Open Spaces: Illinois: A Blueprint for Change Unites Conservation Partners

Illinois: A Blueprint for Change Unites Conservation Partners

Deer in wooded forest

Winter at Waterfall Glen the Forest Preserve in Lemont, IL. A 2008 assessment of climate change released by Chicago Wilderness indicates that across the upper Midwest, average annual temperatures have risen; ice and snow are melting earlier in spring and arriving later in fall. Photo: Michael Kappel.

Multimedia iconPodcast:  Chicago Wilderness Executive Council Chair Laurel Ross and Executive Director Melinda Pruett-Jones

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Multimedia iconPodcast: Nancy Williamson, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and Steven Byers, Illinois Natures Preserve Commission. 

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Rising annual temperatures.  Earlier springs.  Later falls.  Warmer winters.  More frequent heavy rains.  These are some of the ways climate change is expected to affect Illinois and the Midwest. 

But a blueprint for managing change is emerging from the wilderness. 

Chicago Wilderness is a multi-state alliance of more than 250 conservation organizations from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan working together to restore local nature and improve quality of life by protecting the region’s lands and waters – now and into the future.   

“Like conserving biodiversity, addressing climate change is a complex endeavor that requires a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach, says Kristopher Lah with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chicago Field Office, a Chicago Wilderness partner. “Having a 250-member coalition to work with provides the conservation community with the tools and resources to act effectively and efficiently to the compounding threat of climate change.”

A 2008 assessment of climate change and biodiversity released by Chicago Wilderness indicates that across the upper Midwest, average annual temperatures have risen; ice and snow are melting earlier in spring and arriving later in fall; there are fewer cold snaps; heavy rains are occurring twice as frequently as they did a century ago; and there are warmer winters and a longer growing season. 

What is the potential result in the Midwest?  More precipitation and increased occurrences of intense storms; higher stream flow and more flooding; new pests; lower water levels in the Great Lakes; and a mismatch in seasonal patterns such as bird or bat migration and the emergence of insects. 

A group of people stand smiling
The Chicago Wilderness works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and many other partner organizations to help restore habitat and connect people and nature.  Photo Courtesy of Chicago Wilderness. 

To address these multiple impacts, Chicago Wilderness has developed the Climate Action Plan for Nature to help partners factor climate change into their planning and management efforts.  The plan includes strategies for reducing climate change impacts through land conservation; adapting conservation plans to a rapidly changing climate, and engaging partners by instituting educational “climate clinics” to ensure they are climate ready, no matter what their role is in conservation. 

Laurel Ross, Urban Conservation Director at the Field Museum of Chicago and Chair of the Chicago Wilderness Executive Council says the plan focuses on adaptation, mitigation and engagement – the same key strategies the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is using to address how it will manage fish and wildlife resources in a changing climate. 

The plan also dovetails with the City of Chicago’s Climate Action Plan, ensuring a cohesive approach to climate change in the Chicago Region. 

“It’s about preparing, responding and adapting to change that is inevitable,” Ross says.   

A map of the Chicago wilderness area
The Chicago Wilderness area covers portions of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin and includes more than 250 organizations.  Map provided by Chicago Wilderness, data by Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. View full size.

The Chicago Wilderness plan emphasizes the key role that land conservation plays in mitigating the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, pointing to the climate-fighting value of natural areas and open spaces. For example, by preventing the destruction of roughly 360,000 acres of “natural” land cover currently in the Chicago Wilderness protected areas, CW has prevented the release of an estimated 53 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

Chicago Wilderness Executive Director Melinda Pruett-Jones says CW’s Green Infrastructure Vision initiative is built on sustainable principles of conservation design development, such as managing water on the landscape and ensuring there’s connectivity between natural areas. 

“Further implementation of the Green Infrastructure Vision is really an adaptation strategy for the expected climate change for the region,” Pruett-Jones says. 

CW’s Green Infrastructure Vision identifies 1.8 million acres of for potential protection and restoration in the region, through conservation development, easements, land-use planning and land acquisition.  The vision builds upon the existing green infrastructure in the Chicago area:  370,000 acres of natural areas, corridors and open spaces that make up Chicago’s Wilderness. 

Education is a critical part of the plan, too.   

“Providing clear, non-political scientifically based information that is accessible to the public in friendly ways we see as a very important thing, starting with children but really reaching all the way to important decision-makers,” Ross says.  “The goal is to get to win-win:  focus on what would be helpful to everyone – issues like storm water management – that everyone cares about. 

“One thing that the Climate Action Plan for Nature has done is to really go to the land managers who are seeing these changes on the ground, finding out what they’re noticing and what they’re learning, and taking that knowledge and giving it back to us all,” she says.  “I think that probably has been its most important contribution.” 

For more information on the plan, visit the Chicago Wilderness website at www.chicagowilderness.org 



Author: Georgia Parham, USFWS 

Contacts: Charles Traxler, USFWS, 612-713-5313 

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Last updated: June 21, 2012