Stories in Illinois

Illinois: Connected By Nature

Snow geese flying through the air.

Nature connects us all—across Illinois and around the globe.

Snow Geese Migratory snow geese visit the Pacific Northwest during winter. © Michael McAuliffe

Across Illinois, we are linked by nature: from towering 1,000-year-old cypress trees in the southern swamps … to the cherished shores of Lake Michigan … to the lush wetlands along the meandering Illinois River … and the nearly 2,000 acres of natural areas in Chicago parks.

No matter where you are in Illinois—whether walking along a tree-lined street or sitting on a combine harvester, birdwatching in the prairie or fishing along a river—here, we are all connected by nature.

These connections are what make our state vibrant.


Giving to Illinois 2023

Read the full brochure to learn about the vital work The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is doing in the Prairie State to protect people & nature.

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A waterfall.
The Magic Waterfall Sunrise waterfall in Iceland. © Inna Sherman/TNC Photo Contest 2021

Our Conservation Priorities

Here in Illinois, we aim to make the most impactful contribution to TNC’s 2030 goals by focusing on three conservation priorities.

Our Connected Waters

Case example: Saving key fish species by restoring and mapping the reefs of the Great Lakes

Lake Michigan Dive To prep for summer work analyzing reefs, researchers complete their underwater dive training and certification in Lake Michigan. © Fauna Creative

The reefs in the Great Lakes—composed of rock piles left by ancient glaciers—are just as critical to aquatic life as coral reefs in our oceans. Many fish converge on the lake reefs to spawn.

Underwater image of lake cisco.
School of Lake Herring Also known as cisco, the lake herring is a freshwater fish native to Lake Michigan. © Paul Vecsei

Whether their eggs survive high waves and other dangers to hatch and become young fish depends, in part, on the reef’s condition. On degraded reefs with limited rock layers, eggs often wash away or are eaten by predators, contributing to declines in fish populations.

Lake Michigan.
Solitude Solitude // This was taken at sunrise on Higgins Lake, an inland lake in northern Michigan, the latter part of August.  Usually the lake would be bustling with activity, but schools had just started in many areas, and the lack of early-rising vacationers was evident. © Renee Kaufman/TNC Photo Contest 2022

Thanks to donor support, TNC is working with partners, including state, federal and Tribal agencies, to restore and study reefs. This work is critical to helping two vulnerable fish species in the Great Lakes—whitefish and cisco—which are vital to fisheries, tourism and food webs.

Rocks being dropped into Lake Michigan from a boat.
Rock the Reef TNC scientists watch as cobble rocks are dropped into Grand Traverse Bay to restore freshwater reefs that provide habitat for native fish. © Matthew Dae Smith/Big Foot Media

Rebuilding Reefs

450 tons of limestone rocks. That’s what it took to restore one reef site within the Elk Rapids Reef complex in Grand Traverse Bay, Michigan. Load after load of rocks were strategically placed into the lake to create a healthy reef with multiple rock layers and in-between spaces for fish eggs to hide.

The result? Scientists at TNC and partner organizations found that the number of eggs retained on the reef increased. We need to conduct more reef work to determine if the improved egg retention can be directly tied to an increase in whitefish and cisco numbers. However, TNC and our partners have documented that the cisco population has dramatically increased around the Elk Rapids Reef and is gradually spreading across Lake Michigan. 


With our partners, we have recently begun the immense job of mapping the hundreds of reefs in the Great Lakes. Donors can help with this revolutionary work. Many of the reefs have never been studied or even visited by aquatic scientists. So we don’t know which reefs are healthy or degraded or what fish spawn on which reefs.

At the end of this multi-year project, we intend to have a digital map of the surveyed reefs with detailed characteristics on each reef, along with a process that others can use to assess additional reefs and add that information to the digital map. This work will be invaluable for protection and restoration efforts ahead.

Learn more about TNC's work in the Great Lakes reefs.
Kids with their hands in a circle.
Together, We Find a Way Every helping hand counts when it comes to protecting the lands and waters upon which we all depend. © Devan King / TNC
A woman gathers water from Lake Tanganyika in the village of Mgambo, Tanzania.
Shores of Lake Tanganyika A woman gathers water from Lake Tanganyika in the village of Mgambo, Tanzania. © Ami Vitale

Great Lakes to Great Lakes

The Great Lakes in North America and the African Great Lakes share more than a name. Collectively, they support millions of people and habitat for wildlife found nowhere else in the world. They also share challenges, from water quality issues to invasive species.

TNC’s Great Lakes to Great Lakes Initiative is helping TNC staff, scientists and partners from the two continents effectively manage their Great Lakes systems—together. In the United States, we’ve brought delegations of scientists from the African Great Lakes to conduct research side-by-side with our Great Lakes team, ensuring the exchange of knowledge that benefits the health of both freshwater systems.

Dive into TNC's work in the Great Lakes reefs.


Learn more about how TNC’s Great Lakes to Great Lakes Initiative is helping two continents effectively manage their Great Lakes systems—together.

Build Climate-Resilient Communities

Considering conservation, communities and climate in proposed renewable energy projects

Agrivoltaics TNC in Illinois is working with partners like Pollinator Partnership to provide developers vital insight needed to create a wildlife-friendly solar site. © Joanna Kulesza

To keep global warming in check, the world needs to shift quickly from fossil fuels to renewable energy. However, we must pay attention to how and where clean energy projects are built to ensure that the new infrastructure does not result in unnecessary harm to native species and natural landscapes.

Energy planning that considers the big picture can help prevent many impacts to nature, while also optimizing outcomes for people and climate. Smart renewable deployment takes advantage of building on degraded and marginal lands, like abandoned mines or landfills, in lieu of developing on natural habitats or productive farmlands.

TNC’s approach encourages stakeholders to consider the long-term impacts of proposed renewable energy projects on people, economies, biodiversity, and carbon emissions.

Pollinator-Friendly Solar
Pollinator-Friendly Solar TNC & Pollinator Partnership offer guidance on smart siting principles & solar habitat co-location to ensure win–win results for Illinois’ transition to clean energy. © Jason Whalen/Fauna Creative
Clean Energy in the Midwest
Clean Energy in the Midwest Midwest business have vast potential to fulfill renewable energy goals while considering community, conservation and climate. © Adobe Stock
Pollinator-Friendly Solar TNC & Pollinator Partnership offer guidance on smart siting principles & solar habitat co-location to ensure win–win results for Illinois’ transition to clean energy. © Jason Whalen/Fauna Creative
Clean Energy in the Midwest Midwest business have vast potential to fulfill renewable energy goals while considering community, conservation and climate. © Adobe Stock

We call this the 3C approach:

  • Conservation: Protect wildlife and habitat.
  • Communities: Support an equitable transition that considers the needs of people and communities. 
  • Climate: Optimize the carbon reduction impact.

With support from donors, TNC is pursuing three avenues to increase adoption of the 3C approach:

  1. Providing foundational insights. We are developing guidance and tools to help energy planners and developers adopt the 3Cs.
  2. Influencing key decision-makers. We regularly meet with legislators, state agencies, energy developers and businesses to encourage them to consider nature and people in the renewable buildout.
  3. Convening partners and pilot projects. With our partners, we are pursuing pilots of solar and wind projects that demonstrate 3C principles.
A Research icon.

Use Our Renewable Energy Planning Tools

Here’s a sampling of TNC resources and tools designed to ensure that nature and people are prioritized during the renewable energy transition:

Explore all of the resources above and more.

Protect Land for Nature & People

Case example: Bringing buffalo home

Bison herd at Nachusa Grasslands Bison herd at Nachusa Grasslands. © Charles Larry

On November 12, 2022, staff at TNC’s Nachusa Grasslands loaded 10 buffalo from the preserve’s herd onto a trailer. The destination: The Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin. The transfer supported a community effort by Medicine Fish, an Indigenous-led nonprofit.

Three bison in a prairie.
Bison Family Bison calves are born in the spring time at Nachusa Grasslands Preserve, Illinois. © Charles Larry

Menominee community members who gathered to watch the transfer—from elders to young children—were eager to be reunited with their buffalo relatives, who occupy an essential role in their culture & spirituality. The Nachusa buffalo were the first to reconnect with the Menominee people in 250+ years since the animals were wiped out in the Midwest.

Bison in a prairie.
Bison Calves Two bison calves stand among healthy tallgrass prairie. © Mike Fuhr/TNC

“It was an emotional moment to see the arrival of the buffalo,” says Jason Baldes, board member, InterTribal Buffalo Council, which represents 82 sovereign Tribes and has led buffalo restoration to Indigenous communities for the past 30 years. “We circled up to sing, and the Menominee people prayed in their own language. Tears were flowing.”


TNC has much to learn about living reciprocally with the land from Indigenous Peoples, who were the original stewards of the Americas. One lesson is the important role that buffalo play in restoring grasslands. With their grazing and other natural behaviors, buffalo are creating critical habitats that support all prairie wildlife. For example, by selectively eating grasses, buffalo balance the prairie ecosystem for wildflowers to thrive, which also creates a heterogeneous structure ideal for nesting spots for grassland birds. And when buffalo wallow (roll) on the ground, they create depressions that fill with rainwater, providing pools for breeding amphibians.  


Every spring brings new buffalo calves to TNC preserves. By transferring buffalo to Indigenous communities, we maintain adequate size herds that, in return, maintain the ecological health of our preserves. Most important, we are playing a supportive role in repairing the relationship between buffalo and Indigenous Peoples that was severed by colonization and the ensuing violence against Native Americans and buffalo. “It’s healing to see these animals come back and be a part of us again,” says Baldes. “It’s bringing home our long-lost relative.”

Find more details about TNC’s Buffalo Restoration Program.


To learn more about Medicine Fish’s mission and approach to connecting youth and community to land, water and buffalo, visit their website.

Protect Land for Nature & People

Case example: Addressing inequities to help Chicagoans engage with nature

Nature in the Windy City Chicago skyline from Northerly Island Park. © Laura Stoecker Photography LTD

Spending time outdoors provides a bevy of health benefits. Even a 10-minute nature dose has been shown to improve blood pressure and lower stress. In Chicago, TNC has been working to ensure that city dwellers of all races, ethnicities, ages, abilities and income levels have access to green spaces and outdoor activities. A new endeavor adds to our cities work. TNC was recently selected to lead the Outdoor Foundation’s Thrive Outside initiative in Chicago. The goal: To reduce barriers to the outdoors and increase meaningful outside opportunities for Chicago youth and adults, including people of color and LGBTQIA+ communities. 

Convening Expertise

As we launch Thrive Outside Chicago, TNC is following our well-practiced playbook and collaborating with partners that are already providing outdoor experiences to Chicagoans. Our steering committee includes a variety of local organizations, including groups that arrange outdoor adventures for underserved youth and a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities. “They know best what their communities need,” says TNC’s Brooke Thurau, conservation partnership and network specialist. “They will guide us in what Thrive Outside Chicago should look like and how we can best provide support.”

Righting Inequities

TNC will receive grants for three years from the Outdoor Foundation to build Thrive Outside Chicago. To sustain the program, TNC needs to raise a 1:1 funding match.

The money will be used to assist local organizations in providing outdoor experiences and to support Thrive Outside Chicago’s collective work, which is aimed at addressing inequities that impede Chicagoans from getting out in nature. For instance, our partners point to Chicago River access as a challenge. Walking or kayaking along the river is easy for many on the city’s northside, which has river trails and boat launches. But on the south and west sides, river access is difficult or impossible. Thrive Outside Chicago is working to address barriers like this and ensure that all Chicagoans can easily enjoy outdoor activities.

Explore TNC’s other work in Chicago.


Learn more about Thrive Outside and how they're bringing together Chicago partners dedicated to reducing barriers to the outdoors.

Meeting Challenges Head On

The challenges of our lifetime—climate change and biodiversity losses—are playing out before our eyes, here in Illinois, across the Midwest and around the world. TNC is uniting grassroots organizations, policymakers, agencies, Tribal partners and donors like you to find solutions that ensure the people and places we all love can continue to thrive. Together, we can make a difference.