News

Hello! Welcome to the Heartlands Conservancy Blog. We're glad you're reading and joining the conversation. This blog was created to keep you informed about current environmental issues in Southwestern Illinois and surrounding areas. In future posts, you'll find discussions about upcoming HLC events and volunteer opportunities, and we'll introduce you from time to time to experts and committed conservationists who are making a positive difference in your communities and beyond, enriching out content, where possible, with links to likeminded organizations and individuals.

Celebrating Straight from the Heart

June 8, 2017

Here at Heartlands Conservancy we are proud of our achievements in land conservation, development of environmentally healthy communities and enhancing engagement opportunities for people across Illinois to connect meaningfully with nature and gain respect for the natural resources that sustain them.

Our members also seem to think we are doing a great job, including new member Katie Mondy Hughes, who had this to say after attending our Annual Awards Dinner:

"Heartlands Conservancy is a small group of people doing great work to preserve our land in southern Illinois. I enjoyed learning about the lands that Heartlands protects, as well as the numerous ways that they work to connect conservation to the community, for example the foraging hikes and the work with local schools." - Katie Mondy Hughes

Member Sheila Voss, who is vice-president of education at Missouri Botanical Garden, was equally kind:

"I grow more and more impressed with the long-lasting impacts that Heartlands Conservancy is having in the region. Their Green Leaf awards are just a small glimpse at what this small but mighty organization is all about. From strategic land acquisitions in the form of conservation easements to urban greening work like their regional watershed management plans, green corridor mapping, and Lots of Love vacant parcel program, they are literally transforming our region's landscapes and communities in ways that improve quality of life for all." - Sheila Voss

We try hard. But we know that we are not alone in what we do. Sheila mentioned our Green Leaf awards, which we present at the annual dinner to individuals and organizations that we feel are superstars in environmental stewardship and community outreach. Heartlands Conservancy is "small and mighty," just as Sheila said, but we are stronger and mightier because of others who are just as dedicated as we are.

So in case you could not attend the dinner this year, we'd like to introduce our Green Leaf award winners to you in order to sing their praises one more time and to, perhaps, inspire you to get involved. Read on and see if you've got what it takes to become a Green Leaf superstar.

Award for Building Greener Communities
A Greener Cleaner Granite City: A Visual Approach to Educating a Community on Air Quality

Members of United Congregations of Metro-East (UCM) used funding from an EPA grant to tackle what might be considered the most important and most complex problem of our times: climate change. UCM engaged their schools, community members, city government, local business and other nonprofits in learning how the effects of "climate change" relate directly to the quality of the air they breathe, making this often inaccessible term both tangible and relevant to everyday life in Granite City.

Participants are currently attending educational programs and are active in community science projects that reveal the link between human health dangers and climate change. Participants then learn ways to improve air quality and positively prepare for a changing climate. Projects include:

  • An Ozone Garden shows the physical damage to plants by ozone pollution, demonstrating the connection between pollution and human health issues in a dramatic and visual way.
  • EPA Flags, which show the current air quality of an area, hang throughout Granite City's communities, a visible reminder that air pollution directly affects human safety and activity.
  • All schools in the area were given Educational Display Boards that explain ozone pollution, health risks of ozone pollution (asthma), how to keep safe and healthy on "orange" and "red" days," and what they, as students, can do to improve the air they breathe.
  • Air Quality Citizen Monitoring Equipment was installed at several public sites in the area to encourage community members to take responsibility for understanding public health risks caused by air pollution; information from these monitors can be used to compare localized data with that of EPA.
  • Informational Presentations provided by experts throughout the community enlisted a variety of approaches to summarize and clarify the information.

UMC's comprehensive approach to public education regarding air pollution and its relationship to public health was supported and enhanced by several educational, nonprofit and governmental partners, including the Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis University, the Sierra Club, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and many others. UCM used resources, partnerships and volunteer power to permanently enhance the health of their community and deeply engage citizens in taking personal responsibility for environmental stewardship.

Award for Engaging Individuals with Nature

Carrie Wilson Herndon, teacher at Metro East Montessori School

Carrie Wilson Herndon teaches students in grades first though eighth at Metro East Montessori School and creates a vibrant and timely experiential learning environment for her students every day. She is dedicated to environmental stewardship and educating the next generation who will someday inherit this planet: "I feel that it is imperative to provide my students [with] nature-based science lessons and opportunities to bond with nature on a regular basis. After all, if educators do not provide students, our future policy makers of our nation, to bond with and understand the intricacies of nature, who will?"

Her "classroom" includes two bee hives. Every week the class checks the bees, and several students work to collect data on the health of the hives. The students learn about pollinators, varroa mites, hive beetles, wax moths, as well as the social structure of the hive. Her students have incubated and hatched chickens for the school. They are in charge of the daily care of the chickens, the selling of eggs and cleaning of the coop. A couple of students are even designing robots to automate the feeding of the chickens on the weekends.

Her students also study water quality through a sampling project they conduct on the Judy Branch Creek in Glen Carbon and participate in stream cleanup, honeysuckle removal and have even partnered with the Nature Conservancy in St. Croix to remove ten bags of plastic trash from a beach where sea turtles were nesting. Through the Innovative Technology Education Grant, Herndon has been able to secure funding for a maker space to build and design robots, as well as collect data using Vernier probes. If this sounds a little techy... it is, but it is also a wonderful example of Herndon's commitment to STEM education, making it both accessible and relevant to her students. 

Award for Conserving Land and Protecting Natural Resources 

St. Clair County Greenspace Foundation

St. Clair County Greenspace Foundation is an all-volunteer organization, the first not-for-profit land trust in St. Clair County, Illinois. Incorporated in 1990, Greenspace now owns more than 70 acres of bluff land in west Belleville, along the Mississippi Flyway. The majority of its land overlooks the City of St. Louis, Missouri and the Gateway Arch and its accomplishments are many. 

Greenspace puts most of its efforts into stewardship of the land, and during its 17 years in existence, volunteers have successfully removed derelict buildings, stopped open dumping and picked up debris—recycling where possible—and removed invasive species, restoring the wooded areas with new plantings of native trees and bushes. Greenspace is successful not only in its volunteer efforts but also in its ability to forge important partnerships, notably with St. Clair County Clean Sweep, Centerville Township Roads Department and local schools, enlisting students at both the high school and university levels in conservation work and education.

Today, Greenspace properties welcome hikers and nature enthusiasts with organized walks and other activities. Greenspace has raised community awareness regarding the conservation and protection of land and the connection this work has to clean air, clean water and the natural beauty that is so critical to community wellbeing.

Award for Volunteers of the Year
Project 612 

According to the EPA, forty percent of the food produced in the U.S. is wasted, including up to one billion food items thrown away annually from U.S. schools. Food that winds up in a landfill generates methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat within our atmosphere. Landfills account for 34 percent of all methane emissions in the U.S. Sounds pretty bad, right?

Enter Project 612, a food recovery program working in Madison County District 7 Schools. On "Sack Attack" lunch days, Project 612 volunteers recover unopened, uneaten, prepackaged food items from school cafeterias that are otherwise destined for trash bins and, ultimately wind up in landfills. Project 612 diverts disaster by donating the collected unwanted food to the Glen-Ed Food Pantry and other food distribution charities.

According to Project 612, "The average American meal travels 1,500 miles to reach a plate. Because Project 612 utilizes food that has already been produced and transported, it helps conserve resources used in these processes.
The efforts of Project 612 help District 7 fulfill a vital role in significantly reducing food waste and its associated carbon footprint and addresses the social challenge of hunger within the community. Project 612 has recovered over 25,000 pounds of food to date!

So, what do you think? Pretty amazing people and projects, right? Chances are, in some way, you are pretty amazing, too. Why not find out by volunteering. Heartlands is always looking for its next superstar!


HeartLands' Annual Dinner Takes Place Wednesday, April 19

April 3, 2017

Heartlands Conservancy's Annual Dinner takes place in two weeks on Wednesday, April 19 at 5 p.m. at the Four Points by Sheraton in Fairview Heights, IL. So if you have not purchased tickets, there's no time to waste! 

The two properties, totaling 79 acres, are located within the floodplain of the Mississippi and Big Muddy Rivers. Working with numerous partners, HeartLands identified these properties as high-priorities for protection because of their locations and their significant natural features.

This year's dinner will be a celebration of conservation and sustainability in Southwestern Illinois. Our focus will be on efforts to protect rare natural resources in our area, and our keynote speaker is Dr. Richard Essner, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE).

While his teaching schedule and research studies keep him pretty busy, we were able to catch up with Dr. Essner for a brief interview, allowing us to give you a preview of his areas of professional interest and expertise that he will further explore in his keynote address on April 19.

HLC:
We are truly honored to have you as our keynote speaker for the 2017 Annual Dinner, Dr. Essner. Can you tell our readers a bit about your background, your work at SIUE and your current interests?

Essner:
I grew up in Perryville, Missouri and attended Southeast Missouri State University where I completed a B. S. and an M.N.S. in Biology. I completed my Ph.D. in Biology at Ohio University where I conducted comparative locomotion research on flying squirrels, tree squirrels, and chipmunks. I then did a two-year postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania, where I researched frog locomotion before arriving at SIUE in 2005.

I am currently an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at SIUE, where I teach an array of courses in vertebrate zoology, including Ornithology, Mammalogy, Wildlife Management, Vertebrate Natural History, Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy, and Human Anatomy and Physiology. I also teach summer field courses to the northern Rockies and Panama.

My research interests are in vertebrate functional and ecological morphology, and wildlife ecology. Much of my laboratory research at SIUE focuses on the evolution of frog locomotion. My field research is varied and has included habitat modeling studies of forest birds on the SIUE campus and Bohm Woods, as well as grassland and shrubland birds in the Mississippi River floodplain on lands managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We are also involved in studies of habitat use and movement patterns in Southern Flying Squirrels and Eastern Box Turtles on the SIUE campus. Since 2015 we have been involved in conservation research on two state-threatened amphibian species, the Illinois Chorus Frog and the Eastern Narrowmouth Toad.

HLC:
You've done a lot of work with Illinois Chorus Frogs. What makes them so unique?

Essner:
Illinois Chorus Frogs are remarkable amphibians. They spend most of their lives underground, only emerging for a brief period in early spring to breed. The Illinois Chorus Frog is the only frog in the world that burrows forelimbs-first, which explains their Popeye-like arms.

HLC:
Why are Illinois Chorus Frogs considered endangered and what threatens them?

Essner:
Illinois Chorus Frogs require sandy soil for burrowing, which is relatively rare in the Midwest. This explains their patchy distribution in Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas. The rarity of sand prairie habitat also places them at great risk of extirpation due to development and modern agricultural practices. Because they spend so much time underground, we know little about their behavior, which I find compelling. One of the basic questions we are trying to address, is where are they when they're not breeding?

HLC:
Wow. Sounds like searching for a needle in a haystack. How are you trying to accomplish that?

Essner:
One of my graduate students is attaching radio transmitters to frogs so that we can track them as they travel to and from breeding ponds. We know from earlier studies by John Tucker of the Illinois Natural History Survey that they can travel a kilometer to reach suitable breeding sites. This aspect of their life history also puts them at risk since they often travel across busy roads to reach breeding ponds. We have documented substantial road mortality in these frogs on rainy nights in early spring.

Student with Chorus Frog

Student Alexis King attaching a radio transmitter to an Illinois Chorus Frog.

HLC:
These little frogs seem to provide a pretty important learning experience for your students. So often, there is a disconnect in people's minds between the loss of a species such as the Illinois Chorus Frog and the impact of that loss in their own lives. Is there a good way to think about that—how the loss of a species like the chorus frog negatively touches all of us and why we should care?

Essner:
I could answer this question in a number of ways, perhaps by pointing out how amphibians act as an early warning system for environmental degradation or how they play an important role in the ecosystem and that we can't predict the impact of their removal. However, I think the best answer is simply that we would be robbing future generations of the opportunity to experience these amazing creatures. I've given presentations on Illinois Chorus Frogs to many school groups and it is unbelievable how excited kids are to learn about them. It would be a tragedy to deny them that piece of our natural heritage.

HLC:
A few months ago you raised awareness about Bohm Woods in Edwardsville. Why is Bohm Woods so important?

Essner:
Yes. I recently wrote and met with members of the Edwardsville City Council regarding the negative impacts of a proposed student housing development that threatens the ecological integrity of this special place.

Simply put, Bohm Woods is a spectacular forest. Somehow it remained undisturbed, despite the massive disturbance that has forever altered the Illinois landscape since European arrival. Old growth forest is exceedingly rare, and to have one of such quality in an urbanized area like Edwardsville is nearly unheard of.


HLC:
What do you mean when you refer to Bohm Woods as the only old growth forest in Madison County? What is an old growth forest and what makes it so valuable to the community?

Essner:

Bohm Woods offers visitors a glimpse into Illinois' past. There is simply nowhere else in the area where one can see a forest of giant hardwoods—massive trees that are hundreds of years old, over 100 feet tall, and several feet in diameter. These trees form an extensive canopy that captures most of the sunlight, producing an open understory that supports unique communities of plants and animals, including rare spring wildflowers and neotropical migrant songbirds. As these enormous trees die, they may remain standing for decades, providing food and shelter for countless species. When they topple, they uproot the soil, creating a unique pit-and-mount topography that provides ephemeral pools for wildlife.

High quality natural areas such as Bohm Woods enhance the quality of life of residents. In addition to Bohm Woods, Edwardsville is fortunate to have the Watershed Nature Center, the SIUE campus/Gardens at SIUE, and an extensive network of bike trails.

HLC:
So we can say that Bohm Woods makes our area unique in a positive, "destination point" sort of way. Would you agree?

Essner:
Every community has its strip malls, golf courses, and housing complexes. They are ubiquitous. It is a community's natural and cultural landmarks that set it apart. The Edwardsville community values these resources and many people move here because of them. For example, students consistently cite the beauty of the campus as being among the top reasons they choose SIUE. The proximity of Bohm Woods to the SIUE campus has made it a particularly valuable resource for students. Many faculty take classes there so that students can experience its unique plant and animal communities. Bohm Woods is especially valuable as a living museum since it shows our students what an upland forest in Illinois is supposed to look like.

Bohm Woods

Bohm Woods Nature Preserve - the last Old Growth forest in Madison County, IL


HLC:
Thank you so much, Dr. Essner, for not only taking the time to provide great information to our readers and helping us launch our new blog but also for your continued work to bring community awareness and important research about the environmental treasures in our area. We all look forward to your address on April 19.

You can learn more from Dr. Essner about the Illinois Chorus Frog and other threatened species and on Bohm Woods and other interesting habitats in Southwestern Illinois at the Heartlands Conservancy Annual Dinner. Tickets still available

Many thanks to Toni Oplt for assisting with this article!


HeartLands Conservancy Permanently Protects Two Natural Areas near Shawnee National Forest

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE January 24, 2017
Press Release - HLC Protects 78 acres Shawnee NF.docx Press Release - HLC Protects 78 acres Shawnee NF.pdf

Jackson County, Ill. – HeartLands Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit focused on land conservation in southwestern Illinois, announced today the acquisition of two key natural areas next to the Shawnee National Forest in Jackson County, Illinois.

The two properties, totaling 79 acres, are located within the floodplain of the Mississippi and Big Muddy Rivers. Working with numerous partners, HeartLands identified these properties as high-priorities for protection because of their locations and their significant natural features.

One such feature is a restored wetland that adjoins over 800 acres of US Forest Service wetlands. It is home to native reptiles and amphibians, as well as, otters, beavers, muskrats, and rice rats. Another feature is a second-growth hardwood forest located on Fountain Bluff. Fountain Bluff is a 2,500-acre upland forest next to the Mississippi River. The forest includes a mixture of beech and oak trees that provide habitat for bats, deer, and turkeys.

“These latest acquisitions are a part of our ongoing partnership with the US Forest Service and Ducks Unlimited to protect and restore floodplain functions in the Mississippi River Watershed in Southern Illinois,” said . “We are particularly grateful to the previous land owners for their long-standing care of these important natural areas.”

William Boardman, Land Conservation Chair for HeartLands Conservancy

HeartLands received funding assistance from two foundations— Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and Grand Victoria Foundation—to complete the purchase. ”The Foundation is pleased to assist HeartLands and its partners in purchasing lands that will ultimately expand one of Illinois’ most treasured natural areas—the Shawnee National Forest—and in protecting and restoring native habitat along the Mississippi River,” said Dennis O’Brien, Executive Director of the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation.