marshes, swamps, and bogs are all categories of wetlands that play an important role in our region’s ecology, as they collect water and minimize flooding, enhance water quality, control erosion, sequester carbon, and provide a home to at least one third of all threatened and endangered species. Unfortunately, due to development and major infrastructural changes like the reversal of the Chicago River in the 1900’s, Cook County has lost 40% of its wetlands since the 20th century. Without wetlands, our region experiences increased flood and drought damage, nutrient runoff and water pollution, and shoreline erosion. The loss of wetlands has also triggered a decline in wildlife populations.

The history of the Chicago region is a history of wetlands. Before the city was built into the booming metropolis it is today, much of the region existed as wet prairie, sedge meadow, and marsh. In fact, the name Chicago is derived from the Miami-Illinois word shikaakwa (“Stinky Onion”), or Nodding Onion, which is an odorous wetland plant native to the region. Chicago was built on a wetland that has since been filled. In both the city and in rural areas, in order to allow for development and farming, water was removed by installing drain tiles, which is a series of pipes made out of clay  (now pvc) that drain water. Drain tiles move soil water to streams or drainage ditches and lower the water table, turning wetlands into dry lands. 

While the draining of the wetlands in the Chicago region allowed for the development of a great metropolis, we now know that in order to protect our local ecology, wetland restoration is necessary for the future sustainability of our region. Wetland restoration is a nature-based solution to climate change and an essential part of protecting wildlife.

Openlands’ part of major wetland restoration projects spans the region from Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge down to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. In Cook County,  Openlands partnered with the Forest Preserves of Cook County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore wetlands and their surrounding upland habitat at Tinley Creek and Bartel Grasslands as part of the O’Hare Modernization Mitigation Account (OMMA). This project involved restoring around 900 acres of land owned by the Forest Preserves and an example of how through partnerships like this, taxpayer investments are extended for maximum impact. According to Linda Masters, Openlands’ Restoration Specialist, a majority of Openlands’ wetland restoration at these locations involved identifying where drainage tiles were installed, then disabling them in order to raise the water table and allow for the wetlands to reestablish themselves. Tinley Creek and Bartel Grasslands exist on flat geographies that used to be under a glacial lake until it drained to form lake Michigan. In order to later transform that wet land into farmland, drainage was required, meaning drainage tiles were installed  under the ground .

The OMMA partners hired Huddleston McBride Land Drainage Company to assess the landscape, dig trenches to find the underground drainage tiles, then create maps of all the tiles. Valves were then installed to manipulate water levels and raise the level of the water table. According to Linda, Openlands has taken a “passive” approach to re-establishing hydrology, meaning that for the most part, nature is allowed to do most of its own work. However, the valves are occasionally manipulated if the land is too wet and is at risk of flooding, as that puts nearby development at risk. Along with disabling  drainage tiles, Openlands removed introduced trees that were planted at both Tinley Creek and Bartel Grasslands post-farming. While Openlands is normally a proponent of tree planting, in this case, both landscapes were prairies before settlement , and the removal of trees allowed them to return to their natural prairie condition.

According to Linda, wetland restoration is essential for the health of both infrastructure and wildlife. Rather than creating hard surfaces like concrete that drain water quickly to rivers and cause flooding downstream, wetland restoration keeps water where it falls , making the land into a sponge. Wetlands also create habitat for animals that are adapted to living in or near water. Due to the drainage of our region’s wetlands, we have lost wading birds and waterfowl that have nowhere to go when wetlands disappear. By restoring wetlands, habitat is recreated that welcomes back the wildlife native to our region, maintaining the biodiversity of our region necessary to keep our ecosystems healthy and functional.  

Learn more about Openlands wetland restoration work here.

Gaining Ground Through Volunteering at Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge

It started with a question among dedicated individuals: “Why can’t we have a National Wildlife Refuge here?” Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, which this fall will celebrate ten years since its official establishment, began just like that and has grown to a partnership of many organizations and individuals, including Openlands, and the protection of over a thousand acres and counting, for wildlife and people. 

The preservation of landscapes like Hackmatack is one of the ways that Openlands is gaining ground with land trusts across the country through the Land Trust Alliance. Over 60 million acres of land have been protected by land trusts in the United States with the goal of protecting 60 million more by 2030.  That ambitious goal is only possible if we increase the pace and scale of conservation in the region. Throughout this month we’ll be focusing on ways people can help us keep gaining ground through volunteering, advocating, and supporting land conservation.  At Hackmatack, preservation and restoration continues and when complete, the Refuge will include over 10,000 acres of protected land. 

The existence and growth of this National Wildlife Refuge and the work of volunteers go hand-in-hand. Back in 2004, a small group of volunteers, who came to be known as Friends of Hackmatack, began to pursue the possibility of transforming the land that Hackmatack now occupies into a wildlife refuge. Openlands became a key partner early on, and with other groups like McHenry County Conservation District, and over the next eight years public interest was gauged, and over $20,000 in donations were collected to start the Refuge. Eventually, thanks to the ongoing efforts made by partners, the proposed Refuge made national news, and then-Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar publicly announced the authorization of Hackmatack as a National Wildlife Refuge. Volunteers have been the backbone of Hackmatack from its inception and have continued to restore and care for the land so that it can be enjoyed by future generations. 

While Hackmatack is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its refuge manager, volunteers and partnerships are critical to the health and sustainability of Hackmatack. Openlands often acquires unrestored land and will work in lockstep with Friends of Hackmatack and McHenry County Conservation District to remove invasives, plant native plants, and restore the land to health. That means that the bulk of restoration work at Hackmatack falls into the hands of volunteers. 

According to Friends of Hackmatack Board Member Pete Jackson, one of the best examples of the impact that volunteers make at Hackmatack is through the ongoing work at Tamarack Farms, an area currently owned by Openlands: “We’ve been working there for over two years and we’ve put in over 825 hours of volunteer hours. This is a savanna that was severely degraded with overgrown brush. We were able to complete the clearing of that site and we’re doing follow-up work now.”

Jackie Bero, who works as the volunteer coordinator at the McHenry County Conservation District, explains that volunteers do more than just manage land. The volunteers who work with the Conservation District and Friends of Hackmatack are teachers and advocates who educate others about the importance of conservation. 

The necessity of volunteers cannot be understated; according to Bero, 511 registered volunteers in the Conservation District fulfill different volunteer roles including doing public outreach and education, along with restoration and land management. In 2021, volunteers worked over 6,000 hours, which equates to an additional three full-time staff. Without the work of volunteers, the scope of work necessary to keep Hackmatack restored would not be possible. 

“We can’t do it all ourselves, there’s too much land to cover. Frankly, we’re inspired [by the work of volunteers],” Bero explained.

People interested in volunteering can get involved in various capacities, ranging from one-off restoration visits to long-term projects. Many steady volunteers come to every workday and are the backbone of Hackmatack. However, for people unable to make a long-term commitment, restoration is the easiest thing for a drop-in volunteer to get involved with. According to Bero, all volunteers are welcome and appreciated. “If you don’t have a lot of time and can only make it once a year, that’s a couple of hours we can’t do on our own,” she said. 

Volunteers can take part in a number of different activities, including seed collecting, brush cutting, and plant and wildlife monitoring. For people looking for more advanced restoration work, the Conservation District offers training for chainsawing, herbicide use, prescribed burning, and pulling garlic mustard.  

Education is a core tenet of the mission of Friends of Hackmatack, and they always use workdays as an opportunity to help volunteers understand the importance of the local ecology and their work. The process of helping volunteers understand the natural world around them helps volunteers understand why their work is important and worth committing to. 

According to Friends of Hackmatack Officer and Board Member Steve Byers, the organization encourages their volunteers to become leaders in their own right and develop their own skills. “It’s a plus for the District and Friends of Hackmatack, but it’s a plus for the individuals that become leaders in stewardship activities. It’s an empowering experience,” he explained.

Beyond the on-the-ground restoration work that volunteers support, volunteers also play a crucial role in the policy work necessary to keep Hackmatack sustainable for future generations. According to Openlands’ Restoration Specialist Linda Masters, “A vibrant volunteer community is really the eyes and ears on the ground – they are constituents and voters. They will write to their legislators and ensure that these places remain and are not bulldozed or developed, that they are cared for.”

Anyone interested in volunteering at Hackmatack can do so by submitting an interest form through the McHenry County Conservation District and visiting the Stewardship Activities page through Friends of Hackmatack. Interested individuals can also reach out directly to Pete Jackson. Together, we can keep gaining ground to 2030! 

10 Native Plants to Make Your Property More Climate Resilient

The most recent report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the effects of climate change are already worse than previously expected. The new report is dire and found that droughts and heat waves are killing off trees and corals, sea-level rise is driving people out of their homes, and deforestation is harming ecosystems and killing animal species. The report, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability states that greenhouse gas emissions have increased temperatures by 1.1 degrees Celsius, which is already causing extreme adverse impacts at a faster rate than scientists expected. 

The reality of climate change is scary, and while we can no longer turn a blind eye to the reality of it and proceed as normal, it is also important that we find ways to maintain hope and take action that empowers us and connects us to nature. Without a doubt, in order to reverse course, countries and governments need to take urgent action to drive policies that curb emissions from the transportation and energy sectors, which are the biggest sources of emissions due to the burning of fossil fuels. In the United States, passing legislation like the Build Back Better Act and America the Beautiful initiative, which would preserve 30% of US Lands and Waters by 2030, is essential to avert a future where the planet is uninhabitable. 

While we cannot undo the effects of climate change already taking place on an individual level we can employ nature-based solutions in our region to support our local ecosystem and mitigate the worst effects of extreme weather. Planting native plants are one of the most immediate and easiest actions you can take to support wildlife and mitigate the effects of climate change on your property and in our region. 

Planting native gardens are part of a movement called “rewilding,” which is a conservation effort focused on restoring biodiversity and ecosystem health by stepping back and allowing natural processes to occur, and encouraging wild plants and insects. Native grasses have deep roots that make them drought-resistant, reduce soil erosion and flooding, filter pollutants from groundwater, and increase rainwater infiltration. They also remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their roots. In contrast, lawns increase stormwater runoff and are the worst plant choice for carbon sequestration. 

Native gardens also play an essential role in our food web by providing wildlife with habitat and pollinators, like birds, bees, and hummingbirds, with food. Pollinators are vital to maintaining healthy ecosystems, as they are essential for plant reproduction, and produce genetic diversity in the plants they pollinate.

Incorporating native trees and plants into your garden is one aspect of the process of rewilding, and you can choose from a wide array of them through the Openlands Native Tree and Plant Sale. While all native plants have a positive impact on the environment, Openlands’ Landscape Ecologist Mary Fortmann has selected ten trees, flowers, and grasses that have an especially powerful effect and can help make your property more resilient to flooding, drought, soil erosion, and more. Check out the list below then head over to the sale to make your purchases! Supplies are limited and will be restocked throughout the year, so if any of the species listed are out of stock, be sure to check back soon!

  1. Indian grass

Native grasses have deep roots that make them drought-resistant, reduce soil erosion and flooding, filter pollutants from groundwater, and increase rainwater infiltration. Indian grass is excellent for prairie restoration and stands 6 to 7 feet tall! However, it can be aggressive from seed and should not be planted in small gardens with limited space. Indian grass is excellent for fixing soil erosion.

  1. Switchgrass

Switchgrass is a beautiful grass at all times, but it really comes into its own in late summer into winter. This grass turns a lovely shade of yellow and orange is can function great as a natural fence. Switchgrass loves moist areas, so if you live in a flood plain this grass is a great option for your property. 

  1. Hickories

Hickories are a tree in the walnut family that bear fruit. Many of the American hickory species are native to the Chicago area and provide all the carbon sequestration and water absorption benefits of trees while also providing shade and air filtration. (currently out of stock)

  1. Milkweeds

Milkweed is a climate and pollinator superstar, as it has deep roots that sequester carbon and rainwater, and provides habitat and food to the Monarch butterfly. 

  1. Ninebark

Ninebark blooms pink to white in June in umbel-like clusters. Exfoliating bark exposes a cinnamon-brown inner bark. Great in shrub borders. This is a very durable large shrub.

  1. Little Blue Stem

Little Blue Stem is one of the most well-known of all prairie grasses. It has a beautiful color, height, and durability, and its beauty makes it a great ornamental plant. In nature, you’ll find it on well-drained sites of all kinds from sand and gravel soils to the tops of mesic hill prairie sites. In the garden, it will do fine on most sites that are not too wet.

  1. Hackberry

Hackberry is a Chicago-area native and a sturdy, tolerant shade tree for parkways, parks, and other large areas. Its fleshy, purple-brown berries ripen in late summer and persist through winter. (currently out of stock)

  1. Lead plant

Lead Plant has a deep branching root system good for erosion control and is easy to grow in any sunny well-drained site. As with many native plants, the lead plant is drought tolerant.

  1. Asters

Asters provide a beautiful pop of color in the native plant garden. Often paired with goldenrod, asters provide food for pollinators, and even after they have faded they continue to provide food and overwintering habitat for insects and wildlife. 

  1. Oaks

Trees in general, but Oak Trees specifically, are climate warriors. They remove carbon dioxide from the air, store carbon in the trees and soil, and release oxygen into the atmosphere. Oak trees are a keystone species that supports more life than any other tree in our region, providing habitat and food to more than 500 species. (currently out of stock)

The 2022 ComEd Green Region Grant Is Now Available to Nonprofits, Educational Institutions, and More

For the past decade, the ComEd Green Region Grant has provided funding to municipalities all over Northern Illinois for conservation projects that plan for, protect, and restore natural places and support climate resilience and pollinator habitats. In celebration of its tenth year, ComEd has expanded the applicant pool to include a wider variety of organizations. Non-profit organizations, schools, school districts, housing authorities, townships, counties, park districts, conservation districts, forest preserve districts, and municipalities within ComEd’s service territory are now all eligible to apply for matching awards up to $10,000. 

Since 2013, ComEd competitive grant programs have made investments in communities to improve their infrastructure and quality of life. Collectively, these programs have delivered funding to improve green infrastructure, like parks, and to expand clean transportation in communities across northern Illinois.

Due to the success of Grant projects over the previous decade, the teams at ComEd and Openlands hope that expanding the opportunity to include a broader range of organizations will diversify the types of projects pursued. Projects can include, but are not limited to, planting trees, building rain gardens and butterfly gardens at schools, remediating toxic soil, and landscaping with native plants. 

The ComEd Green Region Grants are flexible and available to any organization listed above that can outline a project plan based on the program guidelines. While a variety of projects will be accepted, priority will be shown to projects that demonstrate a climate resiliency focus. The climate crisis is an imminent threat that puts the Chicago region at an increased risk for flooding, extreme heat, and invasive species. Along with the threat of climate change, overdevelopment has led to severe habitat loss that puts pollinators, on which the food chain depends, at risk of endangerment and extinction. Projects that increase native plantings, build the tree canopy, remove invasive species, capture rainwater and purify waterways all have a very real impact on the health of our ecosystems and the resilience of our region.

Previous grantees like the Chicago Park District, who received a grant in 2018 to install native plants and repair trails to increase site access at Palmisano Park in Bridgeport, have already seen an increase in butterfly traffic. According to Jason Steger, the Natural Areas Manager for the Chicago Park District, “The ComEd Green Region grant allowed us to improve pollinator habitat at Palmisano Park in a meaningful way. Volunteers of all ages helped us install the thousands of flowering native plants we were able to purchase with grant funds. In an area that was previously dominated by grasses, these plants provide food for pollinators and enhance the color palette of the natural area throughout the growing season.”

Applications are open until March 25 at 5pm, and no matter how small the project scope, all qualifying organizations are encouraged to apply! Organizations will require a cash match equal or greater to the funding requested at the time of application. If you have an idea for a conservation project at your organization, you are encouraged to apply for the 2022 ComEd Green Region Grant. If you are unsure whether your project idea qualifies for the Grant, feel free to reach out to the Green Region team at Openlands.

TreeKeepers Celebrates its 30th Anniversary with the Creation of TreeKeepers Chapters

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Openlands TreeKeeper’s Program. In that time, over 2,200 passionate advocates for nature have taken the TreeKeepers Course, learning the basics of trees and tree care. TreeKeepers have dedicated their time and energy to learning how to prune, plant, and advocate for the Chicago region’s urban forest. In honor of TreeKeepers’ 30th anniversary, Openlands is looking at the tremendous impact that TreeKeepers have made over the past five years, especially the important work that these dedicated volunteers have accomplished throughout the pandemic.

One of the most exciting new developments of the last five years is the leadership that TreeKeepers have taken to create local Chapters. TreeKeepers have taken it upon themselves to plan workdays and work with a variety of partners, including park districts, Alderpeople, municipalities, and others, to plant new trees in places where they’re most needed and perform ongoing pruning to keep existing trees healthy.

The most robust and first TreeKeepers Chapter is based in Hyde Park and was started by Nancy Joseph, who completed the TreeKeepers course in 2013 and proudly wears the badge of TreeKeeper 1,189. According to Nancy, who originally trained as a Master Naturalist with the Forest Preserves of Cook County before taking the TreeKeepers course, becoming a TreeKeeper completely changed the way she engages with the world around her:

“I can’t walk down the street now without looking at a tree that needs to be pruned and what I would do to that tree. It has changed the way I move around my neighborhood significantly. Working in some of the neighborhoods where we work has really made me appreciate the difference between areas that have a lot of trees versus those that don’t have trees.”

These realizations led her to notice how much work needed to be done in her home community of Hyde Park, where she has lived for 24 years. Nancy initially began pruning cherry trees on her own at Jackson Park with the help of Jerome Scott, the District Forester of the Chicago Park District and also a volunteer TreeKeeper. Eventually, Nancy connected with other TreeKeepers in Hyde Park and formed a group that met for workdays twice per month, once to prune trees on the street and once at a local park. The group grew over time along with a dedicated core group of people in Hyde Park. They are often joined by TreeKeepers from all around the city and suburbs to help prune trees.

While the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily put TreeKeepers activities on hold, once the group received permission from the Park District and Openlands, they started weekly pruning events. According to Nancy, these events helped provide a sense of purpose during the challenging global crisis:

“It was exciting to have something to do. We had a core group that would come weekly and would prune huge stretches in Washington Park and the Midway [Plaisance]. It was a nice respite for all of us, and we got an awful lot of trees pruned.”

Now, the Hyde Park Chapter has resumed twice-monthly pruning sessions. The impact of their dedicated work cannot be underestimated, and their work helped nearly double the number that TreeKeepers pruned from 2,000 to 4,000 trees.

The Hyde Park TreeKeepers Chapter is an example of the impact that committed TreeKeepers can have in their community over time, and there is an opportunity to form TreeKeeper-led chapters, both inside and outside of Chicago.

One of the newest burgeoning chapters is located in Downers Grove, where there is currently an exciting collaboration between the Downers Grove Park District and the TreeKeepers Program. Mike Stelter currently serves as the Superintendent of Natural Resources at Downers Grove Park District and approached Openlands TreeKeepers Program Manager Al De Reu in 2019 about forming a partnership. Stelter was developing an urban forest management plan, and the Park District identified the need to involve citizens in forestry work and engage an active group of volunteers in tree care and planting.

The TreeKeepers program was included in the urban forest management plan, and while the creation of the Downers Grove TreeKeepers Chapter was temporarily put on hold due to the pandemic, small workdays began in the fall of 2020 and have continued since.

One of the biggest challenges that the Downers Grove Chapter faces is the need for more trained TreeKeepers based in the suburbs. The majority of TreeKeepers are based in Chicago, and Stelter hopes to garner more interest from local volunteers in the training and grow a group of dedicated TreeKeepers in Dupage County.

Curtis Fahlberg is one of a few Dupage County residents trained as a TreeKeeper, and he is currently leading the charge for the Downers Grove Chapter. Curtis was trained in 2019 and is currently a Hinsdale resident, where he says he has benefitted from the dense tree canopy and the diverse array of species that were planted in response to Dutch elm disease.

According to Curtis, he hopes to get local residents engaged with the TreeKeepers Program, as he says it is a rewarding experience that benefits both individuals and the local community: “Some new volunteers are getting a shovel in their hands for the first time and they are getting their hands dirty for the first time. They just have no idea what’s inside these root balls and it’s quite an adventure. It’s been fabulous therapy throughout the pandemic.”

On a recent workday in October, Curtis described how personal the planting of a tree can be. He planted a sweet gum tree for his niece Abigail and her husband Mike, who will be having a baby soon. He hopes to bring their family to visit the tree and watch it grow over time.

“It’s a very hopeful thing to plant a tree,” he explained.

TreeKeeper Nancy also spoke of her hope for the future of the TreeKeepers Program, explaining the value of expanding chapters into more communities:

“I hope that people who have had the training find that now is an important time to get involved with trees, as they’re so critical to so many of the ecosystem services of an urban environment. We really need people to get out and help. I hope we can encourage more people to create groups in their neighborhood.”

You can learn more about the TreeKeepers Program and how to get involved with the creation of local chapters here. We look forward to another 30 years!

Announcing the Winners of the Route 53 Fields of Vision Photo Contest

The Green Corridor Coalition is proud to announce the winners of the ‘Fields of Vision’ photography contest, and we were absolutely blown away by all of the beautiful photos that were submitted!

The Green Corridor Coalition is a group of friends, residents, environmentalists, politicians, and visionaries fighting to protect the land that comprises the old Route 53 Corridor, one of Lake County’s most scenic natural landscapes. The group is pushing to turn a formerly proposed tollway corridor into a greenway — a trail through a long narrow nature preserve with a climate corridor that connects communities with parks and natural landscapes, making Lake County and our region more resilient, livable, and economically competitive. Illinois lawmakers recently approved a resolution calling for a task force to study alternate uses for the proposed extension of Illinois Route 53 in the northwest suburbs.

We received 55 submissions for the contest, but nine stood out as winners across our three categories. Please welcome us in congratulating the following individuals who placed in the contest:

Advanced Amateur:

First Place: David Jacobson – “Kestral Flyover”

Second Place: Michael Schmitt – “Killdeer Kildeer Killdeer”

Third Place: Mike Trahan – “Lone Chickory at the Wood Edge”

Amateur Over 18:

First Place: Jen Miller – “Broccoli Sunrise”


Second Place: Cheryl Keegan “Majestic Sandhill Crane”

Third Place: Gina Sheade – “Heron Creek Trail”

Amateur Under 18:

First Place: Kaavya Vassa “Heron Creek”

Second Place: Carter Conrad “A Vibrant Sunset”

Third Place: Anika Bhargava – “Berries in the Sun”

Key Takeaways from the COP26 Climate Conference

Last week, COP26, the largest climate change conference in the world, concluded in the United Kingdom after 12 days of meetings between global leaders. COP26, or the Conference of Parties, is an annual U.N. meeting of 197 countries that have agreed to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. This decision-making body assesses how countries are dealing with the climate crisis and establishes legal obligations on these countries to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The overall goal of the conference is to reduce GHG emissions enough to keep the global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, keeping the world from some of the most disastrous effects of climate change. Experts saw this year’s conference as holding a unique urgency, as many believed it to be the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control. 

This year marked 26 years of the annual summit, though many people consider the COP21 Conference in Paris to have been the most significant, due to the birth of the Paris Climate Agreement. There, every country agreed to work together to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees and aim for 1.5 degrees, to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate and to make money available to deliver on these aims. However, the commitments laid out in Paris did not come close to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, which is why this year’s summit in Glasgow was seen as critical to bringing nations together to commit to radically reduce their emissions. However, COP26 concluded with mixed reviews from the environmental community, and experts say the goals made this year fail to reach the Paris Agreement’s goal on limiting warming. So, was COP26 a success? 

Takeaways

  • The biggest takeaway of the conference was the creation of the Glasgow Climate Pact, which for the first time made a commitment to phase down coal and fossil-fuel subsidies. Acknowledging the need to phase out coal to drastically reduce warming was one of the biggest breakthroughs of the conference. However, it does not require that countries phase them out, which is a major point of contention for environmental advocates. 
  • More than 130 countries committed to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. The 130 countries, which include Brazil, home to the Amazon Rainforest, possess 90% of the world’s forests. Deforestation has devastating effects on the climate, as forests are climate sinks that track carbon in the ground. 
  • The United States and United Kingdom led the creation of the Global Methane pledge, which signed on over 100 countries to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere, and cutting methane emissions is critical to radically reducing warming. 
  • The United States and China issued a joint pledge to work together to slow global warming. The United States and China are the two highest emitters of greenhouse gasses, and they said they would boost clean energy, combat deforestation and curb emissions of methane.
  • India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to cut India’s emissions to net zero by 2070, which was the first time the country of 1.3 billion people made a net-zero pledge. However, the pledge is 20 years later than the 2050 net-zero pledge made by most other countries at COP26. 
  • Countries at Glasgow pledged to set up climate finance mechanisms to help countries already suffering loss and damage due to the climate crisis. Talks urged developed countries to scale up climate finance, technology transfer and capacity-building, and to follow through on their pledge to help developing countries transition to greener economies and adapt to the climate crisis.
  • While the commitments made at the conference will move us forward in a more positive direction, the graph below shows how the commitments made are basically a drop in the bucket.
Small island countries are some of the most vulnerable areas to the effects of the climate crisis, and their entreaties took center stage at this year’s conference. The Alliance of Small Island States, which is a coalition of 39 countries, largely from the Caribbean and South Pacific, including Jamaica, Cuba, Fiji and Antigua and Barbuda, commanded discussions about the need for wealthy countries to provide more funding for developing countries to adapt, and to pay some form of “climate reparations.” They ultimately described being unheard by larger countries and said that COP26 failed to create an actionable plan to protect the islands.

As the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, the United States has a gigantic role to play in the radical reduction of emissions necessary to control disastrous global warming. COP26 will only be a success if we all can work together to address climate change. Nature based solutions to climate change can and should be part of the proposed actions, as it provides upwards of 30% of the solution to tackling climate change.  Commitments to stop deforestation, restore land and water, and protect it from degradation are all commitments that have a direct impact on the Midwest and the Chicagoland region in addition to cutting methane and fossil fuel emissions.  Openlands is advocating for proposals like a new Civilian Conservation Corps included in the Build Back Better bill, America the Beautiful, and the REPLANT Act. You can help by reaching out to your senators and representatives to ensure these bills pass, and the US leads the way in tackling climate change.

Openlands and Partners Win $400,000 Walder Foundation Grant to Restore Beaubien Woods

Beaubien Woods is part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s robust 70,000 acres of natural area in Cook County. A treasured ecosystem on Chicago’s South Side, it is home to a mix of prairie, woodland, and wetland habitats, including Flatfoot Lake. Beaubien Woods runs along the Little Calumet River, an environmentally significant waterway that connects Chicago to the Mississippi River for various wildlife, including birds, fish, and mussels. Along with its ecological value, the Calumet Region has a rich cultural heritage, including being home to historical stops along the Underground Railroad and the birthplace of environmental justice in Chicago. The preserve sits next to community and industry, and access to the river has historically been limited. 

Beaubien’s proximity to the Little Calumet makes it the perfect place to bring nature and people together. To make Beaubien Woods and the Little Calumet River more accessible to the public, Openlands recently received a grant from the Walder Foundation for $400,000 to restore open spaces along the Little Calumet River. The grant project is shared in partnership with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, the Field Museum, and local community organizations, including People for Community Recovery, We Keep You Rollin’ Bike and Wellness Group, the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project, Chicago’s Finest Marina, and the Golden Gate Homeowners Association. Along with prairie restoration and the removal of invasive plant species, the project will build a community gathering space near the Beaubien boat launch, similar to the five gathering spaces at the Burnham Wildlife Corridor. A curatorial committee of community groups led by the Field Museum will decide the winning designs. By creating a community-driven, artistically designed gathering space alongside the restored prairie and trails, the project aims to reconnect nearby neighborhoods with the abundant environmental and cultural assets on and along the river to develop stewardship for the sites.

The Beaubien Woods project restoration will span two years, beginning this fall with a controlled burn to promote native species. Throughout the winter, Openlands’ Arborist Apprentices will clear invasive brush and trees. Beginning in the spring of 2022, contractors and volunteers will plant seeds and plug plants, emphasizing pollinator-friendly native plants. At the end of the project, 20 acres of native prairie will be restored along the access road to Beaubien Woods boat launch and invasive species will be removed at the northern end of the trail from Carver Military Academy to Flatfoot Lake, making the trail more inviting and encouraging the growth of native oaks. The Field Museum is currently the restoration steward at Beaubien Woods and will continue holding volunteer restoration days. 

The second year of the grant will also include some restoration of native plants and thinning of invasive trees at the riverfront of Beaubien Woods near the historic Ton Farm, the site of an Underground Railroad safe house that is nearby Beaubien Woods to the west. This restoration will provide a riverfront open space that the community can enjoy. According to Laura Barghusen, Openlands Blueways Director, Beaubien was chosen as the site for the Walder Grant for several reasons, the foremost being its potential to connect people to nature. “There were opportunities and interest to do restoration, and we saw it as an anchor and an example of what could be done along the Little Calumet to improve biodiversity and water quality and to try to connect people more with the river,” Barghusen explained.

Restoring the prairie at Beaubien will have a domino effect on ecosystem recovery that will benefit the land and the water. Prairie restoration will increase the number of species in the preserve and improve water quality because the restoration will enhance the ability of the soil to absorb and filter stormwater before it goes into the river. Improving the ecosystem, especially along trails, will make it a more attractive destination for people to enjoy nature while cleaning air and water and protecting wildlife.

Save Chicago’s Healthy Ash Trees

The City of Chicago should inoculate all healthy ash trees as a management tool to sustain the canopy as long as possible and spread-out removal costs of trees over the next few decades.

Tree conservation is economically and environmentally superior to tree removal. Chicago’s Bureau of Forestry (BOF) had successfully treated and preserved ash trees throughout the city since 2010 but hasn’t treated the ash trees since 2018. Since treatments last for three years, inoculations are now past due. In a 2013 paper, BOF shared that healthy ash trees do not present any inordinate risk to the public and make a substantial environmental contribution to Chicago’s tree canopy. Healthy trees should be maintained as long as possible to retain environmental benefits yet be removed and replaced as tree health degrades.

Urban ash conservation is less costly than removal, especially when the significant environmental and economic benefits of established trees are considered. The cost of inoculating an average size, healthy ash tree in Chicago is one-tenth of the cost of removing it.  Ash tree conservation can circumvent the substantial environmental impacts caused by deforestation of the urban landscape, as well as the documented public safety risks associated with standing dead ash trees and their removal. Many landowners continue to rationalize tree removal as the only viable management strategy for Emerald Ash Borer (EAB). This is based on erroneous beliefs that tree removal slows the spread of EAB, or that treatment is not effective, economical, or environmentally sound.

Losing healthy ash trees in Chicago will increase heat islands and its associated health risks, especially in older people. Tree loss from the spread of EAB is associated with increased human mortality according to the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. Results suggest that loss of trees to the emerald ash borer increased human mortality related to cardiovascular and lower-respiratory-tract illness. This finding adds to the growing evidence that the natural environment provides major public health benefits.

With the net loss of 10,000 street trees every year for the last ten years, it is imperative that Chicago maintains the dwindling 16% tree canopy that currently exists for our health and the City’s bottom line. Current science supports conservation via treatment as a sensible and effective tool for managing healthy ash trees in urban settings. Openlands supports the request to restore funding for ash tree inoculations in the 2022 City of Chicago budget and applauds the efforts of the community groups, Save Your Ash, and Alderpersons for their strong advocacy to drive this forward.

Openlands’ Statement on the Obama Presidential Center and Tree Loss

Many people felt strongly that there should not be winners or losers as the Obamas decided to build the Presidential Center in Jackson or Washington Park. At Openlands, we shared that sentiment, and still believe that today. For Openlands, winning embraced 5 principles: Minimize building in the parks, replace parkland taken with equal acreage in the nearby community, provide convenient public access to transportation, maximize synergies with the community and cultural institutions, and restore and revitalize the entire South Park. Collectively, these principles empower a bold vision for the south parks that drives restoration and realizes the needs of our diverse population.

Since the Obama Presidential Center announcement, Openlands has advocated for a thoughtful, comprehensive, and inclusive approach to planning – how development will affect the surrounding neighborhood, transportation solutions with CTA and Metra improvements, and the comprehensive restoration of the 1000+ acres of trees, lagoons, and recreational facilities that make up the south park system of Jackson, Washington, the Midway Plaisance, and South Shore Cultural Center.

The proposed project, along with the significant reconfiguration of roads within Jackson Park, triggered a federal review process under the National Environmental Policy Act, National Historic Preservation Act, and other legal requirements. Importantly, the review process required public engagement and comment and seeks to surface alternative ideas that will avoid, minimize, and as a last resort, mitigate for impacts caused by the project. Openlands participated in every meeting and provided extensive comments, striving to get the agencies to see that reasonable alternatives to the proposed plans are viable. In the end, none of it mattered to the agencies and the projects were authorized essentially as originally proposed.

With development already beginning, many trees will be removed in the coming weeks. Openlands staff and leadership share the disappointment of tree advocates and TreeKeepers in the loss of this tree canopy. Currently, we are requesting that the Obama Foundation and Chicago Park District share their tree mitigation plan publicly if they have one. If they do not have a plan in place, Openlands is advocating they:

  1. Mitigate for tree loss by replacing removed trees with an inch-to-inch diameter replacement plan. For example, a 20-inch diameter tree removed would be replaced with 10 two-inch trees. These trees should be planted either on the site and/or to extend into the surrounding parkland and neighborhoods.
  2. Pay the dollar value per square inch cross section of trunk per tree removed (based on the International Society of Arboriculture’s Guide for Plant Appraisal, 8th or 10th Edition Model) to fund additional Chicago Park District tree planting and tree maintenance. This is a similar approach to that of the Forest Preserves of Cook County and the City of Chicago’s Bureau of Forestry.

We will continue to urge the Obama Foundation to value the ecological importance of trees and to avoid or minimize the impact of the Presidential Center’s development on existing trees.  We will further advocate that the Foundation mitigate for trees removed with the most up to date tools to evaluate and value those trees.

Photo Credit: Marc Monaghan, Hyde Park Herald