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Alan Bell Appointed Chair of Conservation and Policy Council of the Cook County Forest Preserves

Openlands and the Forest Preserves of Cook County are connected by a long and deep history, spanning back to Openlands’ founding when Charles “Cap” Sauers , who served as General Superintendent of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, joined Openlands as a Board Member. The relationship continues today as Openlands Board Member Alan Bell becomes Chair of the Conservation and Policy Council. The Council is tasked with guiding the efforts to implement the Next Century Conservation Plan – an inspired pathway to ensure that people’s love and enthusiasm for nature is realized.   

Alan has served on the Council for several years and on Openlands Board for 12. He is an active attorney engaged in public finance and public-private partnerships. He is a board member of the Land Trust Alliance and founder and CEO of the Elements Group, which is committed to inspiring projects that have a lasting impact on people, the natural environment, and the world. He is passionate about nature and committed to community conservation and engagement, especially when it comes to diverse populations. His values and experience make Alan a perfect complement to the goals of the Next Century Conservation Plan and the work of the Council as it advances its civic commitment to secure the resources needed to care for the first forest preserve system in the nation.  

Alan takes over the Council Chair from Wendy Paulson who led the 11-member organization through its inaugural years. Wendy is an avid birder, conservationist, and Openlands board member for the past eight years. Wendy transitioned to the Chair of Council after serving as one of the four co-chairs of the Next Century Conservation Plan Commission that oversaw the development of the Plan. Bob Megquier, Openlands Executive Vice President of Programs, has also served as an invaluable member of the Plan’s leadership team, serving as a senior advisor to Forest Preserve staff and the Council.

In 2012 the Cook County Forest Preserves was approaching its centennial anniversary, which was a cause for celebration, reflection, and looking to the future. Openlands’ long-time relationship led to an invitation from the Forest Preserves to help lead a planning effort, alongside Metropolis Strategies, to create a visionary plan looking into the next century of the Forest Preserves’ work. The vision needed to acknowledge and plan for issues not imagined in 1915 such as climate change and its effect on our region, the changing demographics of Cook County, and the contribution of healthy nature in helping to ensure healthy people. As a public agency with such a rich history that currently owns more than 10% of Cook County, the Forest Preserves wanted to take an integrated approach to planning for the future of the county’s open lands by including the important role of civic leadership in developing and driving implementation of the Plan.

The Conservation and Policy Council is the leadership team tasked with implementing the Plan and helping to bring resources to the Forest Preserves. One of the most important responsibilities of the Council is to bridge the public and private sector and drive funding to the Forest Preserves so that the goals of the plan can become a reality.

During the first five years of work of the Council it became glaringly obvious that the Cook County Forest Preserves are structurally underfunded. This is tragic because it guarantees that the preserves will never be fully cared for. The invasive plants that destroy the forests, prairies, and wetlands will win out over the oaks and hickory trees and the wildlife that depend on them. New trails and facilities will not be built, and existing ones will deteriorate. Over time, the health of the preserves will decline, and we will all lose something valuable.

That’s where the Conservation and Policy Council comes in. One of the most impactful ways to drive revenue to the Forest Preserves is through a property tax referendum that would adjust its revenue to be more in line with its need to ensure a healthy and inviting system of preserves. The Council will play a central role in building the community of support needed for a referendum to pass.

One good reason Cook County taxpayers should feel good about giving more money to the Forest Preserves is that December 2020 marks Arnold Randall’s 10th anniversary as General Superintendent of the Cook County Forest Preserves. Appointed by President Toni Preckwinkle, Arnold has transformed what was described by many as a political dumping ground costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars annually into a high-functioning and transparent government agency where employees not only do their job but take pride in their work. Arnold’s commitment is exemplified by sound conservation planning, award-winning work, and a dedication to engaging the conservation community and Cook County residents. Arnold has demonstrated his leadership over the last 10 years and has earned our trust that he will spend taxpayer dollars wisely and efficiently.

Our local preserves offer us free access to the healing power of nature. Keeping these critical ecosystems healthy should be a high priority for all of us who have treasured our moments outdoors and in nature. To get alerts when the referendum and other advocacy opportunities arise, sign up for our Cook County Action Alerts.

The Vacant Lot Phenomenon: How Vacant Lots Affect A Community’s People, Places, and Ecosystems

By Openlands’ Education and Community Outreach Coordinator, Lillian Holden

It was one of those warm summer nights where my cousins and I dashed from the living room of my grandmother’s house towards the corridors of her gangway. Within her gangway sat three charcoal-colored tire pots filled with creeping thistle, crabgrass, and dandelion. The tire pots rested cozily within a demarcation line that met the earth. Our journey would guide us past my older cousin’s residence next door and we would eventually cease our running once our feet mingled within the dirt and debris that occupied the vacant lot located three houses down from my grandmother’s. Energetic from eating Vitner’s Cheese-Flavored Crunchy Curls, Now & Laters, and Boston Baked Beans purchased at the neighboring corner store, it was common for us to traverse from my grandmother’s living room to the adjacent vacant lot. Our boisterous spirits would always lead us to the heart of the lot where an oak tree stood. During those times, the oak tree, my grandmother’s concrete front steps, and the pavement in front of my cousin’s porch made up the essence of my childhood. Although we had fun running around the block playing games like cops and robbers, tag, rock teacher, bottle top, double dutch, and hide-and-seek, roaming the vacant lot and climbing the branches of the oak tree for a sunbath felt like the ultimate escape. 

As age and experience snuck up on me, I began to develop ambivalent emotions toward vacant lots.  I noticed that the communities that raised me looked vastly different from the ones I traveled through to get to institutions of knowledge, employment, and social gatherings. My place of play within North Lawndale juxtaposed places of play in communities like Edison Park. Oddly enough, my neighborhood vacant lot felt like a complicated oasis. Vacant lots have a negative association and reputation, yet I have so many positive childhood experiences in them. It was a place where we could foster our imagination, play with worms, and get dirty, all the while running the risk of suffering from an occasional gash from a piece of broken glass. Figuratively speaking, it felt as though my nostalgia sat in a corner grazing violin strings, sweet and sensuously, while the truth grimaced directly in my face, making dark, sonorous bow strokes on a cello. I’ve struggled (and still do) against the history of vacant lots, which is rooted in divestment, predatory lending practices, redlining, and contract selling. Moreover, I struggle with how these practices negatively affect inner city youths’ connection to nature.

Historical Snapshot

Why are pockets of the West Side still decimated? Journalists Tony Briscoe and Ese Olumhense asked this question while flicking through archived stories and historic photos gathered from the North Lawndale and East Garfield Park communities after the 1968 riots. According to a 2013 land-use inventory from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, five percent of Chicago is classified as vacant and undeveloped, and approximately 14 percent of that land sits idle in the community areas of East Garfield Park and North Lawndale. These numbers show a troubling statistic that did not materialize mysteriously. 

Prior to the 1968 riots and African American Migration, East Garfield Park and North Lawndale served as prime areas for employment, real estate, and sustainable livelihood for the Jewish immigrant population. It was a place for working-class families to thrive and invest in bettering their futures. Chicago’s infrastructure, similar to Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Cleveland, suffered from divestment and neglect once blacks migrated from the south to northern cities in search of job opportunities and the “American Dream.” In the 1930’s, North Lawndale had a population of 115,000 white Americans while East Garfield Park had 65,000. Blacks who moved north instilled fear in whites, who moved to the suburbs where they could find subsidized housing. By the 1970’s, 885 white residents lived in East Garfield Park and less than 1,000 occupied North Lawndale. After the riots, city services diminished considerably, leaving blacks struggling and neighborhoods deteriorating. Recovery was never expected to be a streamlined process, as the riots resulted in $10 million worth of damage. Of that damage, uninsured homes and brick and mortar businesses were included. More specifically, “260 stores and businesses were destroyed, including 116 along a 20-block stretch of Madison between Damen Avenue and Pulaski Road. Another 72 were razed within 12 blocks of Roosevelt.” Abandonment worsened after the 1968 riots as Chicago municipalities transformed into blighted areas.

Redlining and Segregation

Chicago’s mapping system has been influenced by the city’s history of redlining, segregation, and divestment. This history is apparent by simply crossing into different neighborhoods, where cultural difference and resources often vary depending on race and economic status. It is a matter of crossing underneath a viaduct, or main street and intersection. These resource discrepencies are the main reason that when it came time to choose a career, I entered the nonprofit sector.

My nonprofit professional journey began as a Public Ally with Openlands in 2018. As a Ally you’re expected to complete a 10-month apprenticeship with one of the organization’s partners. The objective is that through the partnership, a young person is able to approach employment using their organic assets (and the program’s core values) to help build the participating nonprofit’s capacity. Each ally goes through a series of interviews leading to a match that is forged between the ally and the nonprofit that interviewed with them. After researching and learning about the organization’s connection to low-income communities, specifically their involvement in establishing community gardens to occupy vacant lots in North Lawndale and East Garfield Park, Openlands sounded like the place for me. 

Openlands has a deep history focused on vacant land and the the first city-wide inventory of vacant land in Chicago was made by the group. This effort led to the Community Land Use Network (CLUN), a coalition of open space, community development, and economic development organizations. CLUN was successful in getting an ordinance passed that addressed the disposition of vacant land.

The majority of my job description involves assisting with the functionalities of one of Openlands’ most prized programs, Birds in my Neighborhood (BIMN). Birds in my Neighborhood is a program that introduces students to common birds in the Chicago region through in-class lessons and field trips. When pitching BIMN, I often find the phrase “to inspire advocates for nature” confidently rolling off the tip of my tongue. It is without a doubt that the program has a unique way of doing just that. This is evident through our yearly end-of-the-program evaluation given to participating teachers. A Drummond Elementary teacher observed their students stopping a group of younger children from chasing away pigeons and explaining how important it is to leave wildlife alone.

During my time as an Ally, I had the privilege of taking two different schools through a BIMN experience from start to finish. The two schools are on opposite ends of the city; William Penn Elementary is a grammar school located in North Lawndale, one of the most architecturally eccentric and socially complex neighborhoods in Chicago, and Edison Park is located in Norwood Park, a quaint, picturesque community that lives up to the dreams of those early settlers who considered it an “ideal suburb.”

While students at the two schools saw the same birds, the surrounding environments and ecologies were starkly different. At Penn Elementary, we started the bird walk just outside the school’s primary entrance. Next to the school entrance sat five vacant lots. We were able to see a flock of European Starlings congregating on the ground, specks of American Robins grazing the short grassed vacant lots, Ringed-billed Gulls in the sky defying gravity, House Sparrows jumping and dashing from ground to tree, and a nest resting idle in a nearby tree. The students excitedly tallied what they saw on their bird checklist. 

The schoolyard walk at Edison Park had a much different feel. We passed a row of houses that lined the school building and a large, well-maintained baseball field. The field and neighboring trees attracted bird species such as, American Robins, Northern Cardinals, House Sparrows, and Crows. Similar to Penn Elementary students, the students excitedly tallied the birds they saw on their checklist. 

The areas in red surrounding Penn Elementary mark the neighborhood’s vacant lots

The Birds in my Neighborhood field trip component is where students truly become elated. This is where students either walk or are bused out to a local park or preserve. The locations vary from school to school and teachers are able to pick a location of their choosing. Students from Penn Elementary explored Douglass Park whereas students from Edison Park Elementary scouted North Park Village Nature Center.

A robust bird watching experience is dependent on biodiversity and habitat health, and the experiences at Penn and Edison made me wonder how the differences in environment between a child who bird watches in North Lawndale and a child who bird watches Edison Park affect the student. When considering the difference in residential landscape (with a lens on vacant lots) and viable habitat for birds, how do these experiences compare and contrast?

Research on childhood development and access to nature explores the impact of outdoor play spaces on children. A study in Norway examined the effect of different outdoor play settings on childrens’ motor coordination in three kindergarten outdoor play settings and showed that children who used a forest as a play setting performed better in motor skills tests than children who used an artificial playground. Research also suggests that even views of nature can affect children’s cognitive capacities, in particular their ability to concentrate. One study involving low-income African American children from public housing projects in Chicago showed that children living in apartment buildings with views of trees and green space exhibited superior attention capacities and impulse control than similar children living in apartments with fewer views of nature.  

Prior to my apprenticeship with Openlands, vacant lots that consumed North Lawndale’s scenery seemed like graceless fragments of land created by collective self-learned helplessness. However, each vacant lot has a story. Within some vacant lots, you’ll find concrete rubble on ground surrounded by lime and olive green grass and clusters of dandelion sprouting from its resilient roots. In others, you’ll find patches of long-grassed land, twisted milkweed plants, twigs, trees, branches, broken gates, broken bottles, broken glass, leftover construction material, and other hazardous substances. The few activated vacant lots sprinkled in the vicinity are used to uplift the community, its rich soil planted to harvest collard greens, cabbage, basil, radish, cilantro, and other fruits and vegetables.

Experiences like mine are not unique, but I share my story in the life affirming hope that it will provide powerful support for unstructured play outdoors. While vacant lots may not be the best place to provide this, open spaces that are well-managed are critical for child development.

When it comes to long-term advocacy for community improvement, early education for young people on environmental issues is crucial. Before introducing society’s common value for capital transactions, environmental education influences youth to understand the inherent value of nature and that if the earth’s resources continue to bleed, money cannot replace it.

Vacant lots are a result of centuries of discrimination and devaluation. However, they now offer an opportunity for regeneration, for both children and the communities where they live. While I do not wish for children to play in precarious lots, I do hope that children in Chicago’s neighborhoods have the same wonderful experience that I did by having their own place to play and imagine in the outdoors. To make that a reality, I suggest the following:

  1. Pressure state and local representatives to implement creative market-based changes that can attract revenue while keeping the communities’ historical integrity intact
    1. North Lawndale and East Garfield Park can be considered a historical corridor. Why not have tours of the community greystones and highlight the Jewish and African American history?  Have these tours been conducted by community members to help curve the communities’ unemployment rate.
    2. Support local businesses that cater to the communities’ racial demographic by the racial majority. Uplift youth entrepreneurs through programs and grants. 
  2. Chicago should re-examine its $1 large program. How can it be more beneficial for low-income communities who don’t have the means to turn the land into a garden or develop real estate?
  3. A burgeoning movement is the “forest school” movement. While I don’t know how this can apply to neighborhoods like North Lawndale, the idea is promising. Chicago should support and continue to explore “Forest Schools”  
  4. Support NeighborSpace
  5. Support Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute, which researches urban biodiversity and habitats in and around metropolitan Chicago

*Cover photo courtesy of Nona Tepper

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. 

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.

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
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):

For allowing Illinois residents to engage in some outdoor activities, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) will reopen select state parks, recreation areas fish and
wildlife areas and trails beginning May 1. Here’s the list of outdoors that are reopening:

  • Northwestern Illinois: Argyle Lake State ParkJubilee College State Park, Lowden State Park, Morrison-Rockwood State Park, Rock Island Trail State Park, Shabbona Lake State Recreation Area.
  • Northeastern Illinois: Chain o’ Lakes State Park, Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail, Kankakee River State Park, Moraine Hills State Park, North Point Marina
  • East Central Illinois: Clinton Lake State Recreation Area, Eagle Creek State Park, Kickapoo State Park, Wolf Creek State Park
  • West Central Illinois: Eldon Hazlet State Recreation Area, Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area, Sangchris Lake State Park, Siloam Springs State Park, Washington County State Recreation Area
  • Southern Illinois: Fort Massac State Park, Giant City State Park, Stephen A Forbes State Recreation Area, Wayne Fitzgerrell State Recreation Area

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.