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.

Bringing Back Our Forests

December 4, 2017

Planting Trees in Signal Hill, Belleville

How was your Thanksgiving? If you need to start working off some of that turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie before the Christmas feasts begin, there's no better remedy than a brisk hike through the woods. And it's a great time to begin a winter walking routine now that our Jingle Hike Challenge is in full ring... uh...swing.

Running from Thanksgiving Day through New Year's Day 2018, the Jingle Hike Challenge invites you to get up close with nature as you scout out 12 jingle bells tied to trees in parks across the Metro East area. Take a selfie with each jingle bell you find, post it to social media or send us an email, and you could even win a new bike while you hike! So check out the full details and get hiking! 

And while all this activity adds up to healthy, green fun, we don't want you to "miss the forest for the trees." Heartlands Conservancy recently hosted the Southwestern Illinois Communities Conference, focusing on "Bringing Forests Back to Communities." This breakfast seminar was a huge success, drawing a diverse group of people from all over the region who share a common concern for our vanishing—yes, vanishing—true green spaces that once flourished in our neighborhoods and outer communities.

The fact is, we as a nation have been losing forests for many years. Industrial and residential development, riverfront development, clearcutting for parking lots, as well as insect and disease infiltration, have taken a heavy toll on our once seemingly infinite leafy canopy. Luckily, there are some experts out there who are working hard to create a positive change.

Meridith McAvoy Perkins, one of our keynote speakers for the seminar, manages the Urban Forestry Consortium in Missouri, which is powered by the Davey Resource Group—our proud sponsor for the event. Meridith has spent over 15 years helping municipal governments across the country better understand, care for and benefit from their community's sustainable green spaces. She hopes to bring a wealth of collaboration and shared resources to HLC members' communities through partnership projects that use databased research to guide tree-planting efforts that take into account such factors as the effects of climate change, the larger view of developing landscapes over simple plots of trees and locating the best areas for such investment. She encourages the use of research—taking a tree inventory of what currently exists in an area and making planting decisions on what is working and what is not. 

Of course, Meridith can't do it all, and here's where you come in. How about volunteering a morning or afternoon for tree planting? It's a great way to feel part of the innovative and meaningful actions HLC is taking to ensure green space for all. No time? Perhaps a donation is possible toward funding new trees in your neighborhood. When you donate, your dollars save local species, preserve vanishing open space, plant "lots of love" in urban communities and help us continue the critical education programs that will not only save the forests now but sustainably manage them for the future.

Our second speaker of the morning was Marty Kemper, who advises HLC on natural resources issues. Marty holds a Master of Arts degree in zoology with an emphasis in ecology. He was on staff at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for 34 years before retiring in 2012. During the seminar, Marty challenged us to think a little... have the forests in our area declined so drastically that we are forgetting what healthy trees look like? His research suggests we might be. His research is taking him around the state, creating productive conversations and causing people to ask more questions—and that's how we discover solutions. While his results are still inconclusive, there's no doubt we need to be paying attention before the lush American canopy disappears to open sky, and Marty's research remains at the forefront of this investigation.

In addition to introducing the audience to his fascinating, ongoing research regarding the health and sustainability of our regional forests, Marty introduced us to one of his heroes, the famous ecologist and author of A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold. It is Leopold's vision of a "Land Ethic, which calls for an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature," that Marty lets guide his work, which has taken him across seven counties in Illinois and engaged him in many interviews with farmers and other landowners. He is currently exploring the possible connection between chemicals used in conventional farming practices and the apparent damage to common varieties of trees such as oak, maple, dogwood, sycamore, red bud and box elder.

And HLC is right there, too, at the forefront of research, restoration, preservation and education. Won't you join us in 2018? A membership could be one of the most important Christmas gifts you give, one that will touch each member of your family, all your friends and neighbors, the larger community and—not exaggerating here—the planet. Because with every little thing we all do—each piece of data we calculate, each tree we plant, each landscape we preserve—we secure a healthier world for every living creature.

"Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." Aldo Leopold, The Land Ethic, A Sand County Almanac

Total Eclipse of the HeartLands

October 10, 2017

A group of 200 Heartlands Conservancy members and guests began to arrive at our Mill Creek Natural Area in Southern Illinois sometime before noon on the day of the "Great American Eclipse," an event anticipated throughout North America for... eternity. While a total eclipse of the sun is a fairly frequent global event, August 21, 2017 was the first time in the nation's history that the path of a total solar eclipse would fall across the continental United States, from West to East Coast, passing directly over HLC's Mill Creek preserve.

Anticipation among the band of travelers who journeyed to Mill Creek that day was high. People who barely knew each other, people who were total strangers upon arrival, said their hellos with a shared unspoken acknowledgement—"We're here for something special." and (most interestingly) the clear sense that "We're in this together."

hikers at mill creek

HLC is no stranger to hosting treks. We do it at all times of the year in a variety of natural settings, but, obviously, nothing quite like this one. The day's activities began with a short hike down the wooly emerald creek bottom on this property. The rock walls of the creek are covered in moss and fossils, which gave the group its first sense that time, both historical and fleeting, was at the center of the day's event. Young and old, spry and some with a little less bounce in their steps made their way along the cool stone fissure. The group took hold of handy branches and rocky outcroppings to traverse the creek bed, and as they did, they quickly developed as strong sense of belonging, for instance in the way they helped each other along more difficult stretches of uneven rock and pools of water, making sure everyone was fine and no one was left behind. A sense of true community blossomed and would remain at the core of our shared experience that day. (Photo to right by Tonia Bridenbaugh.)

Upon our return to the circular field we'd chosen for the eclipse viewing area, we all settled in for lunch, another shared ritual among our ever-growing community of families, couples, friends, children, professional photographers, scientists and nature lovers. Again, there was a sense of suspended time and heightened anticipation that was only held in check by the abundance of great food and drink.

No one ever seems to go hungry at an HLC event. We are always amazed and appreciative of the many farmers, volunteers and incredible cooks who pull together and provide a splendid meal far away from the comforts of standard, well-equipped kitchens. Burgers, salads, garden-fresh tomatoes and salsas and decadent desserts lined the buffet tables under our tents. Eventually, we'd even enjoy snow cones, a most welcome and unexpected treat on a very hot day. We'd like to thank our board of directors and staff (and their families) for donating the tasty treats - Cliff Schuette, Rob Hilgenbrink, Robert Nelson, William Boardman, Nancy Larson, Ronda Latina, William Armstrong, Sarah Vogt, Kim O'Bryan, Janet Buchanan, Tim Ashe, Trisha Roberson, and Ed Weilbacher.

Eventually, though, all interest turned skyward, as the shadows and light began to shift from bright yellow daylight to a cooler, softer white glow. We were at the beginning of the eclipse, the brief moment in time that for many would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. One by one, people moved their chairs and blankets from the comfort of the shade to the center of the field, the air temperature starting to drop by steady, incremental degrees. 

As the moon made its way across the sun, swallowing the light as it progressed, people in the field donned their special eclipse glasses and began to find their personal sense of it what was happening, from one small boy who proclaimed "The moon is the Cookie Monster and the sun is a cookie", to the simple and pure gratitude of a woman who whispered to those around her, "We are all so lucky." Wonder and amazement, enchantment and mythology, reverence and respect—every member of the group—now more like a tribe—felt "it."

The moment came, ushered in by the fleeting magical images of Bailey's Beads and the Wedding Ring-- a black hole in the sky, encompassed in a flaming circle appeared--a total eclipse. Whoops and whistles and laughter and a ubiquitous "Ohooooooooo" filled the space in the field. And everyone took down their glasses, everyone was present and understood... together as one... suspended in time... held to a single point.

Though we had only a little over two minutes to experience the total eclipse, most of use took a few precious seconds to look around at the stars and planets that peeked through the darkened sky, at the "sunset" that surrounded us. Then we returned to the black point above us, taking in each precious second until we began saying farewell to this miracle of our universe, to a magical moment we were lucky enough to share.

Once the moon had continued on its path and the eclipse was over, people lingered for a long time. They were still one and were reluctant to pull apart. It may have been the need to hold onto the actual eclipse by

 telling each other their 

experiences, comparing emotional notes and congratulating each other on "being here." At length, little by little, we did pull apart, pack up chairs, fold blankets, hoist backpacks, tuck away camera equipment, close coolers, and make our way back to our cars. We were returning to the world we knew but, perhaps, seeing it in a slightly different light. 

Our members and guests were kind enough to share some thoughts as they reentered everyday life:

"The eclipse itself was phenomenal," said Tonia Bridenbaugh, an HLC guest. "I was impressed with the natural beauty of this place, and exceptionally impressed with how well the event was organized. Lunch was truly 

amazing; the food was delicious."HLC member Deb Lexow said, "I will always be extremely grateful that Heartlands literally opened their 'hearts' to organize this event for all of us. They gave us a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and they did it w

ith such class. Every detail was perfect, from the thoughtfulness of including veggie burgers to to the refreshing watermelon slices, from the hike to the thoughtfulness of available facilities--it was all so incredible."We think so, too, Deb. And we thank our dedicated volunteers and our community partners for helping us make it happen. We are truly lucky to have the support of everyone to create wonderful events like Total Eclipse of the Heartlands. But while the total eclipse was something many of us might not experience again, another trek with HLC is right around the corner.We would love to have everyone join us for a Nature Photography Trek on Oct. 28. We'll take in the beauty of Illinois' fall foliage as we hike and learn the basics of nature photography. It's our last trek for 2017, and we wouldn't want to leave you behind! Go here to sign up: Photo - Kerry Brethauer

Commonfields Fall 2017 Focus is Trees

September 26, 2017

Commonfields, our quarterly newsletter, focuses on trees in the Fall 2017 edition. In this issue you will find information about some concerning tree leaf cupping issues being observed across the region. Retired IDNR Biologist Martin Kemper walks us through some of his observations over the past 2 years. Meredith Perkins, arborist with Davey Resource Group, has selected some beautiful fall-color trees for your consideration in this quarter's "Plant This, Not That"! 

You can read commonfields on ISSUU or via pdf here

Raising Forks for Conservation

August 28, 2017

To share a meal is generous. To give a dinner creates community. To break bread with others brings grace to the table. It is true that the preparation of food for others simply makes magic, and magic is the perfect word to describe Heartlands Conservancy's annual Field to Fork dinner. It was a magic celebration of local foods, master chefs, and open-hearted members and guests, who still value farm-to-table connections, who still delight in well-prepared food and who still feel a responsibility to community and the environment that is larger than themselves. Because of all these people, this was our most successful year ever, raising $25,665, not including sponsorships—a 32 percent increase over last year.

"We are so humbled by the response to Field to Fork," said Mary Vandevord, HLC president and CEO. "Watching the farms, chefs, and businesses all come together to support HeartLands Conservancy's mission astounds me every year. Field to Fork would not be possible without their contributions and love for the cause of protecting the great outdoors and supporting farmland. We are so blessed to have such support and generosity in southwest Illinois," she said.

The success of Field to Fork is critical to the ongoing work of HLC. The event provides one-third of HLC's annual unrestricted operating funds. "Because of the funds raised at the event, we are able to keep working with land owners and local, state, and federal governments to conserve the resources that support life in our region," explained Vandevord.

Field to Fork proceeds will help HLC acquire natural areas and pursue conservation easements, restore forests and prairies, protect habitat for wildlife such as Illinois Chorus Frog and southern flying squirrel; connect people with nature by building outdoor classrooms, delivering engaging programs and providing education to landowners and people living in our region; and support Lots of Love Initiative that transforms vacant lots in neighborhoods into beautiful, native habitats.

"The Field to Fork event is that once-a-year chance to bring together all that sustains us in southwestern Illinois--the farms, produce, people and community--to protect and enhance our region," ," said Ed Weilbacher, vice-president for Building Greener Communities at HLC. "I was fortunate to speak to the audience regarding conservation easements. This unique tool is the only mechanism that a landowner can use to insure that their land is protected forever! Conservation easements are a way to leave a legacy," Weilbacher said.

Land acquisition, community connections, improved neighborhoods and the power of leaving a legacy--all of this is possible because of contributions and commitment from diverse parts of our communities that come together for one magical night, and it all starts in the fields of Illinois...

  • Alley Family Farms in Fairview Heights, IL, growers of amazing organic garlic 
  • Braeutigam Orchards in Belleville, IL, home to scrumptious apples and more
  • Cooley Farms in Carlyle, IL, a local CSA family-run farm
  • Double Star Farms in Benton, IL, producing farm-fresh produce close to home
  • Eckerts in Belleville, IL, regionally famous for bringing family's close to the source of their food through on-farm events all growing-season long
  • Keller Farms in Collinsville, IL, known for their specialty crops such as horseradish
  • Lehr's Vegetable Farm in Columbia, IL, promoting small farm goodness
  • Ludwig Farmstead Creamery in Fithian, IL, producing European Style Artisan Farmstead Cheese in small batches
  • Marcoot Jersey Creamery in Greenville, IL, a seventh-generation dairy farm specializing in artisan cheeses
  • Scharf Farm in Millstadt, IL, a Family-owned and operated farm providing fresh, homegrown produce since 1946
  • Stuckmeyer's Plants and Produce in Columbia, IL, bring bounty and floral beauty to their local customers
  • Troyan Farms in Dorsey, IL, a local source of great produce
  • The Butcher's Block in Sparta, IL, a downhome butcher shop and grocery where quality counts

Many of these local farmers also show up regularly at farmers markets and some of their products are available in grocery stores across the region. We hope you will continue to support them, and in so doing, create a stronger market for independent small farms in your communities.

From field, of course, we move to fork, or more accurately to the kitchens of some of the most talented local rising stars in the culinary world. Our heartfelt thanks go to:

  • Chef Tim Faltus, owner of Bellecourt Manor (the beautiful setting for our event) and Bellecourt Place in Belleville, IL.
  • Chef Ben Rudis, formerly of Cleveland-Heath in Edwardsville, IL 
  • Jennifer Pensoneau-Kennedy owner of J Fires' Market Bistro in Waterloo, IL.
  • Chef Adam Washburn, owner of 1818 Chophouse in O'Fallon, IL 
  • Award-wining Chef & Pitmaster David Sandusky own BEAST Craft BBQ in Belleville, IL.
  • Chef Josh Charles started Honey & Thyme, a blog and catering company based out of Collinsville, IL earlier this year, where he wows everyone with incredible desserts. 
  • Award-winning Chef Josh Galliano is currently a leader at Companion Bakery

If you were our guest at Field and Fork, you know that the food—from appetizers, to breads, through main course and dessert--was simply, indescribably scrumptious. And, since many of these chefs own local establishments, there's no reason why you can't "go back for seconds" just about any time you're in their neighborhood! It's the best part of eating local!

"We had a lovely evening at Field to Fork, just a beautiful setting and delicious dinner. But the event means so much more to us," commented guest Virginia Woulfe-Beile, Three Rivers project coordinator for the Piasa Pallisades Sierra Club Chapter. "HeartLand's Conservancy Field to Fork event is a delicious and sustainable way to support the important conservation work that HeartLands is doing in southwestern Illinois. Every dollar they receive, whether through fundraising or grant procurement, allows them to execute the projects and programs that not only save our communities from sprawl and environmental degradation, but help improve our region's air and water quality."

In addition to the farmers and artisan food producers and the array of culinary talents pulling off a magnificent feast, we thank our sponsors who contributed so generously to our silent and live auctions, from vacation getaways, to a weekend driving a Tesla, fresh farm produce and meat, to the breathtakingly edible centerpieces on every table, there was something for everyone at every bid level. Everyone attending participated somehow, which not only increases our fundraising but also helps draw everyone into the fun. We're pretty sure everyone went home with something... including a nice little travel snack Companion pretzel and Excel soda, compliments of Chef Galliano.

All of this—the food courses, the auction schedule, and the program had to be coordinated somehow, and HLC was truly lucky to have special guest Mike Roberts, St. Louis veteran broadcast meteorologist, as our emcee. Mike's charm and wit took us all from starter plate to final goodbyes with a beautiful balance of festive laughter and thoughtful moments.

Local band The Bonbon Plot set a tone of soft swing, great standards and some spicy jazz, adding just the right seasoning sprinkled throughout the event.

And we couldn't forget the talent of Brad Chandler of Buy a Farm land & Auction Co., who proved to be an auctioneer extraordinaire. Brad was a tireless force the entire evening, building excitement, encouraging bidding and helping us all have such a good time supporting a good cause.

But the final and most important thank you goes to our members and their guests, the very heart of HeartLands. Your generosity, your sense of responsibility, your gift of time and attention make everything we do possible. Thank you.

And in case you missed our dinner this year, we hope you'll make it next year. Of course, we'd love another sellout year and an even bigger margin on our fundraising, but we'd really just like to have you at our table. We love sharing our work, introducing you to the farmers and the amazing chefs, and encouraging the call to conservation that might catch your ear. Whatever brings you to the dinner next year—the desire to give back, the celebration of a good meal, the desire to spend a fun evening with family and friends—we hope it brings you. See you soon!

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.

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?

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.

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

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.

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

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?

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

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.

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?

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.

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

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.

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?


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.

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

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

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

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.