Stories in the Great Lakes

Conserving Climate-Resilient Landscapes in the Heartland

The Nature Conservancy has created a scientific roadmap for protecting nature and its benefits in a changing climate.

The Mink River Estuary flows along a forested shoreline in eastern Door County, Wisconsin
Mink River Estuary, Door Co. The Mink River Estuary flows along a forested shoreline in eastern Door County, Wisconsin © Jason Whalen/Fauna Creative

A Changing Climate

Our climate is changing and, along with it, so are the habitats that plants and animals rely on to thrive. In an uncertain future, how do we help them, and ourselves, survive?

Over the past ten years, Nature Conservancy scientists have identified and mapped a network of landscapes and connecting corridors across the continental United States that provides a roadmap for conserving places where plants and animals can move and thrive in a changing climate. But nature isn’t the only beneficiary of this work. From iconic forests and scenic lakes and rivers to sweeping grasslands and lush wetlands, the lands and waters that define the nation’s heartland have sustained people for millennia.

Small creek running through open land with woods in background.
Lulu Lake Crooked Creek runs through the Lulu Lake Preserve, Wisconsin. © Gerald H. Emmerich, Jr.

In fact, the Heartland holds special significance. The Midwest states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin are home to more than 10 percent of the nation’s population—a diverse cross-section of America shaped by the globally-important Great Lakes and Mississippi River systems. These freshwater sources provide an estimated 45 million people with drinking water and are the lifeblood of agriculture, manufacturing, shipping and recreation industries that power economies regionally and worldwide.

Our well-being is intricately tied to nature’s future.

Here are a few of the Midwest landscapes where we are advancing conservation to help ensure plant and animal species have the best chance to survive amidst growing climate threats—allowing nature and people to prosper together.


Wisconsin's Kettle Moraine Region

Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine region was shaped by glaciers during the last ice age and contains a wide range of glacial features from large kettle lakes to 300-foot-high ridges. This north-south corridor, with a diverse collection of plant communities including oak woodlands and savannas, prairies, bogs and fens, isimportant for maintaining biodiversity as species adjust to climate change. Rivers in the Kettle Moraine, like the Mukwonago River where TNC has been an active conservation partner since 1983, are corridors for species movement as conditions change over time.

Fall colors the wetlands, forests and rolling hills at Pickerel Lake Fen in red, yellow and orange with blue sky and puffy white clouds overhead.
Pickerel Lake Fen TNC protects a rare fen and oak woodlands at this preserve in the Mukwonago River watershed in the southern Kettle Moraine. © Gerald H. Emmerich, Jr.
Mist rises from the waters of Lulu Lake as two kayakers paddle by.
Lulu Lake This TNC preserve in the southern Kettle Moraine is home to wetlands, oak openings and rare fish and mussels. © Jerry Ziegler/TNC
Pickerel Lake Fen TNC protects a rare fen and oak woodlands at this preserve in the Mukwonago River watershed in the southern Kettle Moraine. © Gerald H. Emmerich, Jr.
Lulu Lake This TNC preserve in the southern Kettle Moraine is home to wetlands, oak openings and rare fish and mussels. © Jerry Ziegler/TNC

Illinois River Corridor

For 273 miles, the Illinois River winds its way south and west across the state before joining with the Mississippi. Beginning at the confluence of the Des Plaines and Kankakee Rivers near Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, the Illinois is fed by tributaries including the Fox, Spoon and Mackinaw. The Illinois is a vitalcorridor for migratory birds, but also species adapting to climate change. The uplands drop to the river’s floodplain, dissected by countless ravines, creating diverse habitats and microclimates that support a rich diversity of plants and animals able tomove between different areas as the climate changes. 

A flock of white birds takes flight over a wetland.
Egrets at Emiquon A flock of egrets takes flight at the Emiquon preserve. © Laura Stoecker
An aerial view of the Illinois River and the floodplain and agricultural fields that line its borders.
Illinois River The Illinois River and its floodplain. © Doug Blodgett/TNC
Egrets at Emiquon A flock of egrets takes flight at the Emiquon preserve. © Laura Stoecker
Illinois River The Illinois River and its floodplain. © Doug Blodgett/TNC

Indiana Sugar Creek Corridor 

Deep ravines, canyons and cliff faces characterize the landscape within the Sugar Creek valley in west central Indiana. TNC has been working in the area for more than 50 years; in fact, Sugar Creek meanders through Pine Hills Nature Preserve in Montgomery County, TNC’s first acquisition in Indiana more than 50 years ago. The Indiana Chapter has been working to enhance water quality in Sugar Creek by protecting the relatively large forest blocks surrounding it. 

Green trees in summer are reflected in a clear stream dotted by big rocks.
Sugar Creek Sugar Creek in west central Indiana © Christoper Jordan
Small blue bird with white breast and black and white wings.
Cerulean warbler TNC's reforestation efforts in the Sugar Creek corridor will help this and other migratory songbirds. © Matt Williams
Sugar Creek Sugar Creek in west central Indiana © Christoper Jordan
Cerulean warbler TNC's reforestation efforts in the Sugar Creek corridor will help this and other migratory songbirds. © Matt Williams

Michigan Michigamme Highlands

The Michigamme Highlands are located within some of the largest remaining unbroken swaths of hardwood forest in North America. These rich forests moderate regional climate, store carbon, filter the headwaters of the Great Lakes, provide wildlife habitat and support timber, recreation, and tourism. The Nature Conservancy’s Wilderness Lakes Reserve, located within the Michigamme Highlands, is managed as an active forest reserve, demonstrating sustainable forestry practices, and enrolling the property in carbon markets.

Aerial view of forest around large lake with fall colors.
Michigamme Highlands Autumn at Wilderness Lakes Reserve in UP. © Jason Whalen/Big Foot Media
Autumn leaf-covered trail through colorful forest.
Michigamme Highlands The North Country National Scenic Trail crosses the Wilderness Lakes Reserve. © Jason Whalen/Big Foot Media
Michigamme Highlands Autumn at Wilderness Lakes Reserve in UP. © Jason Whalen/Big Foot Media
Michigamme Highlands The North Country National Scenic Trail crosses the Wilderness Lakes Reserve. © Jason Whalen/Big Foot Media

Ohio Strait Creek Prairie Bluffs

Southern Ohio’s Strait Creek Prairie Bluffs is a beautiful and mysterious expanse of native grassland and forest located at the northern end of the Conservancy’s Edge of Appalachia Preserve System. The site is a fascinating geologic anomaly caused by an ancient meteorite impact that occurred here hundreds of millions of years ago, creating the mosaic of plant communities that you see today. Strait Creek is also one of the few remaining places in Ohio where sweeping views of intact, native prairie are not disrupted by roads or other development.

Rolling hills with forest in the background blanketed by beautiful blue skies.
Strait Creek Prairie Bluffs At Strait Creek, TNC protects some of the largest stands of dry limestone prairie in Ohio along with extensive areas of hardwood forest. © Terry Seidel
Bright short orange-flowered plants on light brown soil.
Indian paintbrush A plethora of native plant species can be discovered at Strait Creek, including the showy Indian paintbrush. © Terry Seidel
Strait Creek Prairie Bluffs At Strait Creek, TNC protects some of the largest stands of dry limestone prairie in Ohio along with extensive areas of hardwood forest. © Terry Seidel
Indian paintbrush A plethora of native plant species can be discovered at Strait Creek, including the showy Indian paintbrush. © Terry Seidel

Protecting resilient and connected landscapes in the Heartland will take a big picture approach and collaboration. The Nature Conservancy has made its online mapping tool available to the public; it is one piece of the puzzle that will help better inform the decisions we make about where to invest in conservation.

TNC is working collaboratively across state lines and with Indigenous peoples, land trusts, public agencies and corporations to conserve places identified as resilient and restore those that are vulnerable. Because we know that every acre protected, every forest or farmland managed sustainably, every floodplain reconnected, every wetland restored, every expanse of invasive species removed contributes to healthier natural areas—and healthier communities.