A Network of Native Landscapes in (and near) Chicago
You wouldn’t expect much ‘wilderness’ to be found in Chicago. I mean, there are a lot of pigeons here (see: The Pigeon Rant), a good amount of squirrel-made roadkill, and maybe you’ll spot a coyote running across Damen every blue moon, but that’s about it in wildlife for the urban dwellers. However, if you choose to venture outside the concrete jungle, there’s actually a lot out there. The Chicagoland area alone has more than I expected, and the “Chicago Wilderness” region in its entirety probably has more than a person can see in a lifetime. Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Melinda Pruett-Jones to put it all in a nutshell. An ecologist by training, Melinda had worked for 2 of Chicago Wilderness’ founding organizations, The Field Museum and Brookfield Zoo, and was excited to jump into the role of the Executive Director at Chicago Wilderness in 2006.
Chicago Wilderness is a coalition of more than 300 organizations that work together to restore, protect, and maintain hundreds of thousands of acres natural areas across Chicagoland, Southern Wisconsin, Northwest Indiana, and Southeastern Michigan. Consisting of state parks, forest preserves, and protected natural areas, this massive network of native land makes up over 580,000 acres, or almost 4 times the area of the city of Chicago, and is home to a countless number of native plants and animals. “There is significant biodiversity here that is really worth protecting. We’ve lost most of our prairies, we’ve lost a huge amount of our woodlands, and we’ve lost a lot of our wetlands, but what is remaining is still supporting a huge amount of biodiversity,” Melinda told me.
For more than 15 years, Chicago Wilderness has served as a tool to connect us to the surrounding natural areas by connecting and networking the hundreds of groups and organizations working towards a common goal- “to restore local nature and improve the quality of life for all living things by protecting the land and waters on which we all depend.” The groups range from large government entities, to small non-profits, to Chicago’s corporate giants. And Melinda is in charge of organizing and connecting these members to benefit the whole. “Chicago Wilderness is the roundtable. We cannot do it alone, this is a collective endeavor,” she said, “In any week, there’s 10 to 15 meetings going on somewhere in the region. And every other year we have what we call Congress, where the whole community of Chicago Wilderness comes together to talk about what is happening across this landscape.”
The Alliance Members
To give you the tip of the iceberg, or in this case, tip of the Illinoian Glaical Lobe (ha, see what I did there?), here’s just a sampling of who you might find at the Chicago Wilderness roundtable.
The Riding Club of Barrington Hills– a 75-year-old, all-volunteer, riding organization that is dedicated to preserving, expanding, and riding the bridle paths in Barrington Hills, Illinois.
Chicago Cultural Alliance– “A nonprofit organization and consortium of Chicago’s ethnic museums, cultural centers, and historical societies whose mission is to effect social change and public understanding of cultural diversity through first voice perspectives.”
Fishin’ Buddies– “Fishin’ Buddies aims to better the environment through developing new strong leaders in today’s society.”
Those are just 3 examples that caught my eye, but some of the bigger names you might recognize include Lincoln Park Zoo, Friends of the Chicago River, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, ComEd, and dozens of Chicagoland’s municipalities and park districts. You can follow the next link for the full list.
What You Can Do
Whether you’re looking to volunteer in your area or join a local organization, if you want to get involved, check out the list of Chicago Wilderness members. A lot of them are probably in your area and nearly all of them have volunteer opportunities or room for citizen engagement, because, well that’s why they’re here!
Also, I asked Melinda what she thought could be the most important thing someone can do this summer to support the Chicago Wilderness cause and she left me with these words of advice to share: “For conservation on an individual level, the most important thing somebody can do this summer is to get some child outdoors into nature, and let that experience be driven by the child. Whether is a forest preserve, or the beach, or your backyard, it can be so transformative for those children. There’s wonderful bodies of research that shows that kids that have been introduced to nature and been allowed to explore it on their own with the support and encouragement of an adult leads to kids that have a sense of connection with nature and care about it in the future.”
And finally, it was hard for her to choose, but I asked Melinda to share 3 of her favorite natural areas encompassed by Chicago Wilderness. I’ll leave you with her top picks and some beautiful pictures to accompany it before you close your internet, turn off your computer, and get outside into the Chicago Wilderness
1.) Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
Somme Prairie Grove (Northbrook, IL)
McHenry County Glacial Park (Ringwood, IL)