Conservation Policy Updates from the Federal and Local Levels

Last winter, Openlands promised to keep you, our constituents and supporters, up-to-date on news and policy proposals impacting conservation in our region. Conservation issues remain in the headlines and in the forefront of political discussions, and below we have updates on issues from transportation to clean water, how these issues are unfolding, and how you can help.

First, recognize what we have accomplished: all signs suggest that your advocacy for the Great Lakes was a success, as funding has been included in federal budget proposals for the next fiscal year. That means $300 million will still support regional and international efforts to clean, restore, and protect the Great Lakes. We expect a congressional vote on a federal budget in December, but it may come sooner — we will alert you to any actions impacting conservation.

In the last several weeks, we have also learned more about the White House’s proposals to reduce protections for 10 National Monuments. Openlands adamantly opposes any effort to curtail protections for conserved federal lands. If enacted, these changes will likely require legislative action. Our neighbors in the West supported us when we sought federal protections for landscapes in Illinois, so we are calling on our state’s elected leadership to show them the same support by opposing any changes to the National Monuments.

And while the White House, the EPA, and the Department of the Interior may be dominating the headlines, state-wide and local decisions are impacting our environment on a daily basis.


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Regionally, Openlands, along with our conservation partners, local farmers, and farm organizations, helped to defeat a transportation proposal which would have threatened the vitality of clean water resources, natural areas like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, and precious farmland in our region. In late August, the federal Surface Transportation Board rejected a plan from Great Lake Basin Transportation, Inc. to build a 261-mile railway line that neglected to consider the region’s existing plans for sustainable growth. Openlands believes transportation and infrastructure projects should not jeopardize our natural resources — and this proposal plainly ignored the negative impacts on the environment.

In Will County, Openlands is advocating at all levels for growth to complement and enhance Midewin and surrounding natural and agricultural landscapes. Our ongoing efforts to support Midewin include advocating for smart growth in the area. For instance, Openlands and our partners worked with Will County to adopt a freight plan that calls for consciously locating roads and development to preserve the natural and agricultural heritage in the Midewin area.

The devastation wrought by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria has given new urgency to our projects to control stormwater and to reduce urban flooding. We are moving forward with solutions to make our region more resilient in order to face a changing climate. For example, our ecological restoration projects and our Space to Grow partnership aim to manage stormwater more effectively. Flooding this past July in McHenry, Kane, and Lake counties—only the most recent flooding event here—are but a glimpse of what we may face as climate change makes storms larger and more unpredictable. The catastrophic flooding in Houston caused by Hurricane Harvey underscored the human and ecological devastation that occurs when massive amounts of rain fall within a limited period of time on a major metropolitan area.


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We have also been working with several aldermen in Chicago to form an Urban Forestry Advisory Board. Trees shade nearly 17% of Chicago, and convey a wide range of economic, social, and environmental benefits to residents. However, Chicago’s urban forest faces a growing list of threats — both natural, like the Emerald Ash Borer, and  those human-made, such as lax enforcement of tree protection laws. This advisory board will convene public and private stakeholders to brainstorm and implement workable solutions to Chicago’s most pressing forestry problems. We are aiming to introduce a City Council ordinance soon, and we will need your support to help it pass.

Openlands has kept a very close eye on the planning for the future of Chicago’s Jackson Park. We have advocated for an update to the 1999 plan for Chicago’s south parks, and we are pleased that an update is being prepared. All summer, however, the Chicago Park District promised more specific information on the future of these parks, yet at the most recent public meetings, we were once again given nothing new and were told everything is preliminary. Without data, the Park District, nor the city, nor its residents can make informed decisions about our parks.

In the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Openlands has been assisting in the implementation of the Next Century Conservation Plan, which aims to protect an additional 20,000 acres and restore 30,000 acres. Openlands has contributed research that identifies sources of political support among Cook County residents and which documents the overwhelming financial benefits of restoring natural areas in the Forest Preserves. We have recently completed the restoration of Deer Grove East, and we continue to work in partnership with the county board to support funding for some of Cook County’s most beloved places to get outside.


From our founding, Openlands has worked to connect people to nature. These are the issues we are keeping an eye on at the moment, and we know that with your engagement, we can succeed. Openlands remains committed to building community at the local level through education, empowerment, and access to nature. We remain committed to inclusion, public participation in decision making, and science-based actions. And we remain committed to protecting open spaces and natural resources for generations to come. We promise to continue updating you as policy issues impact our region and on ways to make your voice heard.

Chicago’s Urban Forest

Chicago’s urban forest is vital to the health and wellness of our city. Trees provide essential economic services, improve the quality of life for residents and wildlife, mitigate the threats of climate change to our region, and help to beautify our neighborhoods and parks. Preserving these community assets, however, requires constant attention, persistence, and investment.

There are over 3,500,000 trees in the City of Chicago, which capture harmful pollution and improve air quality. Pollution from coal- and gas-fired power plants and from industrial production has direct impacts on public health. In Illinois, asthma affects residents at a disproportionate rate (13% versus the 8% national average), so every resource to improve air quality — particularly trees which capture volatile organic compounds — is essential.

Green areas serve the societal well-being of communities as well. Shaded parks can encourage increased recreation, decrease ultraviolet radiation levels, provide a sense of place, and create opportunity for green jobs through tree care. Additionally, tree-lined streets and green neighborhoods have demonstrated reductions in crime compared to similar, barren neighborhoods.

As our climate changes, Chicago’s forest will play a critical role in mitigating the effects. Trees sequester and store carbon by absorbing CO2, the second most abundant greenhouse gas. Climate change will likely result in increased average temperatures for Chicago, yet trees provide natural climate control by reducing surface temperatures around buildings, further allowing a reduction in energy consumption. We also face an increased need to better capture rain water and prevent flooding, and trees function as natural water storage systems.


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Pollution concentrates disproportionately in communities of color and climate change affects low-income neighborhoods first, and Chicago has not been immune to this reality. Neighborhoods across the south and west sides lack access to green space and recreation opportunities, they experience increased urban flooding, and their residents live in proximity to major polluters. To address this injustice, Openlands’ urban forestry programs have always worked with and for the city’s residents.

Openlands believes we must engage and communicate with local residents who benefit most directly from the trees in their neighborhood. Our TreePlanters Grants facilitate community tree plantings, bringing neighbors together in the community goal of healthy trees. Our urban forestry team, with assistance from our trained TreeKeepers volunteers, have planted over 3,800 trees across Chicago since 2013, and we continue to care for our arboreal treasures which enhance the vitality and beauty of our region.

As a lead partner of the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, Openlands works to create a healthier urban forest, which provides the region with improved environmental, economic, and social benefits. Since 2012, Openlands has led the creation and implementation of the Next Century Conservation Plan for the Forest Preserves of Cook County, which improves access to the forest preserves for residents and leverages the economic benefits of forest preserves for communities’ benefit.

An effective urban forestry program maintains a healthy and expanding canopy that provides maximized benefits to its residents. Openlands works to protect the natural treasures that balance and enrich our lives, including our region’s urban forest, and we recognize the need to engage residents in care of these assets. Through education and engagement, Openlands hopes to raise greater awareness of the conservation issues that face our region.

For more information on Openlands’ urban forestry work, please contact trees@openlands.org or call 312.863.6271.

Conservation Easements Create a Network of Protected Lands

Openlands envisions a Chicago region where all people can connect to a web of green. The conservation easement is a primary tool Openlands uses to partner with private landowners to create that network of protected land. An easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust that permanently limits uses and ensures that the land retains its conservation value, while keeping the land in private ownership. Easements can be used to protect any type of important natural resource from wetlands to forests and farms. Openlands has been using easements in its work since 1980 and in 2013 was accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, a program of the Land Trust Alliance.

“Working with private landowners to help build an interconnected system of natural lands is critically important in a place like Illinois, where more than 95% of the land is in private ownership,”  says Emy Brawley, Openlands’ Director of Land Preservation.  “There will never be enough public dollars to buy the land needed to create a resilient, interconnected landscape at the scale necessary for our region to thrive.”

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The purpose and terms of each easement are tailored to landowners’ desires for the specific property. For instance, an easement for agricultural land could allow for farming activity and the construction of barns and stables, but not energy development or building multiple houses. The flexibility of the easement agreement allows landowners to retain some value through productive use of the land, while the land trust ensures that it is protected for future generations. Easements are most often donated by the landowner, who then is eligible for a variety of tax benefits from the transaction.  The easement also lowers the real property and estate tax burden, which may allow owners to keep land within a family.

“In our area, conservation easements are an under-appreciated and economically-sensible land protection tool. In contrast to public ownership, they keep property on the tax roll, and the expense of managing the land stays with the private landowner, rather than being transferred to a government,” says Brawley.  “So, conservation easements provide many of the same benefits that come from publicly-owned land – habitat for animals, clean water and air, even recreational opportunities – at a fraction of the cost.”

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One area for which conservation easements are proving to be a key tool is our work supporting our regional food system. Food is one of the most tangible connections we have with land and Openlands’ goal to connect people to nature is being accomplished through this important work.

In 2014, Openlands worked with the Conservation Fund to accept a 198-acre conservation easement at Prairie Crossing, an acclaimed conservation community in Grayslake, Illinois. The property includes passive recreation areas with trails, open space areas, a Montessori school, and agricultural operations. The agricultural zone of the easement is used for small-scale farming, the operations of which the Liberty Prairie Foundation helps to support and manage.

Working in partnership with the Liberty Prairie Foundation, Openlands is also developing initiatives that connect new and beginning farmers with land. Thanks to funding from the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust, Openlands and its partners are conducting research that aims to strengthen the resiliency of our region’s foodshed by ensuring that important farmland is protected and that the next generations of farmers and stewards will sustainably manage it for productive use. A robust, sustainably managed regional food system generates economic, environmental, and public health benefits that flow to all residents.