Join us on March 13 for Conservation Lobby Day in Springfield!
Conservationists are gathering in Springfield to advocate for Illinois’ environment. State legislators, members of the Pritzker Administration, and other advocates will discuss Illinois’ priorities related to conservation funding, endangered species protection, and other critical issues for our community.
The White House has issued a plan for “rebuilding infrastructure in America,” but this proposal sacrifices the bedrock of environmental protection laws to polluting interests by gutting many provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA).
NEPA has been widely acknowledged as the most forward thinking environmental protection law in the world. Its passage and approval by President Nixon were a massive step forward for the environment, and more than 100 countries have used it as a model. For the first time, everyone from Federal land managers to private developers were legally compelled to conduct a uniform and full review of impacts to the environment for every development project. It compels scientific surveys to determine how developments impact wildlife, natural resources, pollution, and health of local residents over the long term. NEPA also requires the Federal Government, state and local agencies, private parties, and other partners to identify project alternatives that better coexist with the environment.
NEPA fundamentally changed the way we protect the places we love, and it has become the foundation for all environmental protections since, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Openlands has invoked NEPA in three instances as a last line of defense to save natural treasures, including the Kankakee River, the Fox River, and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Our success stemmed from the strength of the law, but that very strength is what the current administration looks to eradicate.
Under the infrastructure proposal, released on February 12, environmental reviews for projects would be consolidated under the agency that proposes them. This would create a system that merely rubber stamps controversial decisions like the Illiana Tollway and the Dakota Access Pipeline. The plan aims to eliminate the EPA’s ability to review the environmental impacts of a project under the Clean Air Act, an ability that has allowed the EPA to prevent harmful air pollution. It would allow some projects to opt-out of certain environmental protections altogether. And it would allow private developers to pay federal agencies to expedite environmental reviews of their projects, which is tantamount to bribery at the expense of public health and the environment. Going forward with any of these provisions would fundamentally weaken NEPA and erode the bedrock of our country’s environmental protections.
The infrastructure plan further attacks conservation policies by proposing that Federal agencies could sell off public lands without Congressional approval. It would allow the Secretary of the Interior to run pipelines through our National Parks and it would prevent the National Park Service or the Forest Service from determining whether conserved lands can be paved over for highway development. The plan seeks to decimate the EPA’s authority to enforce clean water protections by delegating many responsibilities to the states, which have far fewer resources to protect natural resources and reduce pollution.
Done correctly, infrastructure investment can provide secure jobs for American families and help to develop a low-carbon public transportation system. This plan from the White House comes nowhere close to these goals. Its proposals embrace the false choice that economic progress can only come at the expense of a clean environment, protected lands, and the basic rule of law – but we know the opposite is true.
On December 5, the president announced plans to overwhelmingly reduce the protections and boundaries of two National Monuments in Utah — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Openlands adamantly opposes any effort to curtail protections for conserved federal lands, and we see this as a legal precedent to undo protections for conservation across the nation.
National Monuments protect ecologically unique areas, they enshrine our national history, and they preserve the heritage and culture of indigenous nations. Though no monuments are being rescinded, significant reductions represent a failure to consider these objectives.
Proponents of these reductions have lauded the action as a chance to transfer land to the State of Utah. Historically, when the Federal Government transfers lands to the states, 70% have been sold off resulting in deforestation, mining and pollution, and privatization. We unequivocally believe public lands ought to remain public.
But this issue is more than just an assault on the democratic rights instilled in public lands: the designation of these monuments was the result of decades of advocacy by native nations to protect their ancestral homes from development and to honor the health of these lands. This is an affront not just to those groups, but to all indigenous peoples who have looked to correct centuries of historical injustices by permanently protecting land through conservation – and that work extends to our home in the Midwest.
Openlands recognizes that the land we work to protect is land taken from the indigenous nations that lived here before us. Today we work to restore the land to health, to respect the land and the water, and to share these places with all people.
On May 5, the US Department of the Interior announced their list of National Monuments that will be “reviewed” by the Secretary of the Interior and potentially reversed as directed in an April 26 Federal Executive Order. A National Monument designation permanently protects America’s finest landscapes and cultural areas for all to enjoy, and Openlands adamantly opposes any effort to curtail protections for conserved Federal lands.
The original Executive Order instructed the Secretary of the Interior to review only those National Monuments greater than 100,000 acres in size and designated since 1996. Particularly troubling to Openlands was the specific inclusion on Interior’s list of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in northern Maine, which is smaller than 100,000 acres. Unlike the other monuments under review, which were designated through the Antiquities Act on existing federal lands, Katahdin was created through a private land donation of 87,000 acres with the express understanding that the land would be protected in perpetuity by the National Park Service as a National Monument.
Openlands is a non-profit land trust, and private land donations are the types of conservation partnerships we often facilitate. We work with private landowners to acquire lands with high conservation potential, and we hold them in trust until a government agency can acquire and permanently protect the lands as a state park, as a National Wildlife Refuge, or as a National Tallgrass Prairie.
Were Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument’s status to be reversed, it would set a dangerous precedent for all other federally protected land across the nation that began with a donation from a land trust or other private landowner. We see this as a legal precedent to undo protections for all conserved federal lands, especially lands donated to the Federal Government for conservation.
On August 24, the US Department of the Interior announced their recommendations to reduce protections for an unspecified number of national monuments. The Secretary of the Interior disclosed that he is recommending changes to a “handful” of monuments, but has not publicly shared any site-specific information.
The heart of an international region home to more than 50 million people is water. Beyond providing the basic necessity for life, the Great Lakes have shaped the geology, climate, economy, culture, and people of their surrounding region, and they are more than a point of pride for those residents. Plainly visible from outer space and an enduring reminder of the last Ice Age, the Great Lakes are the largest surface source of freshwater in the world.
But the Great Lakes are more than just five bodies of water: they’re the land and wildlife that surround the lakes, as well as the people and communities that depend on them. They provide drinking water to 10% of Americans, they support economies, transportation, and agriculture, and they have been declared a national treasure by Congress. These are our Great Lakes, they belong to everyone, and they are vital.
Updated: Congress has passed a budget that fully funds the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Learn more…
Understanding the Value of our Lakes
Each of us has our own impression of the Great Lakes, yet uniting those views is a common appreciation for these natural treasures.
The Great Lakes shelter more than 90,000 square miles of aquatic habitats, and they are surrounded by more than 200,000 square miles of terrain ranging from cities and towns to wetlands, forests, and farmland. The networks of parks, open spaces, beaches, and conservation areas offer home to hundreds of wildlife species, as well as numerous opportunities for people to experience the lakes. Restoring the natural landscapes of the region, such as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Illinois Beach State Park, offers a home to many species of concern while providing unparalleled opportunities for visitors to experience the region’s nature. Even small green spaces like Chicago’s Montrose Point can provide a natural retreat for both people and wildlife.
But the lakes are also the economic engine of the Midwest. They offer routes of transportation which support the regional economy, they provide clean drinking water, they support recreation and tourism, and they sustain the region’s agriculture. Over 1.5 million jobs are tied to the Great Lakes providing $60 million in wages. Outdoor recreation opportunities, such as paddling, fishing, wildlife viewing, and miles of trails, contribute billions to the US economy – recreational fishing alone accounts for over $4 billion.
Collaborating on Restoration
It is not without substantial collaboration that the Great Lakes can endure as a natural and national treasure. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, signed in 1972, was a major international step towards protection and conservation. The Great Lakes Compact signed in 2008 took another stride to preserving the water quality and ecological health of the region.
In 2010, the US Federal Government launched the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), the most comprehensive proposal to protect and restore the lakes to date. The GLRI aims to limit toxic pollution, such as mercury and PCBs, from entering drinking water sources and habitat for wildlife. It focuses on reducing runoff from developed areas and industrial sites while restoring the natural landscapes that surround the lakes, and the initiative aims to prevent invasive plant and animal species from threatening the region’s biodiversity. With support from the GLRI, Openlands has planted over 2,500 trees in the Chicago area over the last four years.
To date the GLRI has invested $2.2 billion in restoration projects, and a Brookings Institution study found that every dollar invested in Great Lakes restoration yields a two dollar return. Ten federal agencies have coordinated efforts for the GLRI including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Agriculture. Taken together, this level of coordination demonstrates not just the breadth of areas impacted by the lakes, but also the level of commitment required to preserve the Great Lakes.
For more than 50 years, Openlands has been an advocate of the Great Lakes and we have led many regional initiatives to advance Great Lakes restoration. We assisted in the establishment of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (1965) and played a critical role in dedicating the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor (1984). Openlands provided leadership to the Steering Committee of Millennium Reserve and has helped implement numerous regional plans for Lake Michigan. Additionally, the Lake Michigan Federation (now Alliance for the Great Lakes) and Friends of the Chicago River were both founded as projects of Openlands.
Our commitment to the Great Lakes extends to our on-the-ground efforts to improve the health of Lake Michigan. We have restored the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, a mile of lakefront natural areas and unique ecosystems in Highland Park which feeds into to the Lake Michigan watershed. Our urban forestry and regional planning programs, such as Space to Grow, look to control stormwater pollution to Lake Michigan and better manage Chicago’s water resources. Yet people are the core of Openlands, so we ensure access to an open lakefront, and facilitate ways to connect students to the lake through Eco-Explorations and Birds in my Neighborhood®.
These are our Great Lakes, and they ask no less than a full commitment to their protection. Whether at Indiana Dunes, Montrose Point, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, or any of the 10,500 miles of Great Lakes coastline, connections to nature inspire greater appreciation for our natural treasures. Openlands will continue to protect and restore the Great Lakes, and ensure they continue to belong to everyone.
It will come as no surprise that residents of the Chicago region all too often experience nature in fragments – at their local park, in a community garden, with a migrating sandhill crane passing overhead. But when we have space to run wild, and when nature has room to demonstrate a mighty vastness, it only takes a few moments before it speaks to us in a primeval and wordless language.
On the doorstep of Chicago, we have such a place in Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. The 11,500 acres of Hackmatack will soon offer the chance to explore and appreciate nature’s majesty on a whole new level. Here, we’ll be able to share our favorite activities with our families, kids will learn about and understand the value of nature, and this will be a place we can all fill with memories which will endure for lifetimes. All of this will be possible because this land is public, it belongs to all of us.
Updated: Congress has passed a budget that significantly increases support for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Learn more.
“I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.”
-Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
Wide Open Spaces
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established the National Wildlife Refuge System, which has since grown into a system of over 560 conservation sites, today encompassing more than 150,000,000 acres of public land. The primary goal of the Refuge System is to protect and enhance habitat for wildlife, while providing public benefit, such as educational resources, recreation opportunities, and support for local economies.
Hackmatack, formally established in 2012, is the first such refuge within 100 miles of Chicago, making it accessible to the 12 million people who live within an hour’s drive of the refuge. As an urban wildlife refuge, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service aims to offer access and resources to America’s increasingly diverse population.
Outdoor recreation is estimated to contribute $646 billion to the U.S. economy every year, and the refuge is at the heart of that opportunity. In Hackmatack and its adjoining areas, runners and hikers will be able to explore miles of trails winding through sun-dappled burr oak savannas and prairies teeming with wildflowers. Cyclists can pause beneath its massive skies as they travel along the Grand Illinois Trail. Birders will be able to comb native grasslands for Dickcissels or restored wetlands for migrating Whooping Cranes. Fishermen and sportsmen can wade through some of the highest-quality headwater streams in the region. Kayakers and paddle boarders can slip slowly down the Nippersink Creek as it meanders through open fields, lush woodlands, and verdant flowerbeds. And photographers will be able to capture a unique landscape of glacier-carved ridges adorned with valleys of wildflowers and pierced with pristine streams, all lingering from the last Ice Age.
Public access to open space is the guiding vision for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, but the designation in 2012 was just the start of a long journey to build the refuge. We are currently restoring the first acres of Hackmatack, but public-private partnerships and local enthusiasm driving the vision forward.
Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, formally designating Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge.
In March 2012, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its environmental assessment for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. The assessment recommended a version of the refuge that would link existing state, county, and federal conservation lands with newly acquired land and conservation corridors.
After gaining support from the public, the congressional delegations of both Illinois and Wisconsin, as well as from their respective governors, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar formally declared protected status for the refuge in August 2012.
Today, Openlands and our partners are in the process of developing four core areas in Illinois and Wisconsin that link existing conservation sites and create the necessary scale needed for wildlife to thrive, which translates to thousands of acres of protected wetlands and havens for recovering wildlife populations. While restoration work is concentrated in these cores, we are also working with private partners to link the cores via migratory corridors.
While Openlands is able to acquire new parcels from willing sellers andhelp restore them to be a part of Hackmatack, federal support for the refuge is critical. Federal land protection ensures that important resources are forever available to America’s future generations. It secures drinking water supplies, provides wildlife habitat, creates recreation opportunities, and maintains ecosystems that support agriculture, tourism, and other economic activity. These areas will be protected from pollution and continue supplying clean water to agriculture. These considerations drove the locals’ decision to seek federal protection as a national wildlife refuge.
This is a new approach to conservation and a new way to protect open space on the scale we need for wildlife to thrive. We have to tackle the challenge with our partners acre-by-acre, parcel-by-parcel to protect these places so everyone can share places like Hackmatack.
The open spaces of the American landscape have always been part of our national identity. Hackmatack is a dream built from the bottom up, drawing together the skills and talents of conservation non-profits, local business owners, sportsmen, and private citizens.
Foresight and planning for the Chicago Wilderness Region established many different and superb ways for people to be connected with and inspired by nature. Whether at the local park or forest preserve, or at vast open spaces like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, connections to nature are vital to all people. Chicago is the third largest metropolitan region in the country, but we lack equal access to America’s public lands. Cutting support of the National Wildlife Refuges will rob us of our right to enjoy America’s public lands.
Please note: the following was written by Openlands President and CEO, Jerry Adelmann, who coordinated Openlands’ efforts to establish the nation’s first National Heritage Area along the route of the historic Illinois and Michigan Canal.
Throughout the 20th Century, the Chicago metropolitan region repeatedly distinguished itself as an innovator in the fields of urban planning and open space preservation. The 1909 Plan of Chicago and the subsequent creation of the Forest Preserves of Cook County are both acknowledged as global models of open space planning.
One of these trail-blazing efforts, which Openlands led, was the creation of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor in 1984—America’s first Congressionally-designated National Heritage Area (NHA) and the prototype for 48 additional heritage areas that have followed. NHAs tell stories about America’s past, while offering a place to enjoy nature through sightseeing and recreation. However,this innovative and wildly popular program is at risk.
In both 2017 and 2018, the White House attempted to eliminate all Federal support for the National Heritage Areas. Congress offers less than $1 million to local partners who maintain NHAs and ensure they are publicly accessible. Each federal $1 is leveraged by $4-6 in local funds. Luckily, due to sustained advocacy campaigns from organizations like Openlands, those funding cuts were beaten back both times.
NHAs are important to Illinois and one in particular, the I&M Canal Corridor, is important to me.
Photo: Canal Corridor Association (Canal Tourism Boat at LaSalle-Peru)
The Illinois and Michigan Canal: The Waterway that Made Chicago
One cannot overestimate the seminal role the Illinois and Michigan Canal (I&M Canal) played in the founding and early history of Chicago. This pioneering waterway connected Lake Michigan at Chicago with the Illinois River 100 miles to the southwest at LaSalle-Peru. First envisioned by the French explorers Pere Marquette and Louis Jolliet in 1673, the hand-dug waterway provided a critical connecting link between the Atlantic seaboard, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico. When the I&M Canal was completed it 1848, it positioned Chicago as a gateway to the West, and as America’s most important inland port and transportation hub.
Newer waterways were established paralleling the I&M, and this historic canal was finally closed for commercial use in 1933. During the years preceding World War II, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) transformed the canal into a park of great natural beauty and unparalleled recreational opportunities in northeastern Illinois. Miles of towpath were converted into hiking and bicycling trails; sections of the canal, its locks, and other related structures were rehabilitated; picnic areas and shelters were constructed along the canal’s banks; and state and local parks were developed on adjacent lands.
After the CCC was dissolved, however, most of the extensive improvements accomplished by this highly successful and popular project fell into disrepair. In the late 1950s, the easternmost section of the canal was used for the construction of the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) and the State of Illinois was preparing to sell off the extension real estate holdings along the canal’s route for private development. As local interest groups along the canal looked to preserve their region’s cultural and ecological legacy, they turned to a newly-formed not-for-profit called Openlands
Openlands, one of the first conservation organizations in the U.S. to work in a metropolitan area, organized local leaders and grassroots advocates to launch a preservation campaign called “Operation Green-Strip.” These efforts culminated in 1974 with the establishment of the 60-mile Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail.
Sections of the canal north of Joliet were excluded as they were fragmented with development that precluded a traditional linear park, yet many of these northern communities were some of the greatest supporters for preservation. Advocates kept coming back to Openlands asking for assistance to protect sections of the canal, important remnant natural areas, archeological sites, and other significant open space and cultural assets along the lower DesPlaines River Valley.
It is in the late 1970s when I entered the scene. A sixth-generation resident of Lockport, I realized that the future of the former canal headquarters was very much tied to a broader regional strategy along the route of the I&M. Collectively the resources of the historic canal towns and adjacent landscapes represented a rich chapter in the history of Illinois and the nation and, if coordinated, could serve as a catalyst to help revitalize this classic rustbelt corridor that was experiencing some of the greatest unemployment in the nation.
Working on a pre-doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, I became involved in volunteer projects to save some of Lockport’s historic buildings and unique natural areas, including the ecologically-rare Lockport Prairie. The Forest Preserve District of Will County suggested I contact Openlands with my ideas for a regional landscape-scale approach that would include recreational trails, revitalized waterfronts and historic downtowns, and protected natural and cultural treasures throughout the five-county region.
Openlands embraced the concept and provided critical leadership to move this concept towards reality. The Canal Corridor Association was established in 1982 as an independent not-for-profit, and in 1984 President Reagan came to Chicago to sign legislation that created the nation’s first heritage area, launching a national movement.
Enshrining our national heritage
National Heritage Areas combine ecological, cultural, and economic goals, and take a holistic approach to living, working landscapes. The overarching goal is to improve the quality of life for residents and visitors alike. They are “partnership parks” that leverage public and private resources, as well as civic leadership.
The role of the Federal Government is quite limited, but nevertheless crucial: federal designation elevates the significance of these areas as well as the social and cultural histories they represent. Modest funding and technical assistance over the years has supported region-wide coordination with wayfinding and interpretation. Hundreds of millions of private and public dollars have been reinvested in the I&M Canal region since its designation. Tourism and community economic development projects have added countless new jobs to these historic communities.
Positive outcomes like this are seen in the other heritage areas across the nation where modest federal support leverages reinvestment while addressing much need recreational needs and underrepresented stories in the American experience.
We will continue to support these projects, ensure their value is understood at every level, and most of all, defend the public’s right to access and enjoy them.
Updated: Congress has passed a budget that increases support for the National Heritage Areas. Learn more…
Founded in 1963, Openlands protects the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region to ensure cleaner air and water, protect natural habitats and wildlife, and help balance and enrich our lives.