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Why Chicago Needs an Urban Forestry Advisory Board

By Openlands Vice President of Community Conservation, Daniella Pereira

Chicago needs its trees. 

Chicago’s trees have always provided respite in its shade on a hot day, a connection to nature where we live, and health benefits by cleaning our air and reducing flooding. 

But our tree canopy faces threats that make Chicago susceptible to flooding, heat islands, and environmental inequities.  Pests like the emerald ash borer alone are killing 11% of the city’s trees with at least half of the 409,000 ash trees (USFS Tree Census) already removed. The current lack of environmental strategy, poor or incorrect maintenance, and misinformation among Chicago residents to the necessity and benefit of trees, will lead to unnecessary injury, mortality, and removal of otherwise flourishing trees, which affects the health of the larger urban forest and our city’s residents. 

In the last few years we’ve seen the most net tree loss of trees than the last 30 years. Current City tree maintenance is on an “as-needed” basis that creates gross inequities between neighborhoods. Funds to prune trees and plant new ones have been constrained. Meanwhile, we continue to see the removal of public trees due to new development, infrastructure updates, and Aldermanic privilege – with no public policy direction to deter their removal. 

This shrinking canopy affects all Chicagoans – from the value of our homes to the safety of our neighborhoods to the quality of air we all breathe. We must advance policies and actions to protect Chicago’s trees, and recognize that they are critical infrastructure to combat climate change. 

An opportunity exists to rebuild a healthy and resilient urban forest, one that demonstrates Chicago’s leadership on environmental sustainability, transparency, and equity.

For the City of Chicago to sustain and grow its urban forest, City Council must pass an ordinance to create an Urban Forestry Advisory Board. The Board will be able to affect immediate changes by enacting policies and practices to improve the urban forest and centralize planning with all agencies that interact with trees. It will also identify opportunities to supplement public with private funds, and better coordinate partners’ efforts. Appointed Board members, made up of Department Commissioners, industry leaders, and community members will be expected to contribute their time to attend Board meetings and share associated administrative functions without monetary compensation.

Trees need care, and they need management just like our streets and buildings do. With the urgent challenges Chicago faces with air pollution, flooding, and excessive heat – our urban forest is one of our strongest strategies to curb the effects of climate change.  

An Urban Forestry Advisory Board will put us on that path. 

There are ways you can help – You can sign this petition to show your support of the Urban Forestry Advisory Board, and if you live in Chicago, you can send an email to your Alderman saying you want them to vote “yes” on the Urban Forestry Advisory Board ordinance. Please share this message to gain others’ support!

The Power of Land: Race, Equity, and Justice

By Danielle Russell, Openlands School Garden Coordinator as part of a blog series, Race, Equity, and Justice: Lessons for Climate Resilience

“Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.”

– Malcolm X

What is the power of land?

Land itself is power. Land is the source of both material and spiritual wealth and stability. Connecting to land boosts our mood and has physical benefits. From food, to minerals and fossil fuels, access to land and the ability to manipulate and extract from it is a great privilege and gives those that wield it power.

When Europeans came to the Americas and other lands around the globe, they just decided what land was “theirs.” They looted the land to find riches and disrupted the rhythm that had been in place for millennia. We can’t talk about the current uprising  that we see as a response to the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and too many others at the hands of the state, without talking about the history of capitalism and slavery in this country.  While some just see protesters “looting” and “rioting,” others see an uprising in response to centuries of oppression. The “looting” we see is nothing compared to the continual looting of Indigenous land and Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies. The current uprising is a direct response to the legacy of wealth built by the exploitation of land and Black and Brown communities by way of capitalism that is protected by the state. In America, capitalism is rooted in and thrives on the intersection of racial injustice and a degraded environment, and to effectively combat climate change, we need environmental justice.

America, Built on Stolen Land, by Stolen Labor

Given that the wealth of America is built on the oppression of enslaved Africans, and Indigenous people to America, there is an incalculable debt to pay. One necessary step in progress is for African Americans and Indigenous people to get reparations. Reparations are forms of allocating resources to repair harm of injustice directly to the people that have been harmed. Reparations can take many forms, and can, and should, take the form of direct payment and land-based wealth redistribution. Soul Fire Farm has a reparations map that curates a list of BIPOC ( Black, Indigenous, and people of color) farmers to donate to.  As a form of reparations, land trusts should help BIPOCs acquire land for their own land sovereignty, to grow food for their own communities, for economic stability, for protection against racism – environmental and otherwise, and really to do what they see fit with that land.

The people Indigenous to America have endured, in the past and the present, an unimaginable amount of violence at the hands of our nation. The United States Government violently displaced Indigenous people so that they could have access to fertile land. Injustice against Indigenous people isn’t something of the past. The construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline not only violates treaties, but it degrades the land Indigenous people are on, and puts their water at risk. Indigenous land loss is not a thing of the past. Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Trump administration recently revoked the reservation status for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts, taking away their sovereignty over their land.

After the Civil War, when the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, with the exception of being convicted of a crime, Black folks did not have the legal right to own land, so many folks rented land from White landowners to sharecrop. Share cropping was  slavery by another name. It continued the economic foundation of slavery by obstructing share croppers from getting paid for their labor, and only being allowed an allocation of the crop they were growing. Similarly to slavery, it was a degrading experience that many people risked their lives to flee from. People think sharecropping is something that happened long ago, but it is not. I personally know people who are in their 60’s that sharecropped with their families by picking cotton as children. While some Black folks were able to own their own land to do what they wanted with it, because of ongoing discrimination, between 1910 and 2007 Black farmers lost 80% of their land.

Today, most of the BIPOC folks who have access to land don’t have the sovereignty to do what they wish with that land. BIPOC farmers don’t tend to own the land they work. 94-98% of farmland in the US is owned by whites, yet 80% of farmworkers identify as Hispanic or Latinx. If BIPOC folks own their own farm business, they are most likely renting that space, mimicking a less brutal form of sharecropping. Exploitation of labor is at its height in the migrant farmworker crisis, where immigrants, often from Latin America, are exploited for their labor since they aren’t protected under law. Migrant farmworkers often aren’t provided healthcare, endure abuse, and are now dealing with being more susceptible to COVID-19.

Making progress

Fortunately, there are land trusts that are working to help BIPOC acquire and access land. I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Stephanie Morningstar from the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOC), one of the land trusts that are doing this work. NEFOC functions through conservation and farmland preservation. The organization was founded by a board of BIPOC farmers in the Northeast. NEFOC is unique in that it functions as a traditional land trust while also facilitating relationships between BIPOC farmers and land trusts who want to help them acquire land.

NEFOC’s work is not only in conserving land, but in facilitating healing and solidarity. “Healing and truth telling are just as important as our conservation work.” Morningstar says, “Conservation is often a practice of trying to return the land to a fictional idea of what it used to be – untouched by humans. We can’t separate the land from its history with people, and even if we were trying to return it to a pristine state, we’d return it to Indigenous stewardship. In our work we listen to our ancestors, listen to our elders, and listen to the land for guidance.”

One mechanism that NEFOC and other land trusts are using are cultural respect easements and agreements. These emphasize building relationships between land trusts and BIPOC groups to come up with an agreement of what access to that land will look like. It involves centering needs and voices of Indigenous people whose land you’re on, consulting the community before you do work on the land, and working with the community to decide how land will be used. The Dennis Conservation Trust in Massachusetts worked with the Native Land Conservancy, led by folks from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, to establish a Cultural Respect Agreement on Dennis Conservation Trust lands. This allows for Indigenous people to engage in traditional practices on their lands, such as ceremonies and harvesting, which isn’t allowed on other public land. Reciprocation is a large part of what the Native Land Conservancy does, so they offer public education programs on their site for being able to use the land. Relationships and building trust are the most important part of this process.

Some recommendations from NEFOC for white-led institutions that want to collaborate in this way with BIPOC:

  • Watch out for the white savior complex
  • Don’t jump in without doing a justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion audit of your organization. Who makes up your board and staff? What are you doing to reduce harm of white supremacy?
  • There’s no fast way to do this. Don’t jump right in. This is a listening journey. Just be in a listening space.
  • Ask for consent at every turn.

A few land access policy changes to consider:

  • Reform Chicago’s $1 lot program to prevent land speculation by non-resident developers and subsequent displacement of community residents
  • Stop and assess Chicago’s disproportionate enforcement of laws against property owners, like the Weeds Ordinance, in majority BIPOC neighborhoods
  • Help property owners to build financial equity in their land by offering support through incentives like the Urban Agricultural Areas Program, which can abate property taxes, utility fees, and other economic barriers to productive land ownership
  • Level the playing field for economic opportunities between rural, suburban, and urban areas – channel adequate resources into brownfield remediation, support (and enforce) industry compliance with environmental laws, and dedicate fines from noncompliance to benefit affected communities

A few things the conservation community could be doing to improve land access opportunities:

  • Partner with BIPOC farmers through buy/protect/lease-to-own arrangements through which farmers build equity in the land while protecting it and earning a living from it
  • Seek out, embrace, and support the land-based visions of non-traditional partners, like housing cooperatives and places of worship
  • Bend traditional notions of land protection to include models of communal ownership, intensive community management, and combination conservation-housing projects
  • Extend legal services and support to prospective BIPOC property owners for the acquisition, protection, maintenance, and estate planning of their land at low or no cost

Open Spaces are for All of Us

By Openlands President & CEO, Gerald Adelmann

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others continue to demonstrate the structural racism that puts black lives in danger every day. 

While going out to bird watch. While going outside for a jog. While simply being outside. 

Openlands stands with the Black members of our staff, board, and community against racism and oppression of any kind, and unequivocally condemns acts of bigotry, racism, and violence against people of color. 

We are committed to connecting residents to nature where they live by addressing the environmental inequities that separate people from nature in our region . We meet communities where they are, decreasing the disparity in our urban tree canopy , increasing green space in high density park deserts, and helping divested neighborhoods mitigate flooding through innovative green schoolyards that improve the quality of education for the students. 

We understand, as a predominately white organization working in a predominately white profession, we have more work to do to end systemic racism. Social equity and inclusion is intrinsically linked to our fight for climate resilience.   We will not see progress by remaining silent or working alone. Openlands is committed to internally addressing systemic issues and reforms, advocating for environmental equity and justice on local, state, and federal levels, and partnering with diverse communities across the region in support of a more just future.

Openlands’ mission plays a vital role in the health, healing, and community-building that’s needed to enhance the quality of life in our region. Since our founding, people and communities have been at the center of our work. In these uncertain and turbulent times, Openlands must do all we can to care for each other and our world. 

What WOTUS Rollbacks Mean for Clean Water

By Molly Kordas, Openlands Staff Attorney

On June 22, 2020 the Trump Administration’s new definition of “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) will become effective, concluding a highly controversial four-year process to repeal and replace the Obama-era Clean Water Rule (CWR).

So what does “WOTUS” mean?

The Clean Water Act (CWA) was passed “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” But what exactly did Congress mean by “the Nation’s waters”?

This is the crux of the WOTUS issue: In the context of environmental laws founded upon essential cooperation between federal and state governments, which waters did Congress intend to be governed federally? And what constitutes “water?” Is it simply rivers, lakes, and streams that we can see flowing year-round, or did Congress intend to recognize that all water is connected?

Properly defining the scope of the CWA is vital to giving effect to the Act’s protections and achieving its purpose. “WOTUS” has been revised many times in attempts to clarify which waters are regulated under the CWA. But in that first rewriting of the Act in 1972, Rep. Dingell said that the bill “define[d] the term ‘navigable waters’ broadly for water quality purposes” and that the term “clearly encompasses all water bodies, including their main streams and their tributaries.” And Rep. Jones said that Congress sought to “proclaim to all Americans that Congress has the will and the leadership to save our priceless waters from the degradation that is fast destroying them.”

In short, Congress saw pollution wreaking havoc on waters across the country: Rivers were on fire. Public health was under threat from cancerous pollutants and toxic poisons. Congress responded with a comprehensive law, resolving to make all our waters “fishable and swimmable” by 1983 and to eliminate all discharges of pollutants in our waters by 1985. This was an ambitious goal then, and one that continues to drive us today; but it is a difficult balance between federal and state responsibility.

Why is this new rule such a big deal?

For decades, the scope of the CWA has been debated and litigated, resulting in a messy patchwork of federal law. Several administrations have attempted to clarify the scope of the CWA, all of which proved controversial. The 2015 CWR led to three years of litigation, many arguing the CWR expanded the scope far beyond what Congress intended. In response, the Trump Administration almost immediately ran in the opposite direction, repealing the rule and replacing it with the narrowest definition of WOTUS in nearly 50 years.

A 2017 executive order required agencies to review and rescind the CWR and revise the rule “in a manner consistent with the opinion of Justice Scalia in Rapanos.” Justice Scalia’s narrow interpretation of the CWA in that case, however, differed significantly from Justice Kennedy’s opinion which formed the basis of the Obama Administration’s CWR. Given President Trump’s passionate advocacy for deregulation, it is not difficult to understand why he chose Justice Scalia’s interpretation as the guiding principle for the new rule.

Traditionally, the WOTUS definition includes standard categories. The Trump Administration removed the category of “interstate waters” in its entirety and made significant changes other categories, two of which are:

The new rule eliminates the CWR’s “significant nexus test” which determined WOTUS status of adjacent waters and tributaries based on their ecological nexus with another WOTUS. The definition also excludes any tributaries with only ephemeral flow, or waters that flow only in response to precipitation. This excludes many headwater streams, which sustain the health of the entire downriver system, making up roughly 50% of total stream miles in the U.S. 

The rule also excludes wetlands lacking a “direct hydrologic surface connection” to another WOTUS. Wetlands provide habitat for more than 40% of Illinois’ threatened and endangered species. They also control flooding, prevent erosion, and remove sediment, nutrients, and toxic chemicals from runoff water. Furthermore, geographically isolated wetlands without a surface connection remain hydrologically connected and perform many of the same functions as adjacent wetlands.

This new rule has left many wetlands and headwater streams unprotected and vulnerable to degradation and destruction. Excluding categories of waterbodies essential to water quality from the definition is dangerous and out of step with the entire purpose of the CWA. While we have certainly not seen the end of this debate, it’s important that the environmental community looks further into the future, and these questions are particularly relevant now as we celebrate American Wetlands Month in May.

What do we want the future to look like? Is it still our goal that all waters be fishable and swimmable? We can’t afford not to. Advocating for a more permanent legislative fix, that listens to scientists, could finally renew our nation’s commitment to a clean, resilient, and healthy environment for all people.

You can learn more about WOTUS and Openlands work advocating for its protection through this webinar.

With more record rainfall, we need Nature-Based Solutions

This past week saw a flurry of records. Thursday, May 14th and Sunday, May 17th each saw record precipitation for those individual days. Looking at data for year to date, we are far ahead of past trends. The recent storms have flooded yards, basements, and caused the Greater Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to reverse the flow of the Chicago River back into Lake Michigan. In a normal year, Chicago receives 35 inches to 40 inches of rain per year, mostly in steady summer increments. We are already at half of that total with 6.5 months remaining, and our historically wettest season to come. 

Last June, Openlands published a blog on increased rain and its regional impact for the spring of 2019. This blog corresponded mainly with the intersection of the release of new data by the Illinois Geological Survey empirically showing increased rainfall and farmers inability to plant their fields due to the wet weather. While it is too early yet to know what the rest of the spring will bear, this past week of rainfall indicate that Midwest projections released over consecutive National Climate Assessments are eerily correct: more precipitation in winter and spring.

What can be done? Openlands’ partners offer great solutions. Friends of the River has begun issuing Overflow Action Day alerts that notify people to put off running dishwashers, washing machines, and to take shorter showers during intense weather events to help relieve local flooding and combined sewer overflows. Combined sewers are an outdated method of dealing with both stormwater and sewage. When too much rain overwhelms the system, stormwater and sewage water are combined and flow directly into Chicago area waterways. Chicago’s Deep Tunnel System (TARP,) Rain barrels, sump pumps and other solutions also work.

These solutions are all necessary, but, Openlands argues that in the face of a changing climate, society needs every tool in the toolbox. And there is no better tool than nature itself – in the form of nature-based solutions. A single mature tree can prevent 2000 gallons of rainwater from hitting the ground and entering stormwater sewer systems per year. Openlands forestry program works with communities to plant trees to improve our urban forest to help mitigate local flooding and climate change impacts. The Space To Grow program is an advanced form of nature-based solutions that reduces neighborhood flooding while offering powerful benefits to rehabilitating Chicago Public School schoolyards like exercise, outdoor education and nature based play in park poor communities. Openlands farmland and urban agriculture policy work as well as our restoration work also help to relieve local flooding during times like this. Our restoration work decreases runoff into local streams by 94% and 110 million gallons less flow into the streams and waterways.

There are many others that are actions individuals and organizations can take to mitigate flooding, such as green roofs, raingardens, bioswales, and permeable pavers or simply planting a tree or native plants on your property. Openlands supports and applauds them all not only in our effort to connect people to nature where you live, but also by putting the nature around us to work for the betterment of Chicago and our region.

Seven Wetlands to Visit in the Region to Celebrate American Wetlands Month

May is American Wetlands Month, a time to recognize and celebrate how vital wetlands are to our region. Wetlands are among the most valuable, but least understood of all natural resources. They provide habitat for many species, especially migrating birds that use them to rest, raise their young, and feed. Much of the wetlands in our region have been destroyed, but there is a growing effort to restore and preserve these ecosystems, both for the plants and animals that inhabit them and our future climate resilience.

Wetlands benefit people by replenishing and cleaning water supplies, and reducing flood risks. They provide recreational opportunities and are beautiful habitats to witness and enjoy. Looking to experience some of our region’s wetlands, but don’t know where to start? We have seven recommendations of natural areas with protected or restored wetlands that offer opportunities to enjoy and learn about their importance.

Before you go out – remember to wear a mask, practice social distancing, take only pictures (and tag us by using #DiscoverYourPlace), and leave nothing but footprints at any wetland you visit. Search more locations to get outside with Openlands Get Outside Map.

1. Deer Grove East Forest Preserve (Cook County)

Openlands partnered with the Forest Preserve of Cook County to restore Deer Grove East as part of a multi-year O’Hare Modernization Mitigation Account project. The result is now home to expansive prairie, vibrant wetlands, and towering oak woodlands, sitting just an hour outside of downtown Chicago. The eastern most portion of Deer Grove Forest Preserve was first parcel of land that the Forest Preserves of Cook County purchased in 1916 and we are proud to have led its restoration.

2. Lockport Prairie (Will County)

Sitting on the banks of the Des Plaines River, Lockport Prairie is home to wetlands, and a globally rare ecosystem: the Dolomite Prairie. The natural area is habitat for numerous endangered species like the leafy prairie clover and Hine’s emerald dragonfly.

3. Dolton Prairie (Cook County)

Dolton Prairie, also known as Dolton Avenue Prairie, is a remnant wet prairie just south of the border of Chicago in Calumet City. The prairie is an excellent example of a high quality natural area and a very rare example of pre-settlement wet prairie landscape, once common in the Calumet region. The regional Cal-Sag Trail is accessible immediately north of Dolton Prairie and offers great birding in the area.

4. Volo Bog (Lake County)

Volo Bog is special for many reasons, one being its quaking bog. Over 10,000 years ago, during the end of the last Ice Age, a chuck of retreating glacial ice lodged itself deep in the ground at what is now Volo Bog. Several thousand years later the remnant lake began to fill with salt and vegetation, creating the wetlands present today. Volo Bog is technically known as a quaking bog because vegetation floats atop the open water. Over time, the absence of waves will allow the plant life to slowly expand further onto the water, eventually covering the entire site. Remember to check their website to see if the boardwalk is yet open, as repairs are ongoing.

5. Somme Woods (Cook County)

From east to west, the Somme Woods and Preserves in Northbrook progress from shaded woodland to sun-dappled savanna and finally to wide-open prairie. But several decades ago, this natural distribution of ecosystems wasn’t so easy to discern, having become shrouded by dense thickets of invasive buckthorn. Pioneering habitat restoration efforts led by volunteers started here in the 1970s and continue today.

6. Rollins Savanna (Lake County)

One of Lake County’s largest forest preserves, Rollins Savanna offers a 5.5-mile gravel trail with bridges and boardwalks that wind through wetlands, groves of large oaks, and open prairies teeming with wildflowers and native grasses. The bird observation area consists of a stone path that provides access from the existing preserve trail system to a raised platform. This observation deck is a gathering space that offers a clear view of the grassland and wetland.

7. Indiana Dunes State Park (Porter, Indiana)

Indiana Dunes State Park features a wide variety of habitats, including beach, sand dunes, black oak forest, wooded wetlands, and a button-bush marsh. Together, these areas contain some of the most diverse flora and fauna in the Midwest. The Indiana Dunes area also is renowned throughout the Midwest for its birding.

You can search more regional wetlands to discover at Openlands Get Outside Map, as well as other ecosystems and amenities that are safe and enjoyable for you. Again, please remember to wear a mask, practice social distancing, take only pictures (and tag us by using #DiscoverYourPlace), and leave nothing but footprints at any wetland you visit.

Stay tuned to our blog next week for important information on our work in wetlands advocacy and rollbacks to Clean Water Act.

Looking Back and Forward for Earth Day 50: A Letter from our President & CEO

The 1960s were years of great social ferment and political action, a tumultuous decade that witnessed the civil rights and anti-war movements and the beginning of the modern feminist movement.  Then, in 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring.

This book quickly became a rallying point for another social movement – the environment.  

At this time the nascent environmental movement was fragmented but growing in numbers and influence.  With Earth Day in 1970 a unified national movement finally emerged.  Millions of Americans came out to demonstrate their concern for our environment in cities, towns, schools, and colleges across America – in blue, red, and purple states. 

Earth Day became one of the greatest mass demonstrations in American history.

One year after Silent Spring appeared on the national stage, Openlands (originally Open Lands Project) was formed by the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago as one of the first conservation organizations in the United States to work in a large city and broad metropolitan region.   At less than ten years old, Openlands played a key role with others organizing Chicago’s Earth Day, which included events spanning a whole week, culminating in a public demonstration at the Civic Center (now Daley Plaza) that drew nearly 7,000 people. 

Openlands coordinated the campaign in Chicago to ban the use of DDT that was led nationally by the newly created Environmental Defense Fund.  In 1972 this grassroots effort succeeded in securing a phase-out of its use.  During these heady times in the 1970s, the EPA was created and the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and many other important environmental protections were passed. Now proposed rollbacks threaten much of this historic legislation under the current administration all while a much larger climate change crisis looms. 

But by looking back, I find inspiration and opportunity to build on the movement in innovative, equitable, and bold ways, like we did through that first Earth Day fifty years ago.

We can advocate for stronger environmental protections and a greener economy. 

We hear from Washington that a fourth stimulus package is being put together with a primary focus on infrastructure.  We want to make sure that this includes “green infrastructure” that would powerfully link climate change with quality of life.  Can we restore and expand our parks, trails, and natural areas while providing jobs and introduce folks to new careers in the green industry?  At the same time, we can educate ourselves on what proposed rollbacks will mean, and advocate for stronger legislation to protect our land, water and wildlife on local and federal levels. 

We can support historically marginalized communities, ensuring the health and well-being of our region. 

This weekend residents of Little Village were subjected to polluted dust in their air from a mismanaged demolition of a nearby power plant, exposing them to added danger in a time of COVID-19. We support the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization’s long-term, and the Mayor’s current efforts to stop continued work on the site and protect residents from harmful chemicals in their air and water.  Chicago’s community-based environmental organizations have always been and continue to be vital to our region’s equity, health and well-being, and deserve our support.

At this historic time, we can look to bold young leaders and new ways of organizing.

Fifty years ago, the environmental grassroots movement was led in large part by young people who saw their country and earth going in the wrong direction. While our in-person celebrations, rallies, and events for Earth Day have been postponed or cancelled, we need only look to leaders like Greta Thunberg, Vic Barrett, and Jamie Margolin who have used social media to drive climate action. Clearly youth holds the hope of the future! 

We need to continue to learn from the corona crisis of today and envision a future where all of us become advocates for nature and agents for positive change.  And I’d like to hear from you – tell me how we can create innovative solutions and we’ll share them in the weeks to come. 

Hoping you are all staying safe and also hopeful. 

My best, 

Gerald Adelmann
President & CEO
Openlands

To Effectively Combat Climate Change, We Need Environmental Justice

by Tolu Olorode, Manager of Data and Impact

It is known that climate change is rapidly changing American neighborhoods and the built environment. America’s most vulnerable populations, historically and systematically under-resourced communities of color, are more intensely affected by the environmental effects of climate change. With recent reports showing the staggering disparities in COVID-19 deaths in African Americans and other communities of color, the veil has been lifted to illustrate how environmental injustice can have monumental effects on entire populations.

To that end, one of the organizations we highlight below is fighting hard for justice at this very moment. In recent days, a cloud of dust from the demolition of a smokestack of a defunct coal plant covered a section of the Little Village neighborhood, endangering thousands of residents. LVEJO is calling advocates across the region to hold industry partners responsible for this very clear and deliberate display of environmental racism.

Openlands stands together with LVEJO and encourages our supporters to sign the petition to compel key stakeholders, including the State of Illinois, Hilco and the City of Chicago, to provide immediate relief to the Little Village community. This is one of many examples that illustrate the environmental challenges facing urban areas, and especially black and brown communities.   

We know that in urban areas there tends to be more asphalt and pollution, and less grass, open space, and trees. This contributes to the urban heat island effect that disproportionately affect communities of color. These higher temperatures actually create more air pollution, especially harmful ground-level ozone from fossil fuel burning and volatile organic compounds from farming and manufacturing.

Moreover, a recent study found that air pollution is disproportionately caused by the non-Hispanic white majority, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Latinx minorities. This is primarily because of systemic institutional practices, such as redlining, that pushed members of these communities to live in undesired urban neighborhoods by the white majority, and these areas have tended to have higher levels of pollution.   With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing how the federally sanctioned rollbacks in air pollution regulations will only further adversely affect this communities.

We understand that there are other causes to segregation, not just redlining, including panic peddling, contract selling, the refusal of the government to approve of loans to People of Color, the GI Bill after WWII only being offered to white veterans, and more recently predatory lending practices.  Although these discriminatory practices are no longer legal, the effects are still being seen today as the climate changes.

While these populations are vulnerable, they are also resilient in many ways. Many neighborhood groups form long lasting action networks and task forces led by community members and leaders to demand changes to their areas.  These communities are putting environmental justice efforts at the top of their list of justice issues to tackle. As Openlands continues to advocate for nature-based solutions to climate change, we want to also look to and support our counterparts who have been doing this place-based work and serving these resilient populations for decades.  This is the first part in an ongoing series at Openlands, and I hope you’ll check back to learn about other great organizations and work being done soon.

Below are two organizations rooted in undeserved neighborhoods in Chicago (and statewide) that are addressing climate change issues on a grassroots level.

Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO)

For over 25 years, LVEJO has championed healthy environmental practices in Little Village (a historically Mexican-American neighborhood). They have been at the forefront of large opposition to air pollution by industrial companies in their neighborhood, and its effect on residents.  In fact, Openlands’ branch office located in Pilsen is across the street from the Fisk Generating Station – a source of fossil fuel pollution that LVEJO led the successful fight to close down. In relation to climate justice specifically, LVEJO has committed to a campaign with a specific goal to develop a local climate adaptation plan and create a climate vulnerability and assets index and mapping system. The community centered approach LVEJO takes allows for its residents to feel a deep connection to the work of the organization, and contributes to its success for all these years.

Faith in Place 

Using mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship as anchors, Faith in Place empowers these already intact enclaves to lead a plethora of environmental justice efforts. This is an interfaith, statewide approach that taps community and faith leaders to entrust their congregations with programming ranging from addressing climate change community impacts to advocacy campaigns that challenge harmful environmental policies. In fact, Faith in Place has dedicated 2020 as their “Rooted in Climate Justice” year. For them, this means unpacking environmental racism and its roots in climate degradation and exploring possible solutions.In the past, Openlands and Faith in Place have partnered on the southwest side of the City to advance urban forestry efforts, tree planting, and skill building in relation to community greening to directly address neighborhood climate change concerns.   

We recognize the climate change fight is not going to be won in a vacuum and supporting the historically marginalized in our region only strengthens the endeavor. We’ve had relationships with both organizations in the past and believe our constituents should too. Support LVEJO here and Faith in Place here to sustain the collective effort for environmental and social justice.

There are others in the region doing impressive work as well that we hope you dig deeper to learn more about:

Rollbacks to Critical Wildlife Protections

by Molly Kordas, Staff Attorney

On February 3, 2020, the Trump Administration proposed sweeping rollbacks of critical protections for migratory birds. The proposal bars application of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to “incidental,” or unintentional, killings of migratory birds. The administration also manipulated the public process, allowing concerned members of the public only 45 days to comment on a highly controversial policy that the Department of Interior has already been enforcing for more than two years. If continued, this major shift in federal policy will negatively impact nearly every bird species, including globally significant birds, particularly in the Chicagoland region which sits right in the middle of the Mississippi Flyway.

What is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act?
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) was passed by Congress in 1918 to enact the United States’ obligations under an international treaty with Canada to protect migratory birds that were over-hunted and killed for commercial profit. The MBTA made it a federal crime to pursue, hunt, take, capture, or kill, “by any means, or in any manner,” even one migratory bird. The law, and the treaty it supports, represented one of the first international environmental agreements, proving to the world that nations could work together to solve common environmental challenges. Reversing course after nearly a century of working to protect migratory birds, the Department of Interior is now defying the entire purpose of the MBTA to apply the law only to intentional killings of migratory bird species.

So what does this rollback mean?
The MBTA today protects more than 1,000 kinds of birds, ranging from the most common of species, such as the Northern Cardinal and House Sparrow, to the rarest birds in the world, like Snowy Egrets, Red-tailed Hawks, Great Blue Herons, Whooping Cranes, and Spotted Owls. The Trump Administration is twisting the law to allow these birds to be harmed and killed so long as the guilty actor can say that it was not their intent to hurt or kill migratory birds.

For example, if a bird is killed because simple preventative measures were not taken to protect birds from electrical lines, the company would not be held responsible because the purpose of the electrical lines is not to kill migratory birds. It is hard to imagine what commercial or industrial business would have as its purpose “to kill migratory birds.” In fact, unintentional collisions with electrical lines, communications towers, wind turbines, and building glass are responsible for a combined 335 million bird deaths per year.

The MBTA has often been used to hold polluters and bad actors accountable where there are unintentional gaps in environmental laws and regulations. British Petroleum, for example, was forced to pay $100 million for killing at least 100 million birds in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, thanks to the MBTA. As the Trump Administration pointed out, of the 1,027 species protected, only about “8% are either listed . . . as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act and 25% are designated . . . as Birds of Conservation Concern.” This demonstrates exactly how important the MBTA is – without it, most North American species will fly through U.S. territories completely unprotected.

This is also a rare situation in which we do not need to look into the future to see how this regulatory rollback will play out. Because the Department of Interior has been acting on this new policy over the last two years before even requesting input from the public, we are already seeing the catastrophic effect on bird populations. Former U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees have said that they no longer “conduct ‘flyovers of oil and gas production areas to identify potential threats,’” and in fact are actively prevented from even discussing “’voluntary bird protection measures.’”  Despite the USFWS’s previous cooperative relationship with industry, which actually encouraged technological innovation, the Trump Administration is pushing a false narrative that bird protection measures hamper business to promote profit at the expense of the environment and our natural resources.

The damage from stripping migratory bird protections is compounded by rollbacks to critical protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in August of 2019. Changes to the ESA removed blanket protections for threatened species, prevented consideration of threats due to the climate crisis, and allowed federal agencies for the first time to consider the economic impacts of listing species and designating critical habitat. Together, these rollbacks make it harder than ever to protect bird species from manmade threats, many of which simply did not exist when the MBTA was passed.

How can we protect migratory birds?
At a time when North America’s bird population has been reduced by nearly 30 percent, responsible regulation of the threats we pose to migratory birds at all levels of government is now more important than ever. Some of these species are in serious decline and could be gone forever if we don’t reinstate protections under the MBTA.  For example, only a little over 800 whooping cranes still exist in the world.  Out of the 85 in the eastern U.S. migratory path, a few land and rest in Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge during their annual voyage.  These and other beautiful and iconic species are at much greater risk with this reckless and unlawful narrowing of the MBTA.   

Given the combined effect of rollbacks to both the MBTA and ESA, local and state protections will now be necessary to protect migratory birds, grassland birds and their habitat. Supporting bird-friendly policies is critical to protecting regional treasures like Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

The City of Chicago, recognizing our region’s responsibility in accidental migratory bird deaths, is considering the Bird Friendly Design Ordinance. The ordinance would require new building designs to use better lighting and glass that would limit threats to migratory species and better protect them as they make their way through the Mississippi Flyway. House Bill 4476, which would require bird-safe state buildings was also introduced in the Illinois General Assembly in February of this year.

On the federal level, Congress can also pass both the Bird Safety Building Act (H.R. 919) and amendments to the MBTA (H.R. 5552) to make it absolutely clear that the MBTA applies to both intentional and unintentional killings of migratory birds. Senate Bill 3051/H.R. 925, if passed, would extend the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, guaranteeing $60 million per year for five years to protect critical wetland habitat for migratory birds.

Openlands also works to create and inspire advocates for nature by educating youth about the environment through our Birds in my Neighborhood (BIMN) program. Through the program volunteers utilize protected bird’s nests, feathers, and interpretation to teach grades 3-5 about bird identification, habitat, and diets. In the 2019-20 year alone, there were 77 BIMN classes, totaling 2,000 students. Birds can provide an entryway into a lifelong love and compassion for nature, and often during BIMN lessons, students learn about the MBTA for the first time.

The new MBTA policy has the power to leave a lasting impression; it shows how much of an impact – both negative and positive – humans can have on the well-being of our environment and the animals who inhabit it. Fighting these changes to the MBTA is essential not only for the preservation of birds, but for the education and inspiration of future advocates for nature. The diligent work that went into passing and enforcing the MBTA illustrates the power of the people, and our ability to aid in either the decimation of a species or a tremendous rise in leadership to protect it.

Migratory birds delight us with their beauty and serenade us with their songs, support eco-tourism economies, and benefit the world by eliminating pests, preventing disease, and contributing to increased biodiversity. The latest rollbacks of the MBTA and ESA pose significant threats to these species unless we act now. Please join us in advocating for more bird-friendly policies and other issues by talking to your local officials, and adding your voice to our advocacy efforts to ensure a green, more climate resilient region for us all.

Clean Energy Jobs Act: Why it’s important, what nature-based solutions can contribute, and how you can support it now

By Andrew Szwak, Manager of Governmental Affairs

Across the globe, we’ve come to an economic halt with the disturbing rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. And with that halt, news coverage has noted the corollary drop in climate emissions

While emissions are down today, the havoc this pandemic has wreaked on our health, communities, jobs, and nation is immense. It is also a blow to our global climate reduction goals, with the potential to lose sight of our commitments. Instead, we must rise to this challenge and rethink how to drive our economy and meet climate objectives with nature-based approaches in mind.  

At Openlands, we have put strategic focus on dealing with climate change and the nature-based solutions that can mitigate it. Nature-based solutions can provide 37% of the carbon reductions the world needs to comply with the Paris Agreement, and yet it receives only 1-2% of the investment.

In Illinois, one of the biggest climate change initiatives has coalesced around state legislation called the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA). A diverse coalition of labor supporters, utility groups, and environmental organizations wrote CEJA to address four fundamental priorities:

  1. Transition all energy generation to renewable sources by 2050,
  2. Remove all carbon from energy generation by 2030,
  3. Take 1 million gas and diesel vehicles off the roads, and
  4. Promote jobs and equitable economic opportunity in the process.

These are ambitious goals, and necessary to ensure thriving communities, economies, and ecologies in the future.  But we must ensure that nature-based jobs and economies are included. Our ability to advance nature-based solutions gives Openlands and conservation organizations like us a key role within the global movement to curb the climate crisis, and serve as important tools in Illinois’ arsenal to meet these ambitious goals.

So how should conservation and nature-based solutions fit into CEJA?

1.Renewable energy and nature-based solutions need new job training opportunities.

The transition to renewable energy requires technicians and project managers who know these new technologies and the regulations that govern them. Similarly, increasing nature-based solutions demands more ecologists, landscape architects, engineers, hydrologists, and agriculturalists with specialized knowledge of how to install and maintain them. CEJA plans to create job training hubs for individuals to learn renewable energy skills. We are requesting that these hubs also include opportunities to learn green infrastructure installation and maintenance, urban forestry, regenerative farming practices, and other essential skills to increase nature-based climate solutions.

2. CEJA authorizes local governments to create Community Energy and Climate Plans.

These plans will guide investments in renewable energy, transportation, and workforce development. They provide excellent opportunities to embed natural climate solutions into the suite of tools that Illinois communities will use to combat climate change. Rural communities in particular will be well-positioned to prioritize workforce training and funding for natural climate solutions into their efforts. Consequently, Openlands is advocating for mandatory consideration of natural resources and natural climate solutions in these Community Energy and Climate Plans. We also hope to use these plans to build momentum for more concerted efforts to incentivize nature-based solutions.

3. CEJA incentivizes new renewable energy installations, such as community solar and wind facilities.

Energy generated by these facilities will need connections to the electricity grid. Unfortunately, renewable energy in other states has followed dirty energy’s lead by targeting public lands for transmission and siting of new projects. Protected public lands, on which nature-based solutions are so abundant, should never be sacrificed to accommodate additional, and often redundant, energy infrastructure. Openlands is advocating strongly for CEJA to include better safeguards against destruction of protected lands related to new energy projects.

We are working hard to align CEJA more closely with the interests of conservation. WE NEED YOU to support our work with your own advocacy. Lend your voice to passing the Clean Energy Jobs Act by contacting your state legislators using this form and ask them to include nature-based climate solutions in the final bill.