By: Lindsay Keeney, Conservation Director
In June 2019, I wrote a blog post introducing readers to one of the Illinois Environmental Council’s most successful programs, legislative tours. Since then, we’ve conducted dozens of informative “tours” with legislators and local officials, taking them out of their office buildings and into the natural areas we need their help to protect.
It’s all part of our long-term power building strategy. To educate lawmakers on the importance of agriculture and natural resource conservation practices, we connect them with experiences that demonstrate the real-world impacts of their votes in the legislature. For example, we bring them to sustainable farms in their districts or to conservation areas where they get a first hand look at the importance of conservation practices, soil health and nutrient pollution reduction.
Time and time again, we’ve seen just how powerful these educational opportunities are for decision makers. In fact, participants often reminisce about the time we shared on location and the ways in which the experience shaped the way they approached a particular vote or policy decision.
They also happen to be pretty fun! And since our legislative tours aren’t open to the public, I’m excited to share with you a peek behind the scenes during some of our more recent tour stops so that you can get a better idea of what we’re doing to grow the number of environmental champions in the Illinois General Assembly!
Indian Ridge and Big Marsh Tour - June 9, 2021
With Rep. Sonya Harper, Sen. Laura Fine, Rep. Robyn Gabel, Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, Rep. Marcus Evans and Rep. Nicholas Smith
We joined the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators (NCEL), the Chicago Park District, Audubon Great Lakes, The Wetlands Initiative and Illinois legislators and alderpersons for a tour of the biodiverse south side of Chicago. We toured Indian Ridge Marsh and Big Marsh Park – areas with vast biodiversity and plentiful ecosystem services that serve as a refuge for wildlife and people to escape the hustle and bustle of a big city–without even having to leave the city limits. Formerly a landfill, Big Marsh is a 297-acre natural area that offers biking obstacle courses, bird watching and hiking to residents on the Southeast side. The Calumet region has beautiful natural areas juxtaposed with pollution and industry. This tour highlighted how remediation and community determination can transform unpleasant sites into beautiful, clean and thriving areas.
Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary Tour - June 11, 2021
With Rep. Mike Murphy, and Sen. Sally Turner
In June, we hosted Rep. Murphy and Sen. Turner at Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary in Loami, Illinois. Vern LaGesse of Friends of the Sangamon Valley gave us a tour of the beautiful prairie and discussed the importance of long-term protection of conservation properties. Seeing an active algal bloom in a constructed wetland surrounded by farm fields was one of the most fascinating parts of the tour. It was a stark contrast with the pristine pond protected from polluted farm runoff by the surrounding prairie. The prairie’s ability to filter and improve water quality was on full display and it was helpful to be able to visually demonstrate this difference to our decision makers as we discussed Illinois’ strategy to reduce farm chemical pollution making its way into our water resources and other opportunities to improve conservation and water quality in our state.
Wilcox Farm Tour - June 14, 2021
With Rep. Mike Murphy
We met with Rep. Mike Murphy and farmers Lee Curby, Jen Wilcox, Dick Lyons and Illinois Stewardship Alliance staff at Wilcox Farm in New Berlin, Illinois in June as well. We saw the difference between fields that were conventionally tilled and fields utilizing climate-smart agriculture practices like cover crops and no till. Dick Lyons did a soil health demonstration using dirt clods from various fields and showing how water is able to penetrate the compacted soil in each case. This again helped us make the case for increased resources to put sustainable tools in farmers’ hands so that they can implement climate-smart agriculture practices and turn a profit while doing so.
Zumwalt Farms Tour - June 24, 2021
With Rep. Thomas Bennett
IEC staff and members of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance met with Rep. Tom Bennett at Zumwalt Acres, located just outside of Sheldon in rural Iroquois County, Illinois. This farm is a shining example of regenerative agriculture but also doubles as a research station for students to conduct extensive academic agricultural research. They demonstrated alternatives to traditional fertilizers that keep nutrients in the ground and increase crop yields, a tangible example of how regenerative agriculture can benefit both the environment and farmers.
4 Lees Farm - July 14, 2021
With Sen. Jil Tracy
As the summer continued, we ventured out to Cass County on the edge of Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area to 4 Lees Farm where we met with the Cave family on their small-scale local food production operation. We hosted Sen. Jil Tracy and discussed with her the specific challenges facing small family farmers versus larger agricultural operations. The Lees family operates at a small scale relying on farmers markets and a delivery service to distribute their products. They faced several pandemic-related challenges, including meat processing backups, and as a result, they proposed some great solutions to improve the plight of the small-scale farmer and encourage our state to support farming families while also improving our soil and water quality.
McDonald Farm - July 30, 2021
Rep. Janet Yang Rohr, Sen. Laura Ellman and Sen. Linda Holmes
We had a great opportunity to gather at McDonald Farm in Naperville, a slice of sustainable farming tucked right in the middle of a very urban area. Managed by the Conservation Foundation, the farm hosts an organic garden, an edible food forest and a water system which allows the farm to recycle the water used for cleaning produce by diverting the used water into a creek running through the food forest. The farm operation also hosts a local Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA) which supplies an impressive amount of fresh food for families in the area. Rep. Janet Yang Rohr, Sen. Laura Ellman and Sen. Linda Holmes had the opportunity to eat a peach right off the tree and collect some vegetables from their farm stand to bring home. The Conservation Foundation is doing amazing work there, and I highly encourage everyone to check it out!
College of DuPage Tour - July 30, 2021
Rep. Terra Costa Howard
The College of DuPage farming community was thrilled to host Rep. Terra Costa Howard, the local Farm Bureau and IEC for a tour of their greenhouse, farm, rooftop garden and prairies. This farm offers a plethora of opportunities to learn about horticulture, agriculture, wildlife management and food systems. The produce stocks their local food pantry, which helps combat food insecurity within the surrounding community, and is used by on-campus restaurants as well.
Beaubien Woods - August 24, 2021
Rep. Nicholas Smith, Sen. Elgie Sims Jr, Rep. Will Davis, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, PFCC Superintendent Arnold Randall, Cook Commissioner Donna Miller, Chicago Chief Sustainability Office Angela Tovar and Rep. Robin Kelly’s staff
IEC united with People for Community Recovery, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, the Field Museum, Friends of the Chicago River and Openlands to give lawmakers a comprehensive tour of Beaubien Woods, a forest preserve in the far south side of Chicago along the Little Calumet River. Organizations educated lawmakers and their staff about the wonderful conservation and restoration work being conducted; connections between Little Calumet, open space and the ecosystem services provided; and uplifted community efforts from the neighboring Altgeld Gardens about outdoor recreation and environmental education.
Paddling the Fox River - September 12, 2021
Congressman Bill Foster
IEC Development Director Jeff Shelden joined Congressman Foster and Kane County leaders including Gary Swick (Friends of the Fox River, Ted Penesis IDNR), Mavis Bates (Kane County Board), Corinne Pierog (Kane County Chair), Chris Kious (Kane County Board) and Mark Gaffino (North Aurora Village President) for a kayaking tour along the Fox River. The group discussed and saw first hand the investments that were made along the Fox in recent years. We discussed the value in enhancing recreational opportunities for residents and visitors, while encouraging protection and sustainable stewardship of the Fox River system. The future of the ‘Fabulous Fox River Trail’ looks bright!
All Grass Farms - September 28, 2021
Rep. Martin McLaughlin and Rep. Chris Bos
Located in Dundee, Illinois, All Grass Farms was a premier opportunity to see how raising livestock can actually benefit the environment when done properly. The use of rotational grazing for all of their livestock, including chickens, turkeys, cows and pigs, creates a system which allows the animals to feed while renewing soil health, benefiting both the livestock and the water quality on the property and surrounding areas. A tractor brought IEC staff, members of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance and Reps. Martin McLaughlin and Chris Bos across the farm to see the various animals, and we even got a chance to hold some chickens and turkeys! The discussions regarding livestock processing were well received by the elected officials, and we will continue our conversations with them about championing initiatives to solve those issues in the near future.
As you can see, our legislative tours are very powerful opportunities to demonstrate some of our most pressing environmental priorities in real life. Even though you can’t join us for these wonderful learning opportunities, you can follow along as we venture out with lawmakers to these incredible places throughout the year.