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Amount of protected land is drop in the bucket
Plus, political wins and losses for wildlife.
“Polite conservationists leave no mark save the scars on the Earth that could have been prevented had they stood their ground.”
—David Brower, first Executive Director of the Sierra Club
This is the second of two posts about the status of natural land in Illinois. You might recall my previous post that took a look at our woeful ranking of 48th in terms of protected natural land among the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. It isn’t anything to write home about, and among Midwestern states our figure of 4% is lowest except for Iowa. Ya know, Iowa, a state that is basically all farm land.
While it may feel like we have a lot of protected natural land, what with all our forest preserves and parks, we actually don’t. If you’re from out of state, you’d do well to visit Chicagoland and check out all the green space. The problem is that the rest of the state pretty much is Iowa, largely farm land, most of which is in a soybean and corn monoculture. And the outskirts of Chicago are being further developed every day it seems. That means 96% of the state is far from a pristine ecosystem. Some critters are eking out an existence on the agricultural desert—check out my film “The Magic Stump”—but for the most part we’ve lost our prairies and savannas. Just read this comment from an 1837 traveler that I shared a couple years ago.
“No one can conceive the emotion that rises up in the bosom of the traveller as he stands on the broad prairie, and sees the horizon settling down upon one wide sea of waving grass.”
The pre-European settlement landscape was a sight to behold. The start of the Great Plains and 1,000 miles of unbroken grasslands.
Which brings me to what we are doing today to reclaim some of what’s been lost to development. The answer: not much. Here’s a look at the the amount of land protected in Illinois during recent years, split between public entities (forest preserves, park districts, and the like) and private (nonprofit organizations and private land owners). When you factor in that we keep losing acreage, these results are very modest, representing tenths of a percentage point statewide.
If I had my way, this data would be posted on a scoreboard somewhere prominent, like on the marquee outside Wrigley Field. To truly move the needle on restoring habitat—and bird populations—we need so much more land and major efforts to begin to shift attitudes (a topic that will be addressed in the upcoming FLUDDLES film). Just think of the benefits aside from habitat, too—climate, air quality, and water quality are three that come to mind immediately.
Some birding circles, some conservation circles, are suffused with a passivity that is to our detriment. But without keeping focus on stats like the above, soon enough there won’t be any nature left to enjoy at all.
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Endangered species get a reprieve
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, and there was some good news on this front recently after a lot of bad news from 2017 through 2021. The Biden Administration reinstated rules that give threatened species equal levels of protection as endangered species. It also stated that species be protected regardless of economic considerations—a reversal that was among the most harmful rules in recent memory.
Wetlands and watersheds at risk
In a time when algal blooms due to run-off are at their peak, the Supreme Court ruled in May that the Clean Water Act had overreached when it came to protecting water on private land. This might mean that land owners can do what they want with their private wetlands, even if they flow into the waterways we depend on for drinking and wildlife depends on for habitat. That’s worrisome because often what’s done to these lands leads to some not-so-good outcomes, both on the land and downstream. It may just take work at the state level to make progress.