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Four Key Takeaways from the Passage of the Inflation Reduction Act

On Friday, Aug. 12, after its narrow passage through the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass the largest climate investment in our country’s history and on Tuesday, Aug. 16, President Biden signed the bill into law. The Inflation Reduction Act is designed to fight inflation, invest in domestic energy production and manufacturing, and reduce carbon emissions roughly 40 percent by 2030. The Inflation Reduction Act is a $750 billion health care, tax and climate bill and is a pared-down version of the Build Back Better Act, which was a $2.2 trillion bill introduced in 2021 that failed to pass through Congress. 

At a time when we are witnessing record-breaking temperatures, devastating wildfires, extreme flooding, and other environmental catastrophes that have resulted in tremendous amounts of damage and the loss of lives and livelihoods, the Act makes an unprecedented $369 billion investment in climate, clean energy, and environmental justice. 

The Inflation Reduction Act is a large legislative package that contains a number of provisions for healthcare, taxation, and climate. To make it easier to navigate, we’ve broken down the four key takeaways from the passage of this historic climate legislation that Openlanders need to know:

  1. The Inflation Reduction Act is expected to reduce carbon emissions roughly 40% by 2030 through an unprecedented $369 billion investment in climate, clean energy, and environmental justice. It is estimated that these investments will create more than 9 million good-paying jobs over the next decade. Plans for clean energy expansion include powering homes, businesses, and communities with clean energy through the installation of 950 million solar panels, 120,000 wind turbines, and 2,300 grid-scale battery plants. While the Act makes significant investments in clean energy technology, it also designates funding for nature-based solutions to climate change.
  1. The USDA Forest Service’s Urban & Community Forestry program is set to receive $1.5 billion for urban and community forestry projects, with priority funding going to underserved and low-canopy populations, as well as state agencies, local government entities, tribal communities, and nonprofit organizations. These new investments will help expand urban tree canopies and advance equity in neighborhoods while creating jobs and bolstering local economies across the nation.
  1. The Inflation Reduction Act dedicates $60 billion to environmental justice projects by promoting legacy pollution reduction, increasing access to clean energy indisadvantaged communities, and investing in the creation of green jobs, especially in the forestry sector. Environmental justice priorities include creating Climate and Environmental Justice Block Grants to support community-led projects in disadvantaged communities and address disproportionate environmental and public health harms related to pollution and climate change, allocating funding for fenceline monitoring near industrial facilities, air quality sensors in disadvantaged communities, and making clean energy more affordable, especially in disadvantaged communities and Indian country. 
  1. While we celebrate this monumental legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act unfortunately leaves out important nature-based solutions to climate change that were included in the Build Back Better Act. We must continue to prioritize nature-based solutions to climate change in future legislation, as among the things not included was the Civilian Climate Corps (CCC), a priority for Openlands, which would have employed thousands of young Americans to help protect our natural areas and maintain public lands.

While the Inflation Reduction Act is “the biggest single investment the government has ever made in fighting climate change,” we know that the fight is far from over. We celebrate this historic legislation and will continue advocating for bolder future policies that take unprecedented steps to protect forests, plant trees in cities, create a green-jobs economy, undo the effects of environmental injustice, and much more. 

Reconnecting People to Nature in the Calumet Region

The Calumet region, located along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, is home to some of the most majestic yet underrated natural areas in the greater Chicago region. Located in an area known for its history of heavy industry, Calumet is home to ecological treasures teeming with rich biodiversity including several forest preserve sites, Lake Calumet, and the Lake Michigan shoreline. However, many communities are unaware that opportunities for paddling, biking, and hiking are available in their own backyard.

Openlands has taken an active role in connecting communities of the Calumet Region with the beautiful woods and wetlands available for recreation. This summer, Openlands commenced its first-ever African American Heritage Water Trail Paddling and Interpretation Training internship program, which taught local youth to interpret and confidently paddle along the African American Heritage Water Trail.

The African American Heritage Water Trail was created to better connect people to the Little Calumet River and raise awareness of the significant history that the region contains. The Little Calumet River flows through several south-side Chicago neighborhoods and 180 years of African American history, including sites like Ton Farm, which served as a stop for freedom seekers navigating the Underground Railroad. After launching in 2020, the trail received substantial press attention, including a feature in the New York Times’ ’52 Places For A Changed World’ list.

According to Laura Barghusen, Openlands’ Blueways Director and one of the organizers of the internship program, the internship was born out of a need to meet the increased demand for interest from the public to get out on the water and tour the African American Heritage Water Trail. The internship was created to train local youth to interpret the trail, which has the dual benefit of employing youth in the area to learn valuable job skills while also attracting positive attention and investment to the area.

Openlands partnered with Friends of the Forest Preserves and St Sabina to add paddling and interpretation modules to a preexisting internship, which employed local youth to undertake paid restoration work at the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Beaubien Woods. Led by Laura Barghusen, Openlands’ Education and Community Outreach Coordinator Lillian Holden, and St. Sabina’s Erica Nanton, once per week youth were trained to paddle down the Little Calumet River, followed by lessons on the history of the region, environmental justice, and public speaking to master trail interpretation while assisting with paddling events.

Trail interpretation, or storytelling, is a critical part of the African American Heritage Trail experience. According to Laura, “You can have as many paddling events as you want, but if you don’t have interpretation, or people explaining what events happened along the trail and why they were significant, then you can’t convey the real significance of the region.”

According to Lillian, interns found the training in interpretation and public speaking to be highly valuable and their largest areas of growth. While many of the interns were shy towards public speaking and reserved at the beginning of the program, by the end Lillian witnessed the youth embracing risk-taking and healthy forms of anxiety through their public speaking.  

The first class of interns commenced the program on July 23rd by leading a public paddling event at the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Beaubien Woods Boat Launch. Interns used their new skillset to educate attendees by sharing the local history of the environmental justice movement and its beginnings in Altgeld Gardens through the work of Hazel Johnson, founder of People for Community Recovery, the history of the Robbins Airport, and its role in producing Tuskegee Airmen, and the Underground Railroad and how freedom seekers traveled along the Little Calumet to navigate their way to freedom in Canada.

Along with working to make the Little Calumet River a paddling destination for the public, Openlands has taken an active role in advocating to make Lake Calumet publicly accessible through the development of a new Lake Calumet and Port District Master Plan. While most of the lake has been fenced off and inaccessible for recreation for the last few decades, prior to the introduction of heavy industry on the Southeast side, Lake Calumet was once a thriving community getaway where locals would fish, hike, and hunt. The Port District took over the area in the 1960s and eventually installed razor wire-topped fencing around the entire, still substantially vacant lakeshore lands, which ended public access to the area. Currently, the Port District holds 2200 acres at Lake Calumet, with only a golf course open for the public, which is too expensive for local communities to use.

The Lake Calumet and Port District Master Plan, recently approved by the Port District Board, is the third plan since the 2001 and 2005 plans, prepared by the city of Chicago, which balanced job creation, public access, and habitat preservation and restoration. Openlands is excited to support the new Port District plan that opens recreation back up for local neighborhoods while remediating the site of dangerous industrial waste and protecting habitat for threatened and endangered bird species, which use the area as a critical migratory flyway. Birders have documented over 100 species in the Lake Calumet area, and at a time when habitat destruction is a leading cause of species endangerment worldwide, the protection of our local natural areas is more critical than ever.

Openlands has been a long-time member of the Lake Calumet Vision Committee, which was founded after the publication of the City’s 2001 Calumet Land Use Plan to advocate for the implementation of recommendations made in the plan. The 2022 Port District Master Plan finally ratifies most of the public access and habitat recommendations of the 2001/2005 plans.

The new Master Plan reflects three land uses: economic development, community access, and habitat conservation. In its formal comments on the new plan, Openlands recommended collaboration with agencies with the expertise to implement significant-scale community access and habitat conservation features, including the Chicago park district, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources; developing a strategy for comprehensively assessing the entire site for illegal dumping and toxic wastes and cleaning up or capping these deposits so that they no longer enter can enter Lake Calumet’s water habitat; and applying for Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funding. Working closely with local community and neighborhood advocacy groups and individuals over a 20-year period was the key to finally achieving a healthy future for Lake Calumet and its surrounding neighborhoods. 

With the New Museum Campus Vision, Chicago Could Become a True “City in a Garden”

It is hard to imagine another location on earth quite like Chicago’s Museum Campus. Three world-class institutions sit side by side, devoted to the study of the earth, heavens, and water. Views capture what sets Chicago apart as a global city – where one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes meets a people’s park and architecturally renowned skyline. No matter what happens at Soldier Field in the future, the Museum Campus has and always will play a formative role in crafting the spirit of Chicago. Yet we still fall short when thinking about that spirit and Chicago’s motto, City in a Garden. Now, a new plan offers opportunities to bring nature back to the Museum Campus: creating a recreational and restorative urban nature retreat that educates through integrated stories of people and the rich environment in which we live. This new vision of the Museum Campus can truly make Chicago “A City in a Garden” and a destination for its residents and global visitors.

With this new vision comes a renewed sense of place. Most Chicagoans know the Museum Campus as the narrowly defined areas around Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium, and sometimes Soldier Field. The new vision encompasses a broader campus, including Northerly Island, going west to DuSable Lake Shore Drive and the McCormick Bird Sanctuary to the south, all under the ownership of the Chicago Park District. The plan also puts the Museum Campus in context with the other magnificent public spaces, entertainment, and natural areas along the lake and downtown, proposing transportation connections between existing systems and places to increase accessibility. With this plan, the Museum Campus seamlessly integrates with the entire lakefront—from Grant Park through the Burnham Wildlife Corridor to the Obama Presidential Center and beyond—creating directional and interpretive signage and coordinated pedestrian and bike trail systems for an easier and more enjoyable experience for all.

Most exciting is the proposed rewilding of the campus, restoring the ecological integrity of Northerly Island as a powerful outdoor laboratory of nature-based solutions to climate change. Restoring larger areas of the campus with native plants and trees will create beauty and minimize expenses to the Park District and museums, and create much-needed habitat for migrating birds. In addition, moving the Huntington Bank Pavilion to an area on campus better suited for entertainment will create a therapeutic and recreational urban retreat for residents and visitors alike. The terminal at Northerly Island is ideally situated to become an environmental learning center for students, families, and visitors and the focus of a Great Lakes Climate Lab. The Climate Lab should build on the strengths and expertise of the three institutions and bring in multiple partners such as local universities, not-for-profits, and regional and national leaders. Imagine the opportunities for placemaking and creative interpretation with three world-renowned institutions to interpret earth, sky, and water on one campus surrounded by the native beauty of the prairie! The Campus can serve as a model for the entire lakefront and across the Great Lakes.

This vision for the Museum Campus will only be successful with increased accessibility and transportation solutions. This is especially true for the communities to the west. The plan aptly calls for pedestrian and bike connections across DuSable Lake Shore Drive, including access to Northerly Island from the 18th street bridge and Waldron Drive. In addition, it recommends dependable Bus, trolley, and bike options are available to all Chicagoans year-round so it can be a place everyone can enjoy. To ensure that, the City’s next steps must include broad public engagement leading to a comprehensive overall plan that makes the campus inviting to all Chicagoans and visitors.

Chicago became world-renowned when it protected its lakefront and created the Museum Campus. Now, we can create a new model for the world – an economic engine for our city and a community park that centers natural climate resiliency, education, and entertainment for all. Let’s live up to our motto as a true City in a Garden.

The Time for Action is NOW: Response to West Virginia v U.S. EPA

Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v U.S. EPA takes the country in the absolute wrong direction, reversing years of environmental progress. Openlands agrees with the three dissenting justices in saying the majority had stripped the EPA of “the power to respond to the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.”

The decision weakens the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases and dangerous air pollutants that affect our air quality and climate. Fossil Fuel-fired power plants are among the largest sources of dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, second only to transportation. The United States has a major role to play on the global stage, as we are the second largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

The United Nations has made it clear in no uncertain terms that the time for action is now, having reported that climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution are three closely interconnected planetary crises that put the wellbeing of current and future generations at unacceptable risks.

The deadline to curb carbon emissions is shorter than most people realize, and the window of opportunity is shrinking exponentially with each day of inaction. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently reported that we have only three years to stabilize emissions writing, “…in the scenarios we assessed, limiting warming to around 1.5°C (2.7°F) requires global greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2025 at the latest, and be reduced by 43% by 2030; at the same time, methane would also need to be reduced by about a third. Even if we do this, it is almost inevitable that we will temporarily exceed this temperature threshold but could return to below it by the end of the century.”

At a time when we are experiencing record-breaking heat waves, extreme flooding, and fluctuations in water levels that have resulted in tremendous amounts of a damage and loss of lives and livelihoods, we understand that climate change is an existential threat to life as we know it.

We must rely on science, which has established a roadmap to lead us out of this environmental crisis, and not politics. Congress must step in and clarify that the EPA is authorized to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. In addition to installing alternative energy at an unprecedented scale, we must accelerate support and funding for communities to use nature-based solutions that soak up carbon and make us more resilient.  The United Nations has made clear open space – from our urban canopy in parks to national wildlife refuges – are vital as over a third of the world’s climate solution. 

For the future of our people, the environment in which we live, and the clean air we all have the human right to breathe – we cannot afford to wait. The time for action is now.

photo credit: Ian Hutchinson

Openlands and Blacks in Green Pen Op-Ed in Response to the Chicago Tribune’s Tree Inequity Investigation

Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on a commitment to equity, but when it comes to trees, she isn’t following through. She supported starting a forestry advisory board that hasn’t met. She wanted to eliminate aldermanic prerogative, but many aldermen continue to remove hundreds of healthy trees. The city’s new climate action plan promotes protecting the most vulnerable people by planting 75,000 trees, but her Department of Water Management continues business as usual and removes trees without any standardized process to find alternatives to clear-cutting.

A recent Tribune analysis of the city’s selective tree planting reminds us how inequitable the tree canopy continues to be without a strategy that outlasts a mayoral administration. Wealthier, white neighborhoods continue to receive more resources while communities of color bear the brunt of exacerbating climate-driven extreme heat, flooding and poor air quality. The city’s new climate plan recognizes this historical lack of community investment in Chicago, but a tree-planting initiative without city officials aligning only provides more hot air. Read the full op-ed.

Photo courtesy of Erin Hooley and Raquel Zaldívar at the Chicago Tribune

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.

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

An Urgent Opportunity with America the Beautiful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The time to act is now.

Urban Forestry Advisory Board Key to Mitigating City Flood Damages, Promoting Environmental Equity Passes in City Council

By Openlands’ embedded journalist, Carlyn Kranking

In an intense Chicago storm, rain can pour down at the rate of 2 inches or more per hour. One inch of rain alone, on an acre of land, amounts to over 27,100 gallons. Much of the city is covered in impermeable surfaces that don’t absorb water, such as concrete, asphalt, and metals. Since stormwater can’t be retained by these materials, it quickly flows into the sewers and overwhelms them. When the sewers are full and the water has nowhere else to go, it creates backups that push water into homes through pipes or basement sewers.

Luckily, there’s a defense against this damage: trees. Trees help absorb water in the soil through their roots, and their leaves hold water, slowing its fall to the ground. Planting and caring for trees is a proactive defense against urban flooding.

To protect trees, the Chicago City Council unanimously voted on Friday, June 25 to establish an Urban Forestry Advisory Board, which Openlands supported. The Urban Forestry Advisory Board ordinance passed almost a year after it was first proposed by Alderperson Scott Waguespack, along with Alderpersons Samantha Nugent and George A. Cardenasto. The win would not have been possible without the TreeKeepers and advocates who championed the ordinance, along with the 27 alderpersons who co-sponsored the bill.

Currently, according to Daniella Pereira, Vice President of Community Conservation at Openlands, trees are “usually a last thought.” But now, the Urban Forestry Advisory Board will work to put trees at the front of mind in discussions of infrastructure. 

Alderperson Scott Waguespack led the development of the ordinance, saying “I’m proud to work with Openlands and our governmental agencies to create the UFAB. Passage of our ordinance ushers in a new level of cooperation to save and build our tree canopy and tackle the climate change problem.”

What is an Urban Forestry Advisory Board?

In Chicago, the Urban Forestry Advisory Board will consist of city commissioners and industry professionals from across the city who will consult on issues related to the urban forest. The board will be made up of 13 volunteer members, seven of which will be commissioners and officials from government departments. The mayor will appoint the remaining six members, including representatives from the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, tree service businesses, and a non-government community organization, as well as one academic arborist.

The board will create an urban forestry management plan, assess policies and expenditures related to forestry, recommend legislation, make a list of protected “heritage” trees, and lead a public education program about the benefits of trees.

To help envision what an Urban Forestry Advisory Board would look like in Chicago, Openlands staff examined other U.S. cities that have established similar boards. The Atlanta Tree Commission aims to get trees recognized as infrastructure. They lead public education efforts and hear appeals about forestry-related administrative decisions. The San Diego Community Forest Advisory Board holds public meetings where residents can voice challenges relating to trees. Similar boards exist in cities countrywide, including Austin, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle.

Benefits of Urban Trees

Trees in Chicago and its surrounding counties provide countless benefits to residents. In one year, the region’s trees intercept 1.5 billion cubic feet of water and save $100 million in stormwater damages and treatment, according to the 2020 Chicago Tree Census. They store millions of tons of carbon and filter pollutants out of the air. Trees provide shade for buildings, saving residents $32 million per year on cooling costs. Animals use trees for habitat, and being around trees can improve people’s mental health and overall mood.

But Chicago’s tree canopy is under duress. In the last decade, the city’s canopy cover has dropped from 19% to 16%, even as six of the seven surrounding counties saw canopy growth. Largely due to the Emerald Ash Borer’s decimation of ash trees, the city is at risk of losing some of the benefits brought by its urban forest. When the city loses bigger, older trees, it’s more difficult to get those benefits back.

“A larger tree has exponentially more benefits,” said Michael Dugan, Director of Forestry with Openlands. “A very large tree — let’s say it’s 40 inches in diameter — if we replace that with 40 smaller, one-inch diameter trees, we’re not going to get the same benefit.”

The Urban Forestry Advisory Board will establish a heritage tree program that protects some of the trees with special value to Chicago because of their size, age or historical significance. This would help ensure the longevity of trees that provide the most services and those that have special value to a community.

“There’s no protection for any of our public or private trees at this point,” Pereira said. “But some of these have significant history or significant meaning to a neighborhood or a family, and it would be really great to acknowledge that.”

Protecting Chicago’s Tree Canopy

Openlands is also caring for Chicago’s trees by mobilizing residents to be tree caretakers themselves. Through the TreeKeepers course, Openlands trains volunteers to protect and advocate for the region’s trees. In the class, much of the coursework is voluntarily taught by tree professionals, such as city foresters, arborists, or professionals from tree-care companies or the U.S. Forest Service. Once they complete the course, volunteers become certified to plant, protect, and care for trees with Openlands. They can lead their own tree-planting or pruning events, and they have the knowledge to educate others and advocate on behalf of the urban forest.

Additionally, residents can apply for a TreePlanters grant, to have 10 to 40 trees planted at predetermined locations in their neighborhood. On the planting day, Openlands supervises while volunteers plant the trees and learn to care for them together. For the next few years, the resident volunteers are committed to caring for the new trees, though Openlands staff is available to provide assistance and answer questions.

This spring, the Openlands Arborist Registered Apprentices planted trees for Chicago residents, to comply with social distancing. These four trainees will spend a year learning and working with Openlands, followed by two years with a tree-care company in this region. After these three years of work, the apprentices will be eligible to sit for the International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist Exam. The apprenticeship program helps combat the shortage of labor in the arborist industry and gives these early-career arborists the skills to be successful.

Equity in the Urban Forest

Flooding in Chicago is a greater burden on communities of color and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, Pereira said. And with it, these communities have more health impacts.

“From the basement flooding, mold is a huge, huge issue that affects people’s lungs and respiratory system,” Pereira said. “[In] neighborhoods where there’s more flooding, there tends to also be a lot more health issues, sometimes with asthma, from dirty air.”

Openlands’s TreePlanters program tries to prioritize planting trees in areas with low canopy cover, specifically on the southwest side and near south suburbs. Prioritizing these areas can help create a more equitable distribution of trees and their positive effects, including relief from some effects of flooding. The Urban Forestry Advisory Board would be a way for city departments to ensure equitable tree canopy and care of trees throughout all Chicago neighborhoods.

Further, trees can encourage social cohesion, and taking care of large trees in an area can promote a sense of community. For example, Pereira said, without trees to provide shade, there might not be as many comfortable areas to gather on hot days.

“You can have less gathering and less socialization with neighbors, and that is gonna impact how people feel in terms of safety, within their neighborhood or connecting with their neighbors,” she said. “Unfortunately, [it] leads to a lot of isolation by just not having comfortable and safe green spaces in your neighborhood.”

Pereira said investing in planting and maintaining an urban forest will save money in the long run in other areas.

“[The urban forest] will pay for itself in terms of keeping the city cooler, keeping water from entering sewers, keeping our air cleaner and hopefully preventing more hazards,” she said. Without investment in urban trees, “We end up paying for it through all this disaster mitigation that has to happen at the end.”