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The Essential Role of Pollinators

Pollinator species – such as bees, butterflies, bats, and birds – may be small, but they play massive roles in our lives every day. From assisting in food production to providing ecological services, pollinators are central to many critical processes in the environment. Increased threats posed by habitat loss, disease, and climate change have contributed to the global decline of many pollinator species and made pollinator conservation all the more important.

Nearly all the plants in the world need to be pollinated in order to reproduce effectively, and pollinators assist in this among over 80% of the world’s flowering plants. These plants, in turn, sequester and store carbon by absorbing CO2, the second most abundant greenhouse gas. They improve air quality and can help filter clean water. The United States grows more than 100 crops that rely on or benefit from pollinators, which contribute an estimated $3 billion to the economy.


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In many cases, pollinators serve as keystone species, meaning they play an essential role in the foundations of an ecosystem. For instance, bumble bees pollinate fruit-bearing plants which not only support agriculture, but also provide the diet to numerous other species in a given ecosystem.

Despite their vital role, pollinators need conservation support. Climate change has imperiled half of all North American bird species and pollinator habitats are becoming fragmented or disappearing rapidly in the face of development. Excessive or careless use of pesticides can wipe out whole communities of pollinators.

Individual populations are at risk as well. North American populations of the monarch butterfly and the rusty patched bumble bee, for example, have experienced significant declines over the last 20 years, prompting the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to consider additional protection for these once-abundant species under the Endangered Species Act.

In Illinois alone, there are nearly 2,500 native pollinator species that support our flowering and food plant populations. Illinois also serves as an important migratory route for monarchs and other pollinators that need appropriate habitat to help them survive and reproduce as they travel.


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Openlands and ComEd recognize the importance of the many programs, partnerships, and individual actions that residents of Illinois are taking to conserve pollinators, support their habitat, and protect pollinator-dependent plants and food crops. As a response to this growing awareness, ComEd has announced a special focus on pollinator conservation for the 2018 cycle of the ComEd Green Region grants.

Grants of up to $10,000 support open space projects that focus on planning, acquisition, and improvements to local parks, natural areas, and recreation resources. Grant recipients can use Green Region grants in combination with other funding sources to cover a portion of the expenses associated with developing and/or supporting their open space programs.

Across our region, pollinator-friendly projects incorporate habitat in public spaces, from new outdoor classrooms to natural area restoration to community gardens. ComEd’s commitment is helping communities recognize how everyone can play a role in protecting pollinators.


For more information on the grants program, please visit www.openlands.org/greenregion.

Photo (top): Brandon Hayes

Volunteers Sow the Seeds of Hackmatack

This winter, Openlands has organized a series of volunteer workdays at Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. With the help of these great volunteers, we have begun the process of restoring two sites within the boundaries of the refuge.

Hackmatack was established as a permanent National Wildlife Refuge in 2012, but from the beginning, it has been a partnership of local communities and local governments working to bring the vision to life. Friends and neighbors came together to earn the federal designation, but now the real work of building the refuge acre-by-acre has begun.


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Braving the Cold…

On the chilly morning of January 28, the Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge hosted a seed planting workday on the Perricone Tract with the help of Openlands and the McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD). Volunteers spread 100 lbs of native prairie seed mix, kindly donated by FermiLab, along the site’s eastern edge, which will grow in to help restore this tract.

In 2016, Openlands purchased the Perricone Tract in Woodstock, IL as part of our ongoing work in Hackmatack. This 27-acre parcel contains remnant sedge meadow and a lovely meandering stretch of the Nippersink Creek. Openlands partnered with the Nippersink Watershed Association to protect the Perricone Tract and received a generous grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to support the site’s acquisition and restoration.

The seeding planting workday laid the foundation for more prairie restoration work in the coming spring, which will be led by our partners at MCCD and funded by our Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation grant.


…And Enjoying the Unseasonably Warm

Following the seed planting, a second group of volunteers, again in partnership with Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, helped begin restoration efforts at the Blackmon Tract in Richmond, an open space site in the refuge boundaries that is owned by Openlands.

Back in the fall of 2016, Openlands acquired this 11-acre site in the Tamarack Core Area of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. It contains oak woodlands, a high-quality wetland area, and wonderful opportunities for restoring native natural communities and creating public access for Hackmatack. The acquisition of the Blackmon property was made possible through the leadership and support of the Grand Victoria Foundation, which awarded a generous grant to Openlands for the land purchase.

On February 19, a hard-working group of nearly 30 people joined us on an unseasonably warm day to pick up trash and clear invasive brush from the Blackmon Tract. We were happy to count members from several groups among our volunteers, including Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, Boy Scout Troop 340 from Spring Grove, and EPIC Volunteering from Palos. Spotting a bald eagle circling slowly overhead topped off a great day filled with laughter, a little bit of sweat, and a lot of sunshine.


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When restored, the landscapes protected at Hackmatack will once again offer a home to the mosaics of native plants and wildflowers, the mazes of pristine streams, and the rich variety of wildlife. Essential to Openlands’ vision is not just protecting these rare habitats, but also ensuring everyone can share in the nature at Hackmatack. Whether through participating in restoration days or by introducing best practices to support wildlife near their homes, the local residents are making great strides to restore this area for the benefit of all.


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Local partnerships make Hackmatack a unique model for conservation and our volunteers helped sow the seeds for future partnerships uniting around a shared vision for Hackmatack. We will be hosting more workdays at these sites soon. For more information, please contact Openlands Conservation Manager, Aimee Collins, at acollins@openlands.org or call 312.863.6257.

Openlands send many thanks to our volunteers for their support and to our sponsors who provide critical support for restoration!

Conservation Easements Create a Network of Protected Lands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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