Open space in Illinois is disappearing due to the rapid spread of urbanization and development.

Illinois ranks 48th in the nation when it comes to publicly accessible open space per capita in state and national parks, and 32nd in the nation in acres conserved. Illinois was once a leader in the preservation of natural areas, but has since fallen behind most of the nation with regards to both public land available to its citizens and the amount protected for future generations.

While home and retail construction outpaces set-asides for parks and natural areas, these open spaces are top priorities in quality-of-life surveys, contribute to environmental quality, are attractive to people and businesses, and contribute to genetic and ecological biodiversity.
food production

food production

Farms cover about 75% of the Illinois' total land area.

Habitat & Wildlife

Native Illinois habitats are changing and disappearing.

Current Conservation Policies

Illinois should have a permanent, dedicated source of land protection and restoration/stewardship funds, the IDNR should be fully funded, local governments should be able to acquire and protect opens spaces, indigenous species should be protected, and that outdoor recreation should be better supported.
Image taken by Chris Benda at Bluff Spring Fen
The Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act was passed in 1972, predating the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. The original version of the Act protected animals but not plants, and only established the category of “Endangered.” Subsequent amendments added a “Threatened” category, included plants, and gave much clearer protections for endangered species and their habitats — indeed, Illinois was among the first states to attempt to protect endangered species’ habitats through legislation. Later amendments provided equal protections for both threatened and endangered animal species, and added provisions for the incidental taking of endangered and threatened species. The Act establishes the Endangered Species Protection Board and the Endangered and Threatened Species program administered by the Department of Natural Resources.

In addition, all Illinois agencies and local governments are required to consult with DNR whether actions carried out by them are likely to jeopardize the continued existence of Illinois listed endangered and threatened species or are likely to result in the destruction or adverse modification of the designated essential habitat of such species.

The Wildlife Action Plan ensures that our state’s biodiversity and abundance of wildlife is maintained for the long-term by focusing on habitat. The plan covers all forms of wildlife — aquatic, terrestrial, vertebrate, invertebrates, endangered, game, and non-game — and specifically identifies wildlife with declining populations or special needs, and works to conserve those populations rather than waiting for them to become endangered. Plan actions are grouped into seven overlapping campaigns, based on habitat and common issues:

  • Farmland and Prairie – There were once approximately 22 million acres of prairie in Illinois — this has been reduced to about 2,500 acres. Most of the land once occupied by prairie is now farmland, which has resulted in a steep decline of grassland species. This campaign expands and improves grassland, shrub, and wetland habitats in agricultural landscapes.
  • Forest and Woodlands – Poor forest and woodland management and inappropriate timber harvesting have contributed to a changed forest composition and degradation of our remaining forest habitat. This campaign maintains and enhances the composition of our existing forests and increases the distribution of those habitats statewide and in identified priority areas.
  • Green Cities – Urban development has degraded and fragmented our already-limited wildlife habitat. This campaign improves community planning efforts by including open space and wildlife needs into those plans. Additionally, the campaign addresses urban area use in migration routes, and promotes habitat protection and restoration whenever possible.
  • Invasive Species – Invasive species pose one of the greatest threats to Illinois’ natural areas, native communities, and natural resources. Species that are rare or declining are often at greatest risk of invasive species because of their few numbers or inability to adapt to changes in habitat. This campaign identifies actions determined to be most needed for statewide management of invasive species.
  • Streams – Agriculture and development have drastically reduced the health of our 26,000 miles of streams and rivers. This campaign identifies focal species and promotes actions that improve habitats and reduces stressors for these species.
  • Wetlands – Wetlands are highly productive environments for plants and animals, but our remaining wetlands have been highly degraded. This campaign protects and improves the functionality of our remaining wetlands, promotes connectivity among wetland complexes with habitat corridors, and reintroduces native species into wetland habitats.

Created in 1963, the Act mandates the preservation, protection, and defense of natural areas and endangered species habitat for public benefit.

Illinois was the first state to create such an innovative land protection program. The INPC is now a national model, and more than a dozen states have followed its lead. In 1992, the INPC received international acclaim when it was recognized at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro as an “efficient and effective model of how to provide long-term protection for high quality natural areas.”

The Natural Areas Acquisition Fund was created in 1989 to fund the acquisition, preservation and stewardship of natural areas through a real estate transfer tax.

The OSLAD grant program was established in 1986 to provide funding assistance to local government agencies for acquisition and/or development of land for public parks and open space.

The NAAF was established in 1989 for the purpose of acquisition, preservation, and stewardship of natural areas, including habitats for endangered and threatened species, high quality natural communities, wetlands and other areas with unique or unusual natural heritage qualities.

Funding for both OSLAD and NAAF comes from a statutorily dedicated state real estate transfer tax on property sold in the state.

A recent report found that roughly 50,000 acres of the 1.5 million total acres of conserved land in Illinois are owned by non-governmental conservation groups, also known as conservation land trusts.

Traditionally, conservation land trusts have protected land, often restored it, and later transferred it to government entities for long-term ownership, which effectively transfers the responsibility of land stewardship to those governmental entities. While this “protect, restore, transfer” model is still practiced, budgetary constraints across levels of government have undermined the viability of this model.

Macro-economic and political issues have resulted in insufficient funding for governmental conservation agencies to purchase land from conservation land trusts. Furthermore, governmental conservation agencies may also lack sufficient funding to fully steward conservation lands that they’ve acquired from land trusts or otherwise.

This presents an opportunity to rethink the current land conservation model and develop innovative, sustainable approaches to support land protection in the state. However, data regarding the unmet need for land stewardship is scarce and few tools exist for conservation organizations to use to address these challenges.

Building on previous work, a team comprised of Delta Institute, Natural Land Institute (NLI), Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation (JDCF), Openlands, and Illinois Environmental Council (IEC), collaborated on a research project to understand and map out the current conditions of conservation organization-based land stewardship in Illinois. The team’s approach utilized interviews and surveys from conservation land trusts throughout the state. Analysis was organized into five main categories: stewardship capacity, partnerships, funding and financing, policy, and behavioral and organizational dynamics. Explore details of the study and related resources here.

Conservation Updates

2024 Legislative Report

IEC's state legislative team has published our 2024 Legislative Report detailing environmental wins and setbacks during this year's legislative session.