By Ben Roth | IEC Intern
In confining millions of Americans to our homes, the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced feelings of isolation and disconnection from the outside world, including the natural wonder that we often take for granted.
Recreation has, for many, become something that we pursue in the deep chapters of our favorite books, or in the next episode of that new television show. However, despite the fact we may feel disconnected and stir-crazy as the weeks blend together, nature is still out there. It takes the form of parks, both local and national, of open spaces that counteract the stifling walls of our homes, and of historically significant landmarks that remind us that there was a time before this crisis, and that there will indeed be a time after.
During times such as these, our connection with the outdoors could not be more important. When we find ourselves principally confined to our homes, cut off from colleagues and friends, the outdoors still provides a haven to break the monotony of these strange times.
For this reason, investing in and protecting our natural spaces has proven to be important, not just from an environmental standpoint, but from a public health standpoint as well. That includes mental, emotional and physical health for all of us. In part, we can look towards the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) as an important program to facilitate the growth and protection of these natural spaces.
The LWCF has provided Illinois with over $213 million of funding for the protection of recreational, outdoor areas since it was founded in 1964. This money comes not from a tax imposed on Illinois citizens, but rather from fees on oil and gas production to promote its investment in open spaces. In total, the LWCF program has funded the development of hundreds upon hundreds of recreational sites in Illinois with this money.
However, LWCF does more than simply help foster the environmental health of Illinois and the broader United States; it helps prop up a major part of the Illinois economy, as outdoor recreation makes up about 200,000 jobs bringing in approximately $25.8 billion of consumer spending per year for the State. Along with the humanitarian crisis, COVID-19 has, and will continue, to place economic strain on communities across the country.
Programs such as LWCF that provide long-term, stable income for states-alongside their other mental, emotional, physical, and environmental support-will always be important. The Illinois Environmental Council has been pushing Congress to permanently authorize full funding for the LWCF in order to give this program the fiscally sound and stable future it merits.
In a historic vote, the Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act–a bill permanently fully funding the LWCF. This victory came after years of advocacy and hundreds of emails from Illinoisans who care about preserving our wild places. Pending House passage, this long-fought battle for funding could be signed into law before Summer 2020 comes to a close.
The LWCF has had an outstanding, though often unrecognized, impact on some of Illinois’ most significant places, from historically meaningful sites to a myriad of recreational spaces including national refuges and urban open spaces. Listed below are ten locations around Illinois, some which have already benefited from LWCF funding, and others we hope will benefit from a fully funded LWCF.
1) Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge: Nurturing a diverse ecosystem abundant with different species of plants and animals, Emiquon is a floodplain restoration project located in Fulton County, Illinois. Home to a number of unique habitats, Emiquon gives refuge to hundreds of different species of birds, many engaging in their yearly migration patterns. The refuge also contains sections of natural prairie that used to cover most of Illinois. When settlers moved in and began to change the landscape, nearly 99 percent of all tallgrass prairies were lost. Emiquon, therefore, is one of the last bastions of Illinois’ historic landscape. Home to numerous archaeological sites and unique species of plants and animals, Emiquon is an invaluable educational tool for Illinois students.
2) Chicago Park District: Though a broad entry on its face, the Chicago Park District has been the recipient of several LWCF grants and can always use additional LWCF funding to help bring more open spaces to its residents. As of now, approximately “42% of Chicagoland residents do not have adequate access to open space.” Extensive support for one of the densest urban areas in the United States would bring more outdoor recreational facilities to those who have historically not been able to enjoy them. And as the COVID-19 virus continues to disrupt life in the Chicago area, more, expansive open spaces provide residents with a safe way to get out of their residences and enjoy the outdoors.
3) Shawnee National Forest: At nearly 300,000 acres, the Shawnee National Forest is the largest publicly owned individual piece of land in Illinois. First set aside during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, the National Forest, with the help of LWCF money, has since grown and evolved into a vast and varied expanse of recreational activities and ecological diversity. Hiking, swimming, biking, and nearly any outdoor activity one can think of allows visitors of Shawnee National Forest to experience a wide-ranging series of natural and cultural sites.
4) Lincoln Home National Historic Site: Textbooks are vital resources for learning about our history and the bearing it has on our present and future, yet visiting physical, historical landmarks can make the past truly come alive. Located in Illinois’ capital city, Springfield, the Lincoln Home’s name is slightly misleading due to the fact the site is more of a neighborhood consisting of several houses from which students and curious visitors can learn about the first Illinois President, the epochal issues that defined his time, and the conflicts and struggles that he faced in bringing about long-lasting, nationwide change.
5) Wolf Road Prairie Buffer – Phase 2: Frozen and covered in glaciers nearly 15,000 years ago, the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve today is considered “the finest and largest black soil prairie east of the Mississippi River”. Home to a variety of ecosystems including prairies, wetlands, and savannas, the Wolf Road Prairie is home to some of the state’s scarcest landscapes. In order to protect this diverse land, scientists recommended, back in the 1990s, that buffer land be acquired to help protect the region’s biodiversity. Since then, numerous pieces of land have been acquired, some through LWCF funding, to help protect the land.
6) Hackmatack: An Algonquin word for the very old tamarack trees found within the Refuge’s acquisition boundary, these trees are living remnants of the last Ice Age and will finally be protected as 11,200 acres of this glacial landscape is gradually added to the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. With LWCF support, the Refuge will become a mosaic of protected areas, locally controlled parks, and private farmlands. These lands will collectively provide habitat for grassland birds, recreation and education opportunities for the 12 million people of greater Chicago and Milwaukee, and important economic support for local communities.
7) The Grove National Historic Landmark: Over the course of thousands of years, as the forests covering Illinois gave way to prairie, small patches of ancient forest beside said prairie created what we know today as Illinois prairie grove land. The Grove is a haven for these prairie grove lands and blends ecological diversity with historic buildings in a nearly 150 acre preserve. Its buildings include a schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, Native American longhouse, the Redfield Estate, and an Interpretive Center with displays from Illinois’ first naturalist, Robert Kennicott (1835-1866). The Grove is located in Glenview and is an Illinois Nature Preserve.
8) The African American Heritage Water Trail: The trail connects Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve to the City of Robbins along the Little Calumet River. It flows past places that played outsized roles in African American history, including Underground Railroad waystations, founding communities in the environmental justice movement, and sites associated with our nation’s civil rights leaders and Tuskegee Airmen. LWCF support would help establish this water trail as an interconnected network of lands that form a valuable ‘living museum’ and source of recreation for residents of Chicago’s far south side and beyond.
9) Kankakee Riverwalk West: The Kankakee Riverwalk is a partially funded project that is seeking additional funds through the LWCF to complete its Kankakee Riverfront Master Plan. The Kankakee River is one of 21 National Water Trails throughout the entire United States, yet before the project was planned, the river was significantly neglected. With the Riverwalk project, Kankakee hopes to shed a new light on the river and the city’s relationship to it, bringing recreational, cultural, environmental, and economic benefits to the region.
10) Cahokia Mounds Historic Site: In 1967, nearly $100,000 went towards the acquisition of lands for the Cahokia Mounds Historic Site. Coined “one of the greatest cities in the world,” and “the most sophisticated prehistoric native civilization north of Mexico,” Cahokia is still remarkable over a thousand years after its inception as it stands as one of the largest archaeological sites in the United States. Yet despite this, Cahokia has consistently faced threats from encroaching urbanization, including from a highway program in the mid-1900s. Acquiring lands for inclusion in the protected historic site of Cahokia, the LWCF has helped to guard one of the country’s most important archaeological landscapes, allowing students and tourists to visit and learn about the ancient Mississippian culture. New legislation that we support has been proposed at the federal level that would make Cahokia Mounds a National Park.