Looking to Nature: A Letter from our President & CEO

As a society, we are experiencing a period of unprecedented stress and uncertainty – concern for our families, friends, and colleagues, remote working, struggles with school closings – to name only a few. But in times like these I look to nature and am reminded of its power, and how critical our advocacy is to protect it.

In nature, cooperation abounds – and so must we.

Looking out your window you can see it, as the birds have begun their grand migration through our region’s flyway, in the trees beginning to bud through the cooperative behavior of soil, tree roots and fungi. These examples remind me that, through cooperation and community, we will overcome this moment and thrive as nature blooms today.

While Openlands’ offices are closed, our dedicated staff continues to work remotely as hard as ever on the issues that are so important to all of us. We, like many others are monitoring the situation daily to ensure the health and safety of our community. As of today, we are following CDC guidelines to postpone gatherings and are looking for ways to create digital learning for the programs upcoming. We are working with our collaborators and partners to ensure that our region’s open spaces continue to be protected, preserved, and when possible, enjoyed.

Even at a safe distance, nature is an essential healer.

One study after another documents its positive effects on physical and mental health for people of all ages and backgrounds. Nature offers balm and solace to the weary – being a source of beauty, wonder, and inspiration. And nature can be found everywhere – in the trees outside your apartment or home, in our community gardens and local parks, along the lakefront, waterways, and the vast network of woodlands, prairies, and wetlands (here’s a post that covers many of the area’s closures). It is imperative we all follow the guidelines of social distancing provided by the CDC and each natural space’s rules and regulations at all times whenever deciding to go outside.

As nature remains there for us, our advocacy for it is more important than ever.

As we collectively wade through this worldwide pandemic, it may be easy to forget how crucial nature is to our lives. But as advocates for nature, we understand. This is the time we must band together to share that healthy rivers, lakes, and wetlands are essential to our clean drinking water; that migrating birds that fly over our region are worthy of protecting; that creating an equity of park space and tree canopy is vital to all of our health, safety, and well-being; and our ability to allow nature to work for us, mitigating the effects of climate change through nature-based solutions, is a crucial component to our collective resilience.

Right now, creating resilience to the challenges we face is paramount. And nature can serve as our model. Know that you can count on Openlands for community, collective resilience, and healing through nature.

Be well and take good care of yourself and each other.

Sincerely,

Gerald Adelmann
President & CEO
Openlands

COVID 19: What Natural Areas are Open and the Guidelines to Follow

As we all adjust to a new normal of working from home and social distancing, it’s important to stay up to date on the guidelines, and closures at some of our regions natural areas.

The CDC recommends social distancing of 6 feet or more between you and any other person while being outside. Avoid touching your face. Bring hand sanitizer with you on your walk if possible, and wash your hands as soon as you can after being outdoors. The below recommendations come from the National Recreation and Parks Association for trail users on observing social distance minimums.

There are a number of specific recommendations for advising the public to keep safe social distancing when in parks or on trails:

  • Follow CDC’s guidance on personal hygiene prior to heading to trails — wash hands, carry hand sanitizer, do not use trails if you have symptoms, cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, etc.
  • Observe at all times CDC’s minimum recommended social distancing of six feet from other people. Practice it and know what it looks like. Keep it as you walk, bike or hike.
  • Warn other trail users of your presence and as you pass to allow proper distance and step off trails to allow others to pass, keeping minimum recommended distances at all times. Signal your presence with your voice, bell or horn.
  • Note that trail and park users may find public restrooms closed — be prepared before you leave and time outings so that you are not dependent on public restrooms.
  • Bring water or drinks — public drinking fountains may be disabled and should not be used, even if operable.
  • Bring a suitable trash bag. Leave no trash, take everything out to protect park workers

The NRPA reminds us this: “There is no question that this is a fluid and evolving situation. The experiences of other countries have shown that more stringent measures may be employed by the government to restrict the use of public spaces and private facilities. This guidance is current today, but park and recreation professionals and agency directors should monitor CDC guidance and local, state and federal updates daily.”

Credit: National Recreation and Park Association

Here’s a running list of our region’s preserves and parks COVID-19 updates, (but click on the links for the most up to date information):

Stay tuned for more additions and updates as they become available. You can also use Openlands Get Outside Map to responsibly explore areas in our region.

Cook County Forest Preserves Referendum

For several years we have worked together to find additional public revenue needed to fully protect and restore the Cook County Forest Preserves. A strong community support evolved, and polling showed that a majority of likely Cook County voters would support a referendum that would put the Cook County Forest Preserves on sustainable financial footing and advance the goals of the Next Century Conservation Plan.

In early October we asked that you let your Forest Preserve Commissioner and President Preckwinkle know that you support their vote that would allow a referendum to be placed on the March 2020 primary ballot. Thank you!

We want to let you know, that even though most Commissioners were in support of doing so, the matter was not advanced. We worked long and hard to get to this hopeful spot and are deeply disappointed that a referendum will not move forward. We will continue to advocate for the needs of the Forest Preserves, but it is also important to recognize that there is no easy fix.

It has never been easy to protect this unique and valuable asset. Remember that Forest Preserve founders Jens Jensen and Dwight Perkins lost repeated legal challenges. They were defeated four times, but each time they refused to give up because they were deeply committed to protecting nature for generations to come. We, too, must continue to press forward.

We are so grateful for all your efforts to date. And we hope we can continue to count on you in the years to come.

Celebrating Environmentalist Lee Botts

The entire Openlands family was saddened to learn of the passing of Lee Botts, a one-time fellow Openlander whose impact on conservation in the Chicago region and throughout the Great Lakes was profound.

A native of Oklahoma who moved to the Chicago region in 1949, Lee was a leader in the effort to create Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (now Indiana Dunes National Park) in the mid-1960s. In 1969, she joined the staff of Openlands (then Open Lands Project), where she founded the Lake Michigan Federation as a special project. Lee was a strong advocate for Great Lakes issues, and her work at the federation helped lead to the banning of phosphates in laundry detergents in Chicago, the passage of the U.S. Clean Water Act, and a national ban on PCBs. Ultimately the federation became an independent organization and is now the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Lee worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and headed the federal Great Lakes Basin Commission. She later taught at Northwestern University, and she helped establish the City of Chicago’s Department of the Environment and the Dunes Learning Center at Indiana Dunes National Park. Not one to slow down, in her 80s she served as executive producer on the Emmy-nominated documentary, Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability, about the Indiana Dunes.

Our thoughts are with Lee’s family and friends as we remember her remarkable career.

To learn more about Lee’s great work or to share a remembrance, please visit this site set up in her honor.

(Photo: Lee Botts with Paul Labovitz, Superintendent of Indiana Dunes National Park, at the Openlands Annual Luncheon in 2014; credit: Chris Murphy)

When Thinking About Climate, Think About Land

On August 8, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the Land and Climate Change report, which details the impacts of land use on the climate and the impacts of climate change on land. The report is upfront in its message: the ways humans use land impact the climate, and now we have the choice to either change our behavior to avoid catastrophe or double-down on our current efforts. Either way, the report indicates both tremendous risk and peril to our global livelihood and ability to adequately produce food and shelter.

This report adds to the increasingly clear message that the climate equation is far more complex than greenhouse gas emissions and reduction strategies. Yes, we need to decarbonize the global economy; dramatically reduce consumption patterns; and limit new extraction of natural resources. But we also need to fundamentally transform how and where most of our basic economic activities – such as farming, transportation, and housing – take place.

One of the key takeaways from this report is the reminder that land and the ways we use land have a very precarious relationship with the climate. Land can offer tremendous benefits towards influencing the climate by mitigating air temperatures and pulling carbon from the atmosphere, for example. But land, when mismanaged and abused, can also make destructive contributions to emissions, particularly when we convert natural areas and natural resources for the development of things like highways, sprawl, or mining. We have completely reshaped global landscapes and ecosystems to support our production of food, timber, clothing, and energy, and those combined land-uses now contribute about 22% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

The particular focus on emissions from land use in this report is alarming. As global populations continue to grow, become more affluent, and change consumption patterns, emissions from land uses are only expected to rise, which presents the need to overhaul how we produce food, how we manage natural resources, and how we protect land.


Somme Prairie

Land as a part of the ecosystem

Both the science and the task are daunting: how to undo arguably 250 years of emissions, still maintain the quality of life found in wealthy industrialized nations while providing for gains sought by poorer nations? In the search for answers, land and nature can lead the way.

In a truly functioning ecosystem, no resource is wasted, and every square inch provides a service – sometimes with ruthless efficiency. Simply, land and land use in a truly functioning ecosystem provides several functions: food, shelter, clean water, waste receptacle, and so on. While humans have technologically advanced since the industrial revolution, we have gone backwards in many ways and must look to nature for both inspiration and answers.

In terms of the IPCC report, humans no longer have the luxury of viewing land and land-use for single functions and to provide single benefits. Instead, land-use must mimic nature and provide two if not three essential functions or benefits in order to begin to solve our climate problems. For example, dwellings and structures should not only provide housing, offices, commerce, or manufacturing sites, but also include vegetation rich structures like green roofs that lower ambient air temperatures and serve as habitat. Urban forests, likewise, shade structures and intercept rainwater, while providing myriad other benefits like providing oxygen and helping improve the mental health of residents. Ideally, agriculture should not just provide food for humans, but also provide a symbiotic habitat for bugs, birds, and pollinators, and serve as a greater carbon sink than they currently contribute.

What’s striking about the recent UN report is the recognition that we don’t have unlimited land where these activities can take place, so we need to get much better at doing several things at once.

We know the solutions we can enact both for reducing our global emissions and for using land to our advantage against the looming climate crisis, but we face enormous societal, economic, and political challenges. Protecting and stewarding natural areas, supporting sustainable agriculture, and expanding the urban forest are all cited as solutions in the IPCC report. Similarly, these are all priorities for Openlands, and we will continue to lead on a regional scale. To do so, however, we need our elected officials to get serious about addressing this crisis by devoting the necessary resources to sustaining a healthy, habitable climate. Those resources and that leadership cannot come soon enough, and we are all responsible for holding our leaders accountable to deliver them.


Farmbill

Adopting Societal Approaches for Land Management

To some, this notion that land must now have multiple uses or provide multiple benefits may be foreign, but once again, we can say that we know the answers needed here. In terms of agriculture, what’s generally good for long-term farming is also good for the climate. As the IPCC report indicates, conservation practices build soil health in a way that holds carbon and puts it into crops, and crops are fuller and healthier because of it. But building soil health is an investment that sometimes takes years to pay for itself and farmers who are selling into globally competitive commodity crop markets can’t always afford to invest in their soils today. That’s where policies like the Federal Farm Bill need to incentivize conservation practices in order to bridge this affordability gap. Unfortunately, by failing to even acknowledge climate change and by cutting $5 billion from conservation-friendly programs, the 2018 Farm Bill did nowhere near enough to address the circumstances outlined in the latest UN report. Since farmland is key for these considerations not only because it’s where we produce food, but also because it’s the vast majority of land in the Midwest, we must change our societal approach, relationship and perception to both farming and our food.

The IPCC report also explicitly calls for better protection and stewardship of forests, which play a key role in mitigating climate. Countries like China, India, and Ethiopia have answered this call and are each planting billions of trees this year alone. They recognize that healthy forests are key to keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and prolonging a hospitable climate. Consequently, they are prioritizing precious public resources to re-establishing the forests they’ve lost, even when so many competing and dire needs exist. The Chicago region must follow the examples of those like China, India, and Ethiopia as well as the recommendations of the IPCC report. We must conserve and protect more natural areas, restore more ecosystems to health to strengthen carbon mitigation and climate resiliency, prevent further conversion of natural and agricultural lands to development, and localize our food systems to reduce emissions from food production.


PingTom_8038

While the continuing onslaught of news in the IPCC report on the climate is again grim, it is important to remember that we still have the ability to prevent a climate crisis. We as a society need to do a better job at protecting forests, assigning uses to and managing land, and producing food. And yes, as the IPCC report indicates, changing our dietary habits to local sources of food and eating less meat are important steps to take to reduce our personal carbon footprint to a sustainable level. But there is hope. The IPCC executive summary concludes by stating:

“Actions can be taken in the near-term, based on existing knowledge, to address desertification, land degradation and food security while supporting longer-term responses that enable adaptation and mitigation to climate change…”

Near-term action to address climate change adaptation and mitigation, desertification, land degradation and food security can bring social, ecological, economic, and development co-benefits. Co-benefits can contribute to poverty eradication and more resilient livelihoods for those who are vulnerable. With record spring rains in the Midwest, heatwaves in Europe, devastating wildfires in the Amazon and across Central Africa, and the warmest month ever recorded this past July, we are all looking a little vulnerable right now.

Despite those challenges, it is comforting to know that the authors of the IPCC report, as well as the United Nations delegates who can veto any portion of the executive summary, think we can handle this.

Photo: Patrick Williams

Read more about Openlands’ efforts to address the climate crisis or email climate@openlands.org for more information.

Illinois Tollway Ends Work on Route 53, Tri-County Access Projects

Openlands is very excited to share with you that the Tri-County Access project, which includes the Route 53 Extension, is dead.

Today, the Illinois Tollway announced that they will forgo completion of the proposed Tri-County Access project, an effort to extend new highway development from Cook County, through the middle of Lake County, and into eastern McHenry County. The proposed route included the Route 53 Extension, the Route 120 Bypass, and the Lake-McHenry Corridor. Likewise, the Lake County Board announced this past Tuesday that they will consider transportation alternatives to the project. Together, these announcements are an important milestone that moves us towards transportation solutions that allow Lake and McHenry Counties to be healthy, resilient, and competitive.

Openlands has been involved in the fight against the Tri-County Access project and Route 53 Extension since day one, and we will continue to collaborate with partners across the region to help develop and implement a comprehensive plan that increases our resiliency to a changing climate while balancing the needs of a growing region with healthy natural lands that benefit both people and wildlife.

After decades of history on this project, we celebrate that we can finally lift the specter of this project and collaborate to build a brighter, more sustainable future for northeastern Illinois.

Below are press statements from Openlands President and CEO Jerry Adelmann:

Statement on Route 53

“As a former member of the Blue-Ribbon Advisory Council, we congratulate the Tollway and the Lake County Board for moving beyond the Route 53 Extension towards multi-modal transportation solutions that will make Lake County more prosperous and resilient to climate change.  It demonstrates that transportation projects don’t have to sacrifice our communities, our health and some of the finest natural landscapes in the country.  This decision opens the door to true consensus in how reclaiming the Route 53 corridor can offer vital linear connections and world class amenities to the county and the region.”

Statement on Tri-County Access

“Openlands commends the Illinois Tollway’s decision to forgo completion of the Tri-County Access project in Cook, Lake, and McHenry counties. The proposed route of the Tri-County Access project would have directly harmed some of the region’s most scenic and valued natural areas, including Volo Bog State Natural Area, Lake County’s Liberty Prairie Reserve, Heron Creek Forest Preserve, McHenry County’s Glacial Park, and Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. We look forward to collaborating on the creation of comprehensive, complementary transportation plans that respect the health of communities, our region’s natural heritage, and the need to increase resiliency in a changing climate.”

For more inforamtion, please contact info@openlands.org.

Media Contact

Photo: Chicago Tribune

Speak at Public Meetings on Flooding in Lake County

Residents in Lake County are encouraged to speak at one of the upcoming meetings hosted by Lake County Stormwater Management Commission regarding flooding in Lake County, IL.

As you know, Lake County is experiencing stronger and more frequent rainfalls. To better protect its residents and businesses from this, the Lake County Stormwater Management Commission (SMC) is now re-evaluating its regulations for new developments. The Commission also seeks to share helpful information with a greater number of property owners, and hear their concerns and suggestions. 

Please speak at one of the upcoming meetings the Commission is hosting on this topic. If you want stronger protections from flooding, this is the time for elected officials to hear from you.

We encourage you to share your story of how flooding has impacted you, and ask for stronger flood protections designed to handle the future storms being projected for Lake County. Please take up to three minutes.

Tuesday, July 16 | 2pm
Highland Park City Hall
1707 St. Johns Ave, Highland Park, IL

Wednesday, July 24 | 10am
Barrington Village Hall 
200 S. Hough St, Barrington, IL

State Representative Sam Yingling and Lake County Board Member Terry Wilke are hosting a floodproofing and rainfall information meeting where Lake County SMC will be the presenting agency. 

Thursday, August 8 | 6pm
Round Lake High School (Theater) 
800 High School Drive, Round Lake, IL

Learn more…

Remembering Judy Beck

The Board and staff of Openlands are saddened at the passing of Judy Beck. Her talent, passion, and dedication to ensuring a healthy environment for people and wildlife were unparalleled and resonate deeply with all of us at Openlands. She was part of our family, serving on the Openlands Policy Committee, and helped shape complex policy positions, especially those involving water quality. Drawing on her long career at the U.S. EPA, she was a compelling advisor and advocate for Lake Michigan and clean water.

At the Glenview Park District and the Grove Heritage Association, she was an advocate for connecting people to nature. The Grove is near and dear to Openlands: early in our history we worked to save this important cultural and natural resource, which dates back to the first European settlers of the region. We recently worked with Judy to expand the property to incorporate adjacent forest and wetlands. Today, it’s a destination for hundreds of school children daily, and if you haven’t visited the Grove yourself, you will not regret it. It’s a special place.

Judy was a force of nature and a force for nature. Her commitment to ensuring the well-being of the region was an inspiration to all of us at Openlands.

Thank you and we will miss you.

A memorial service is scheduled to be held July 26 at 1 pm at The Grove.

Chicago Tribune obituary.

It’s raining a lot more — and that’s a problem

Spring 2019 was one of the wettest ever in northern Illinois.  

The increased frequency of weather systems that cause sporadic, torrential storms are symptomatic of climate change in the Chicago region. Jim Angel, Illinois’ former state climatologist, recently stated that more intense storms and heavy rains that drop several inches at a time are becoming more frequent across northern Illinois.

According to the National Weather Service, three of the five wettest years on record in Chicago have occurred in the last decade, including 2018, which ranked fourth with over 49 inches of precipitation (the annual average is around 36 inches). And we are starting to see these weather patterns happen annually. During one 24-hour period in July 2017, Lake County, IL received over seven inches of rain. The Governor declared a state of emergency.  In 2018, Lake County was under flood conditions on six separate occasions. And this past May was the wettest ever for the month, surpassing the record set only last year. 

Our region – everything from rural towns to densely populated urban areas, farmland, housing, routes of transportation, and schools – was not built to withstand the “new normal” of seasonal flooding. For many of us, the impacts of flooding are felt during our daily commute, but for far too many of us, the effects are felt worst when water is pouring into our basements or when an entire year’s crops – and income – are lost to intense farmland flooding.

Farm fields in Illinois are currently so saturated that less than half of the typical crop of corn and soybeans, the state’s two largest crops, has been planted this year.

These are exactly the type of climate impacts on the Midwest we were warned about last year in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, and that means we need to get to work on implementing climate solutions.

The increased intensity of rain is forcing us to rethink how we can design our communities to not flood.

Photo (top), flooding in Suburban Burbank, 2014: Heather Charles/Chicago Tribune

Increases in rainfall prompted the Illinois State Water Survey to update Bulletin 70, which measures the frequency of rainfall and the intensity of rainstorms in Illinois. The Illinois State Water Survey found that infrastructure was up to 25 to 40% inadequate to handle current storms. Updating Bulletin 70 is important because it is the basis for engineers to size stormwater pipes, detention ponds, bridges above rivers and streams, nature-based solutions, and other infrastructure to handle expected rain and snowmelt. While this is a critical first step, it still leaves us vulnerable to climate change. It is critical to add the amount flooding will likely increase when building infrastructure to last over the next century. Otherwise, we are building to flood.

Photo: Brian Casella/Chicago Tribune

Over the last decade, agencies and communities have taken important steps towards requiring and incentivizing better stormwater solutions.  However, we know it isn’t enough.  For our region to be healthy, competitive and livable, it is essential to design lasting pipes, reservoirs and green infrastructure to accommodate our changing climate.  This means finding ways to systemize greater integration of green technology, such as permeable pavement, and natural features, such as rain gardens and trees, into public spaces. Nature-based solutions, combined with traditional infrastructure, can hold and slow substantial amounts of rain and snow melt to reduce the pressure on pipes when they are most full.  This can reduce basement backups and the amount that we release combined sewer overflows – sewage combined with rain – into our rivers and Lake Michigan.  Expanding and adequately maintaining both pipes and this “green infrastructure” means less damage, clearer streets, and cleaner water to drink, use and recreate in.

As our region continues to grow, more concrete and impervious surface will exacerbate the stress of climate change on our communities.  This pressure will demand, and hopefully inspire more, partnerships between agencies, communities, businesses and non-profits, to retrofit our communities with better technology.  Conscientious development and redevelopment won’t be enough.  We will need more programs, like Space to Grow, which transforms Chicago Public School campuses in disadvantaged neighborhoods that flood into vibrant green outdoor learning places that can hold upward of 750,000 gallons per storm event.  Likewise, farmers can implement practices on their land that not only provide healthy food, but also stabilize the health of soil and improve ecosystem services like flood mitigation. Learn more about low-impact and sustainable design.

Space to Grow and conservation practices on farmland are both great examples of how protecting existing landscapes can provide a multitude of ecosystems service benefits.  For example, restoring land to high quality prairie is proven to be an $8 to $1 return, mitigating flooding, sequestering carbon, and lowering temperatures in urban heat islands.  With increasing pressure to develop, it will be ever more important that our development and transportation infrastructure complements rather than erodes our finite open space. 

While good work is underway, we must step up our efforts to mitigate flooding and other climate change impacts for the sake of generation to come.

Photo: the Space to Grow schoolyard at Chicago’s Wadsworth Elementary

For more than 50 years, Openlands has advocated for protecting clean water and our region’s waterways. Learn more about our efforts to address climate change in the Chicago region.


This post was updated on July 12, 2019.

U.N. Report Highlights ‘Unprecedented’ Risk to Endangered Wildlife

On May 6, the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released their summary of an upcoming 1,500-page report on the state of biodiversity on Earth. The findings of the report are sobering and paint a bleak view for one million wildlife species now at risk of extinction due to human activity.  

A three-year study by the IPBES finds that nature is experiencing an ‘unprecedented’ decline. This decline threatens terrestrial and aquatic species — including birds, insects, amphibians, mammals, trees, plants, marine life, and terrestrial life — and erodes the social and economic foundations of human civilization. It also finds unequivocally that human activities are to blame, especially ones that drive land use change, species exploitation, climate change, pollution, and competition from invasive species.

Some especially astonishing facts revealed by this study include:

  • Three-fourths of the planet’s land-based habitat, and two-thirds of its ocean habitat, has been significantly altered by humans;
  • One-third of the planet’s land and three-fourths of its freshwater are used by agriculture; and
  • The footprint of urban areas more than doubled since 1992.

The report from the UN reminds us again that as a planet, our current efforts to protect nature are nowhere near enough. Without ‘transformational changes’, the situation will worsen.

But that doesn’t have to be our future.


Openlands believes that nature is vital to all humans, and so we have an obligation to sustain nature not only for its own sake but also for our own wellbeing. To counter these troubling global trends, Openlands acts regionally to advance changes that are models for transformations which safeguard our region’s wildlife, sustain human communities, and support a healthy equilibrium between them.

  • Forestry, clean water, and local food programs all provide education about our natural resources so that more residents of the Chicago region value and respect them.

And while we are leading the efforts to make our region the most livable region in the country, endangered wildlife is still facing threats today and needs your voice. Right now legislation in Springfield will undercut Illinois’ ability to protect its own endangered wildlife and instead defer critical decisions to the current Federal administration, an administration that’s made a point of showing its disregard for environmental protection.

Please ask your state legislators to reject this law that would prevent Illinois from protecting its own threatened and endangered species.


We are committed to keeping you informed of the latest news and how it impacts conservation in the Chicago region, and we need your help to keep pursuing the transformation changes needed to save our planet’s wildlife. We need your support now, more than ever, to sustain our work that connects people with nature in the Chicago region.

Photos: Bill Clow (top); Marty Hackl