Environmental Almanac | Strength of environmental community gives reason for hope

Environmental Almanac | Strength of environmental community gives reason for hope

If you're looking for inspiration and energy this month — and who's not? — let me call your attention to the state of the environmental community in central Illinois and some of the ways it has flourished over the past year.

Prairie Rivers Network, where I'm a board member and long-time volunteer, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017, and it's currently stronger than ever before. Thanks to extraordinarily generous financial support from a wide base across the state, and to the superb leadership of Executive Director Carol Hays, Prairie Rivers now boasts a professional staff of 11 people. They're on the front lines every day fighting big polluters, ensuring the public has access to processes for environmental decision making, helping farmers be better stewards of the land and saving wetlands and wildlife.

Grand Prairie Friends, which formed to purchase a 6-acre prairie remnant back in 1984, is also on a strong upward trajectory of late. In the past year, it added to its dedicated corps of volunteers a professional administrative director, Sara Livesay. GPF now owns more than 800 acres, 740 of that in an expanding mosaic of woodland and other habitat outside of Charleston named the Warbler Ridge Conservation Area. In 2017, a 4-mile trail was completed to give the public access to enjoy the grand oak trees and many, many other natural delights of this site.

The Land Conservation Foundation, which was founded in 2003 and focuses its efforts to restore and protect natural communities along the Sangamon River, also celebrated the opening of public trail in 2017, the Bruce Hannon Levee Trail. This trail runs through LCF's Sangamon River Corridor Reserve, a 108-acre floodplain forest just west of Monticello, where visitors have chances to see beaver, coyotes, fox, weasels and deer, as well as the many species of migratory birds that enliven the reserve in spring. (And for days you can't get out, check out postings from trail cams at the reserve via the LCF Facebook page.)

Much of the on-the-ground work to maintain and restore natural areas in central Illinois continues to be performed by members of the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist Program. In fall of 2017, another 34 people completed initial training to join the program, whose 230 members have contributed more than 57,000 hours of volunteer service since 2005.

Under the leadership of Rev. Cindy Shepherd, the central Illinois office of Faith in Place has orchestrated all kinds of "Earth care" in the past year, from alleviating food insecurity in partnership with a Coles County community-sponsored agricultural operation to helping congregations with energy efficiency audits and solar installations. Faith in Place is also working to make sure the Future Energy Jobs Act lives up to its promise of making green energy a boon for all the people of Illinois.

Renewable energy got another big boost locally in 2017 thanks to the Solar Urbana-Champaign 2.0, which enabled home and business owners to pool their buying power to make solar more affordable than ever in Champaign County. Through this program, which is sponsored by the City of Urbana and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, a total of 149 homes and businesses have installed solar arrays over the past two years.

Although I'll have to come back with the details another time, I want to emphasize that any number of other central Illinois nonprofits continue their good work on the environmental front as well, including the Champaign County Audubon Society, the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy, the Prairie Group of the Sierra Club and Champaign County Bikes.

If running out a room in an update on the state of the environmental community isn't cause for hope, I can't imagine what would be.

Rob Kanter is a clinical associate professor with the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment. You can reach him via email at rkanter@illinois.edu.