Reflecting on Openlands’ Participation in May 2023 Advocacy Days 

This past April, Openlands’ staff from multiple departments embarked on a mission to make our voices heard by participating in advocacy days at both the state and national capitols. These advocacy days provided an opportunity for Openlands to advocate for crucial conservation issues and engage with and inform policymakers. In this blog post, we will delve into the significance of advocacy days, highlight Openlands’ efforts in Washington, D.C. and Springfield, and discuss ways for individuals to get involved in grassroots advocacy. 

Advocacy days are organized events where individuals or groups gather to advocate for specific causes or issues directly to policymakers. These events offer a platform for citizens and organizations to voice their concerns, propose solutions, and influence policy decisions. This year’s advocacy days took place at the state and national capitols, where legislators and other government officials can be directly engaged. 

From April 17-20, Openlands’ CEO Jerry Adelmann, Vice President of Conservation and Policy Emily Reusswig, and Director of Policy Chris Kessler traveled to Washington D.C. to participate in the Land Trust Alliance Advocacy Days. The mission of the Land Trust Alliance’s annual Advocacy Days is to advocate for and advance important land trust policy priorities. To prepare participants for the week, the LTA provided our staff with advocacy training and helped to facilitate relationships with key legislators to build the political influence of the land trust community. Our team focused on addressing significant conservation matters, and one of the key topics of discussion was the upcoming farm bill, which holds substantial importance for the conservation agenda. Openlands representatives met with members of the Illinois congressional delegation, staff from the offices of U.S. Senators Duckworth and Durbin, as well as agency heads from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  

These meetings aimed to emphasize conservation priorities and raise awareness about specific projects, especially in our priority landscapes, which include Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Openlands’ staff highlighted the urgent need to spend the incoming funds from the IRA and America the Beautiful programs to support conservation initiatives while they are still available. Additionally, Openlands aimed to garner support from the Illinois congressional delegation to ensure the transfer of parcels from the former Joliet training area to the U.S. Forest Service. This transfer would be a significant and long-awaited step towards preserving and expanding the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. 

Our staff took advantage of the opportunity to share our work and mission of advancing nature-based solutions to climate change with Illinois legislators, and the recently revised congressional maps presented an excellent opportunity to engage with new representatives and share the scope of our work in their new districts. Openlands’ outreach aimed not only to educate lawmakers on the issues important to the conservation community, but also build relationships necessary to advancing conservation initiatives in the future.  

While the policy team was advocating for land trust priorities in Washington D.C., Openlands’ staffers from the Communications and Development teams travelled down with other environmentalists from the state to advocate for conservation items in Springfield as part of the Illinois Environmental Council’s Lobby Day. IEC’s Lobby Day connects environmental advocates from across the state with their elected representatives in the General Assembly to effectively advocate for Illinois’ people and the environment, and as part of the event, over 400 Illinoisans came together to take action on climate. The event started with a rally in front of the Illinois State Capitol Building and was followed by meetings between participants and their elected officials to discuss important environmental issues. Before the day was over, participants received a surprise visit and photo op from Chicago’s new Mayor Brandon Johnson!  

The Importance of Advocacy Days:  

Advocacy days serve as a vital platform for lobbying and grassroots advocacy. The power of grassroots advocacy lies in the voices and stories of constituents. Personal connections and heartfelt testimonials have a significant impact on lawmakers, who are ultimately responsible for representing their constituents’ views. Openlands’ passionate group of staff and volunteers are critical to advancing our mission and their ability to convey a powerful message rooted in dedication and genuine concern for the environment is a powerful force for change. 

While travelling to Springfield may not be an accessible option for all people interested in communicating with their legislators, individuals who are unable to participate in advocacy days can still contribute to the cause. Engaging with local officials through emails, phone calls, and attending events like town halls or coffee shop gatherings are effective ways to make a difference. What matters first and foremost is staying involved in issues in your community and building relationships with elected officials at the local level. By remaining attentive to Openlands’ action alerts and promptly responding to them, individuals can stay informed and share advocacy initiatives within their networks. 

Openlands’ participation in May 2023 Advocacy Days was a significant step towards advocating for conservation issues both at the state and national levels. By actively engaging with policymakers, Openlands ensured that the conservations concerns and solutions we are working for were effectively communicated. Together, we have the power to make a powerful impact and drive policy that puts the environment and people first! 

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

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

The op-ed focuses on the following key ideas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating the Passage of the Charitable Conservation Easement Program Integrity Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating the Successful Passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Wildlife Referendum

The results are in! It’s a historic day as we celebrate the overwhelming passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Wildlife referendum, which will restore and expand protected lands, support and create new jobs, and invest in improvements like new trails, accessibility, and engagement in nature for all ages.

This referendum is one of the most important environmental funding measures in Cook County history and it will support our forest preserves for generations to come. 

“The support of Cook County voters shows just how vital nature is to all residents and how the sound management of the Forest Preserves has had a huge impact on residents’ relationship with nature close to home,” said Jerry Adelmann, President and CEO of Openlands. “Our gratitude and congratulations go to President Preckwinkle, Superintendent Randall, and the entire Forest Preserves of Cook County staff who work tirelessly to ensure residents have healthy, equitable, and enjoyable places to get outside. We are indebted to the over 170 organizations and hundreds of volunteers who joined us in making this campaign a success and join them in celebrating this long-awaited victory for people and nature.”

Now get outside and enjoy our local forest preserves!

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