Focused on Action: The Chicago Wilderness Alliance



By Judy Carmack Bross





Purpose-driven partners including conservation experts and those early in their careers from four states have united around urgent conservation issues facing our community, Chicago Wilderness Alliance Coordinator Laura Reilly told us recently. “As an Alliance, our most important work is to identify conservation needs from our own backyards and beyond, and be a place where partners can coordinate and collaborate across this region.”


Laura Reilly, Coordinator of the Chicago Wilderness Alliance.


“Our 250 partner organizations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin are a collective of passionate, informed people who make a much bigger impact together than any organization or individual could on their own,” Reilly said. “This is a crucial time, when our focus is to ensure vibrant nature for all.”



“We really feel that the whole region is part of the solution to create a healthy system for people and nature. This includes everything from schoolyards to corporate locations, museum and college campuses, back yards, rights of ways, forest preserves and protected land. Even agricultural lands, which people might not think of when they hear the word nature. We have many new farmers in the region, and we want to showcase their fine work in preserving land for biodiversity while growing crops and improving the soil,” Reilly said.


“But this kind of conservation cannot be accomplished without listening to the needs of our communities to create equitable access to natural areas. We need to reach those areas that have been left out of this process and we feel that 2023 is the year to do it.”


The Alliance is guided by a series of seven goals called the Green Vision Initiatives, which cover topics from green infrastructure (such as stormwater management or creating gardens in schoolyards) to healthy water to protecting entire landscapes for people and nature.


“The Green Vision Initiatives guide work on long-term conservation priorities on a landscape scale,” Reilly said. “For example, our native habitat is more rare and more precious than what we hear about the loss of the Amazon rainforest. Less than one-tenth of one percent of our native habitat in the Midwest remains. It is so important that we connect all people to this equation and increase native habitat wherever possible, building wildlife corridors or prairie strips that link these rare areas. We can increase the habitat for pollinators, which is also crucial. The health of the people, plants, animals, and the whole region is relying on what can be transformational actions.”


Using a variety of tactics, from conferences to field trips focusing on best ecology practices, the Alliance now has 5,000 committed conservationists taking action. They are led by a Steering Committee, with representatives from The Nature Conservatory, Citizens for Conservation, The Field Museum, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, and the Forest Preserves of Cook County, to name just a few.



Openlands President and CEO Jerry Adelmann, who is a member of the Steering Committee, told us recently:


“Openlands is a proud founding member of the Chicago Wilderness Alliance and continues to be very active in the important work of this pioneering network of conservation players-public and private. The Green Vision we have articulated creates a comprehensive framework that allows the work of all partners to have even greater impact. The Alliance has become a conservation model for other metropolitan regions here in the US and in other parts of the world.”


Recent Chicago Wilderness Alliance Congress


“Every two years, the Chicago Wilderness Alliance hosts a Congress to inspire dialogue, catalyze new ideas, and create opportunities for collaborative action. This past November, 450 enthusiastic people gathered in Chicago to talk about the future of conservation. It was a bigger, younger, and more diverse crowd than we’ve ever had. The message for right now is to take action,” Reilly said.

Among the Alliance’s proposed actions are to:


*Advance a cooperative weed management plan for the region, showing research on invasive species.


*Highlight existing investments available for conservation, including federal funding.


*Conduct an in-person field day in Kane County to share best conservation farming practices.

*Identify regional initiatives and take advantage of current but rapidly disappearing opportunities for land conservation.


*Incorporate equity into all initiatives across the partnership and share resources and training opportunities.


*Incorporate nature-based solutions into climate action plans for the region.


*Create a regional index of watershed health that addresses climate change, resiliency, and neighborhood flooding.


Partners have worked together to map crucial areas and put the data gained from many organizations and businesses into a dashboard prioritizing critical needs. This online centralized framework helps to guide, track. and implement progress toward a common vision and an inclusive approach to thriving nature for people and wildlife; it can be found at


The long-term goals link the Alliance to 30 X 30, the worldwide goal to have 30 percent of our planet’s land and water protected by 2030.


“As part of 30 x 30, the Green Vision Initiatives and the data we gather helps us utilize information, such as public health information, to prioritize conservation efforts in our most impacted and underserved areas. We also can create management plans for our natural areas and identify opportunities to work with private landowners, farmers, and others to protect, grow, and link existing conserved areas,” adds Reilly.



Their Chicago Wilderness Cafes, online webinars that are free and open to the public, have been highly popular opportunities for sharing ideas, discussing issues of common concern, spotlighting model programs, and hearing what’s going on in a wide variety of places. The Sarett Nature Center near Stevensville, Michigan recently presented a program attended virtually by 135 Alliance partners and others. While online programs continue to draw scores of participants, in-person field trips are now being hosted by partners from the four states.



In the nearly 30 years since the Chicago Wilderness Alliance was founded, many cities, including Atlanta, have reached out with hopes to replicate their successes. What are some of the tips Elizabeth S. Kessler, Chair, Chicago Wilderness Alliance and Director of the McHenry County Conservation District shares with others seeking to create their own nature alliances?


“The most important thing is to really listen to the needs of the partners’ communities.  Discover what tools and resources are out there than you can tap into to address the challenges and realize what a collective impact you can have by working together.”



“Our power is the strength of our partners, and we must collaborate, lift, and elevate their voices to address these crucial environmental needs,” Kessler added. “In Chicago, we are so grateful to Daniel Burnham and others for realizing what a treasure our nature and lakefront are for all. It is our duty, like Burnham’s, to make big plans: to re-imagine the future and map it out.”


To learn more about the Chicago Wilderness Alliance, visit: