Open Space
Illinois was at the forefront of the state park movement, but has since fallen behind most of the nation with regards to both open space available to its citizens and conserved for future generations. Open space in Illinois – parks, forest preserves, conservation areas, recreation areas – is disappearing due to the rapid spread of urbanization and development. 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.

Key Laws and Campaigns Important to Open Space Preservation
Endangered and Threatened Species in Illinois:
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.

Illinois Wildlife Action Plan:
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.
Illinois Natural Areas Inventory:
Maintained by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the INAI serves as an index of Illinois’ most rare and unique natural features, including high quality prairies, forests, and wetlands. The first inventory, conducted by the University of Illinois in the late 1970’s, identified more than 1,000 sites covering more than 25,000 acres. In 2011, an update of the inventory began and that process is currently underway. Click here for more information.
Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act:
    • 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.
Preservation of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River:
One of IEC’s first campaigns in 1977 was working with a coalition to save the Middle Fork of the Vermillion River from being destroyed by a dam. The General Assembly voted against a plan to dam the river and avoid flooding the surrounding lands that represented “outstanding scenic, recreational, ecological, and historical characteristics.”
Non-Game Wildlife Conservation Fund:
Became law in 1983, and is a voluntary check-off box on state income tax forms to fund conservation projects.
Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development (OSLAD) and Natural Areas Acquisition Fund (NAAF):
  • 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.
  • Governor Quinn announced $26,072,000 in OSLAD grants for 2015.
  • 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.
Conservation 2000:
Passed in 1995 by the state legislature, C2000 funds nine programs across three state agencies, with a portion for land acquisition. C2000 was originally a six-year, $100 million program, but has been extended through 2021.
Illinois Land Conservation Act of 1995:
Signed into law in 1996, the Act established the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was established in 1996 on the site of the former Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. Midewin is not only the first national tallgrass prairie, but is also one of the largest prairie restoration efforts east of the Mississippi River. Midewin has been listed as a National Treasured Landscape by the National Forest Foundation. Midewin is home to over 100 bird, 27 mammal, and 53 fish species, and over 600 plants species.
Partners for Parks and Wildlife:
  • A coalition founded in 2004, the PPW has grown to more than 130 member organizations, and has successfully restored funding for open space acquisition to the state budget during the years 2005, 2006, and 2011. IEC was an original member of the coalition.
  • In 2013, the PPW was successful in working to pass a bill dedicating a portion of license plate renewals to IDNR. These fees have provided a steady source of funding for parks improvement and maintenance independent of the ups and downs of general tax revenue. IEC has worked successfully to keep IDNR at an appropriate level of funding.
Recreation Liability:
Became law in January 2014, and covers landowners who permit the public onto their land for activities such as bird watching, fishing, hiking, hunting, and recreational shooting.
Other State Investment in Land Conservation:
  • Open Land Trust provides grants for land acquisition and public open space expansion.
  • Hunting Heritage Program is funded through direct state appropriations with the purpose to acquire additional public hunting land.
  • In 2013, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission designated the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve as an Illinois Nature Preserve.
Federal Investment:
Various federal programs have also contributed funds and conserved land in Illinois, including Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service.
Our Vision
IEC believes that 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.
Open space programs should be fully funded:
Open land ensures the replenishment of aquifers and plays a significant role in flood reduction. Trees reduce air and water pollution, help keep cities cooler, and are an effective and inexpensive way to manage stormwater runoff. Surveys indicate that people prefer to live near parks and protected natural areas whenever possible.

At present, Illinois is 48th out of the 50 states in the amount of open space per capita and spends significantly less than our neighboring states on open space and conservation. To change this situation, Illinois should have a permanent, adequate, and unsweepable source of land protection and restoration funds. A financial audit could establish whether state funds are being used effectively, and identify sources of funding. Fee funds – such as NAAF – could be moved from operational funds to program funds once IDNR is fiscally solvent. Illinois should defend the continued funding of OSLAD, NAAF, and the IDNR. Illinois should defend and leverage available federal funds. Moreover, significant open space projects should be part of every capital bill passed by the General Assembly.

A recent report from the Donor’s Forum in Chicago states that for every dollar invested by nonprofit environmental groups in Illinois, there is $58 in economic impact.

IDNR should protect Illinois natural resources and have appropriate resources to meet those goals:
Funding for the IDNR has seen tremendous cuts in the last decade. Our efforts have successfully kept state parks open and prevented some cuts. However, in 2012, IDNR’s general revenue fund budget was half of what it was ten years ago. The IDNR should be transparent and accountable in its operations and should involve PPW organizations in the strategic use of funds, taking the positive model that PPW organizations offer with regards to public/private operations. IDNR’s ability to manage its current holdings should be assessed and new partnerships should be considered in order to help IDNR offset its responsibilities in managing land. Using land acquisition funds for operating expenses should be discontinued.
Maximize available resources to purchase and protect open spaces:
Illinois should explore, increase and remove barriers to partnerships between government units and non-profits (such as local governments, land trusts, state government, non-profits, parks, other public bodies) in order to acquire and care for land. PPW organizations could be a valuable resource for learning about successful partnerships of this type, including how to streamline processes. Illinois should also improve the ability of other public bodies to acquire land. Using, for example, statutory rate limits, PPW support of local counties to fund land acquisition, and existing authorities and programs.
  • Illinois should also encourage the ability of nonprofit conservation organizations to purchase and protect natural lands that further the goals of the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan.
Increase funding and support for outdoor recreation:
Parks and preserves are associated with improved public health–when people have access to parks, they exercise more, reducing the risk of a wide range of diseases. Physical activity also relieves symptoms of depression and anxiety, improves mood, and enhances psychological well-being. Access to public parks and recreational facilities has been strongly linked to reductions in crime.
There should be increased funding and support for trail planning, including regional trail connections.
However, excessive regulations for outdoor recreation (i.e., training for non-motorized watercraft operation) should be avoided. This includes minimizing liability for those that choose to open their land to the public.
Learn More and Take Action

Partners for Parks and Wildlife

Partners for Parks and Wildlife (PPW) is a grassroots coalition that is dedicated to secure and increase funding for open space and park acquisition, natural area preservation, wildlife habitat protection and recreational opportunities in Illinois.

Learn More About Climate Change

The U.S. EPA’s website on climate change was once a great resource for basic scientific information on the topic and we look forward to the day that it is again. Until then, the City of Chicago is making sure its citizens have access to research and information.


One of the simplest ways to donate to the IEC is by contributing through EarthShare in your workplace charity campaign .