The Illinois is Beautiful Initiative

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From our conversations in Illinois communities and the surveys we collected, it is clear there is overwhelming support for an increase and acceleration of conservation in Illinois. Over 85% of respondents believe that 4% of Illinois land in protection is not enough.

Pictured above, left to right: Eliot Clay, IEC State Programs Director, State Sen. Sally Turner, State Rep. Mike Murphy, and Verne LaGesse of Friends of the Sangamon Valley at Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary

By: Ben Roth, Conservation Research Manager

Over 100 countries, (more than half the countries on Earth) now support “30×30”, a nature-based solution to climate change and biodiversity collapse that ambitiously aims to protect 30% of the planet by 2030. President Biden campaigned on adopting the plan for the United States, and after the election, he unveiled the America the Beautiful Initiative which is our nation’s commitment to the 30×30 goal. The President’s challenge is a call to action to support locally-led conservation and restoration efforts of all kinds and all over America. The administration released a report last year which laid out a 10-year goal to conserve 30 percent of U.S. national land & water by 2030 and outlined eight core principles to achieve this bold and ambitious outcome.

The Illinois Environmental Council (IEC) and our affiliates had, prior to the formal announcement of Biden’s America the Beautiful initiative, already been working on 30×30 efforts. This science-based approach has been gaining momentum for years as data continues to show that nature-based solutions and protecting our planet’s natural habitats, land, and water are the only way to mitigate the climate and biodiversity crises. Take a look at our blog from April 2021 on the subject of 30×30, detailing what the goal means and why we should rise to the challenge of meeting it. 

Towards the end of the piece, IEC Conservation Director Lindsay Keeney writes, “Our team thinks it’s time to create a new conservation climate table to facilitate collaboration around nature-based climate solutions, un-silo our collective efforts, and protect 30 percent of Illinois by 2030. So IEC is doing what we do best: we’re building a strong coalition of stakeholders to do just that, developing and implementing strategies related to land conservation, sustainable agriculture, local food, green job development, environmental justice, community planning, and more.” 

Our state is unique in that it is composed mostly of farmland; over 75% of our state’s total acreage is in corn or soybeans. Our beautiful state also boasts 14 different natural divisions, making it one of the most diverse states in terms of landscape and habitat. Yet despite this, only 4 percent of Illinois lands are protected. Our community realized that in Illinois the goal of accelerating conservation is going to take creative collaboration and common ground between various industries and communities. IEC’s hope is that together, by listening to and working with one another, Illinois has a chance to be a national leader in conservation and efforts to meet the Biden administration’s goals.

With the emergence and pledge of a federal commitment to conservation, IEC began to gather together and organize a group of conservation stakeholders to start thinking through where the opportunities are and what the strategy should look like in Illinois, and how we can leverage these commitments to accelerate conservation and benefit the people of Illinois. 

The state initiative has since been titled ‘Illinois is Beautiful.’ It became apparent early on that this effort needed a collaborative, community-based approach to be successful. Communities and people have a stake in nature and conservation, so in addition to meetings with conservation professionals, IEC began to go into communities to talk with individuals and residents about what 30×30 means to them, hear about local issues, and discuss potential concerns with those in attendance.

These community conversations, titled ‘listening sessions,’ have been taking place all throughout Illinois both virtually and in person. Starting with a Chicago Wilderness Cafe virtual listening session on January 26th, 2022, we began gathering from the participants important information regarding their thoughts on conserving 30 percent of Illinois land, and what they thought should be some of the main focuses of the America is Beautiful campaign. From there, we have conducted listening sessions in McHenry County, Lake County, and Peoria, as well as special sessions with conservation professionals, land trusts, and farmers. These sessions had broad participation and included conservation professionals, hobbyists, and those concerned with the campaign. From our conversations in these communities and the surveys we collected from attendees, it is clear there is overwhelming support for an increase and acceleration of conservation in Illinois. Over 85% of respondents believe that 4% of Illinois land in protection is not enough. 

The feedback from these sessions has also highlighted barriers and issues facing Illinois residents. We’ve learned that barriers to accessing nature for Illinois citizens manifest most significantly as time and safety issues. Survey respondents were most likely to enjoy nature through hiking, biking, and picnicking. Lack of awareness was the biggest issue when it came to barriers to individuals being able to actively participate in land use decisions. Often, people are not aware that these decisions are being made, nor are they aware of the process that would allow their participation. Because of this, land use decisions have typically been exclusive and based in environmental racism. In Lake County, participants noted that conservation efforts in environmental justice communities needed to include “remediation, advocacy, and private-public partnerships focused on the health of the community.” In McHenry County, residents spoke out about a pollution area in Marengo which needs broader attention from the state as well as how there were several barriers keeping the community from accessing local foods.

In our listening session with conservation professionals, we learned that it’s difficult for conservation practitioners to access Illinois-backed grant programs, as the process is a bureaucratic nightmare: staff, paperwork, and time being the biggest hurdles. There was acknowledgment that volunteers are critical to implementing stewardship across the state, providing thousands upon thousands of hours of work per year, yet there was also fear that the volunteer base will evaporate in the coming years as younger people are not joining the ranks. Despite this fear, however, youth involvement has been a major part of pushing the 30×30 movement here in Illinois.

IEC, our affiliates, and a youth movement led by Paul Ritter, an ecology teacher from Pontiac High School, and his students, advocated for the establishment of the Illinois 30 by 30 Conservation Task Force. Governor Pritzker signed a bill creating the task force in August of 2021. It set out to advise on the establishment of a bold goal for protecting the natural lands and waters of Illinois, and host listening sessions across the state. IEC Conservation Director Lindsay Keeney served on the state task force which held virtual listening sessions on Agriculture, Cities & Towns, and Natural Lands and Water.

Over the last year, we have been busy developing the Illinois is Beautiful coalition, hosting listening sessions, working with the state task force, and exploring policy solutions. We have started identifying and developing policy priorities that will be needed to accelerate conservation. Thanks to the work of coalition members, we have begun strategizing around advocacy and implementation of these legislative priorities. Two key priorities identified by the coalition have risen to the top: increased capacity for land stewardship across various scales (state agencies, land trusts, municipalities, etc.) and increased funding for conservation paired with better utilization of funding mechanisms already in place. Currently, there are established conservation programs at both the state and federal levels that could be used to meet Illinois is Beautiful goals, but funding and staffing issues plaguing Illinois agencies keep them from being implemented to their full potential.

In addition to these two priorities, the coalition is also advocating for various additional actions to support the Illinois is Beautiful initiative including; bolstering protections of established conservation properties, creating and increasing incentives for conservation programs, exploring funding sources our state doesn’t typically take advantage of, developing a long term Illinois is Beautiful plan for the state, growing the local food system, incentivizing nature-based agricultural solutions, removing barriers to land stewardship, and more. These actions can come in the form of new legislation, programs, amendments to already existing legislation, rule changes, directives, etc.

Overall, our coalition is excited to implement creative solutions to maximize Illinois’ contribution to the national goal. There exists the will to act; we’ve seen that through the participation in our listening sessions and the eagerness with which stakeholders have begun to provide input and solutions. The path forward will become clearer and more concrete as IEC and partners finalize policy priorities and move into the 2023 legislative session.

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