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.
Our 2030 Goals
The natural connections across Illinois—and around the globe—remind us of what is at risk if we don’t act now and act together. TNC is guided by ambitious worldwide goals aimed at addressing the interconnected, dual crises of climate change and biodiversity. Planet-sized problems call for planet-sized solutions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
MAPPING THE GREAT UNKNOWN
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.
We need your help to advance our work.
Together, we can make a difference.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Providing foundational insights. We are developing guidance and tools to help energy planners and developers adopt the 3Cs.
- 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.
- Convening partners and pilot projects. With our partners, we are pursuing pilots of solar and wind projects that demonstrate 3C principles.
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.
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.
“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.
REMATRIATION OF BUFFALO
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.