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Cook County, Illinois is a unique place. With over 5.2 million people and 130 separate municipalities, including the city of Chicago, Cook County is the second most populous county in the U.S. It’s also home to the Forest Preserves of Cook County, which is one of the oldest and largest metropolitan open space agencies in the country. Currently, the Forest Preserves system includes over 70,000 acres, 300 miles of trails, 250 picnic groves and rich ecological biodiversity.

Our role

The Forest Preserves system is not equally distributed across Cook County. Recognizing the potential to address this inequity and acquire remaining undeveloped lands, the Forest Preserves retained The Conservation Fund for strategic land acquisition planning. The effort had a particular focus on Southeast Cook County because of its high opportunity and high need.

To create the plan, we led a team that included Metropolitan Planning Council, Antero Group and Rudd Resources. Together, we evaluated the region’s natural resources and engaged the public to develop a Plan that incorporates a Health Impact Review and reflects suitability and feasibility assessments under five weighted scenarios:

  • Ecological Value
  • Flood Mitigation
  • Inholdings/Adjacency
  • Connectivity
  • Equity/Social Vulnerability

The Plan identifies over 5,000 acres within Southeast Cook County that are considered suitable to achieve all five scenarios and makes recommendations for new partnerships and strategies towards implementation


Why This Project Matters 

Southeast Cook County is experiencing severe economic challenges and higher health risks than Cook County as a whole. The goal of the Strategic Land Acquisition Plan for Southeast Cook County was to develop a model that integrates land conservation and economic development, recognizing the critical important of both in community resilience. The resulting Plan identifies areas where new protected lands can deliver on the Forest Preserves’ natural lands mission, while generating multiple benefits to residents.

The Plan also presents a framework for how land conservation planners in other major urban areas can use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index to identify areas of high need and vulnerability, and focus investments, environmental improvements, economic progress and social justice to meet those needs.

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Click here to read the full text of the Southeast Cook County Land Acquisition Plan.

In 1608, during Captain John Smith’s exploration of the Chesapeake Bay, he was ambushed by a tribe of Native American Indians atop of Fones Cliffs on the Rappahannock River. The Rappahannock Tribe villagers atop the cliffs signaled to the warriors lying in wait in the marsh across the river from the cliffs. The Rappahannock then emerged from the marsh and ambushed the explorer and his crew. Although Smith’s ships were able to pass through unharmed, Fones Cliffs became a staple of Rappahannock history and will forever be remembered for the tribe’s dedication to preserving their sacred land.

Today, 252 acres of Fones Cliffs have been officially protected as part of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, where it will remain unhindered by development and open for public visitation.

Our role

After more than ten years – and efforts from many partners – The Conservation Fund was able to successfully purchase the 252-acre Fones Cliffs property from a private landowner who had gained approval for more than 40 houses atop the cliffs. We then transferred the property in 2019 to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) so it could remain under their management as part of the Refuge. Thanks to funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as the support of many partners, this Fones Cliffs property now supports greater opportunity for public recreation and helps preserve the value this land has to the Rappahannock Tribe and Virginia community.


Why This Project Matters

Ensuring that Fones Cliffs remained protected and open to the public was the only acceptable result for this decade-long effort. Aside from the Rappahannock’s 1608 encounter with Captain John Smith, Fones Cliffs was also home to three Rappahannock towns: Pisacack, Matchopeak, and Mecuppon. Now, the Rappahannock Tribe will be able to use this property to educate future generations about the importance of the land, and visitors alike can come to hike, search for wildlife, and enjoy the cliffs truly indescribable beauty.

But Fones Cliffs isn’t just rich with history and great views. It is one of the most pristine locations on the east coast to view bald eagles. The eagles use the property’s high elevation to survey the river for hunting opportunities, and it is not uncommon to see up to 400 eagles along this stretch of river. Even when populations were at their lowest, bald eagles could still be found here. As part of the Refuge, habitat for these eagles and various wildlife will remain under the USFWS’s permanent protection.

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill desecrated the Gulf Coast, disturbing fragile ecosystems, impacting wildlife habitat and disrupting local eco-tourism and private business that rely on a bountiful coast to thrive. To combat this devastation, land protection and coastal restoration has become a clear priority in Alabama and beyond.

Our role

In partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, we were able to purchase and transfer 470-acres to become part of the Refuge. At the request of the Service and the State of Alabama, we transferred the property in two phases thanks to funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, which was established by a federal court order addressing criminal cases related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Why This Project Matters

Expanding the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge is helping to re-establish a healthier gulf while also providing habitat for wildlife, recreational opportunities and better water quality.

The newly conserved property features a variety of coastal habitats including shoreline, pine flatwoods, saltwater marsh, freshwater lagoons and wetlands, dune systems, maritime forests, and tidal creeks. The living shorelines and interior terrain provides ideal habitats for several threatened or endangered species, including young adult Kemp's ridley sea turtles, snowy plover, piping plover, Wilson's plover, and the Alabama beach mouse. The land also has the potential to benefit manatees migrating through the northern gulf, and ultimately increases the protected coastal habitat at the Little Point Clear Unit for wildlife and public recreation by approximately 25 percent.

Learn more about how Bon Secour’s bountiful resources mutually benefit the Gulf Coast’s environment and economy: https://www.conservationfund.org/blog/community-development/2033-preserving-the-gulf-coast-s-bountiful-resources

Melrose Air Force Range, part of Cannon Air Force Base in eastern New Mexico, has been operating since 1952 and is the primary training range for the 27th Special Operations Wing, providing more than 4,500 hours of training for U.S. and coalition Special Operations Forces each year. In recent years, however, Air Force officials have become increasingly concerned about the potential for encroaching development around the range. Development of the land could create vertical hazards and light pollution, negatively impacting flight paths and threatening the Air Force’s training operations.

Development also impacts the lesser prairie-chicken, a species that is threatened by structures taller than grass level. Interruptions to its habitat have limited its range, and populations of the once-abundant prairie-chicken have declined drastically. Southeast New Mexico is one of the most important undisturbed habitats for the lesser prairie-chicken, giving it the space it needs to perform its famously showy mating dance.

Our role

For more than a decade, The Conservation Fund has worked with military installations across the country to preserve working farms, forests, ranches and wildlife habitat through the Department of Defense’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) Program.

The Conservation Fund worked closely with Tom Davis, who owns a 30,000-acre working ranch adjacent to Melrose Air Force Range. In partnership with Cannon Air Force Base, the Fund facilitated the purchase of a conservation easement on Davis’ ranch, which restricts development from ever taking place on the land and ensures it will be used as a working ranch in perpetuity.

Funding for the easement came from the REPI Program and the State of New Mexico Economic Development Department. The New Mexico Land Conservancy will oversee and manage the easement, and the property will remain privately owned.

Why This Project Matters

The Conservation Fund delivered a win-win-win solution that safeguards habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken, preserves the rich heritage of ranching in New Mexico and fulfills the training needs of the Air Force. This single-largest transaction in the history of the REPI Program demonstrates how diverse partners can come together to create landscape-level conservation that will benefit the community for generations to come.

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DNA’s summer program emphasizes a variety of science-based activities and fieldtrips for participating youth. A combination of experiential learning, field trips and presentations by experts in the field helps strengthen STEM skills and enhance awareness of STEM field career paths and opportunities.

I am determined to make a difference.  I don’t want my kids to suffer just because they live in rural Duplin County.  I want to show them things that kids in other counties are exposed to. I want my kids to have the same opportunities.”  

- Earlean Rivers, Executive Director, Diversity Nurtures Achievements Community Youth Center

Our Role

Through our Resourceful Communities program, we provided small grant support that supported a summer camp for 30 low-income youth of color. That summer camp provided STEM education, 7 field trips that emphasized nature and science, and a speaker series focused on career exploration. We worked with DNA to strengthen evaluation, program planning, fundraising and grant writing skills, as well as connect with new partners at State Parks and peer organizations.

Why This Project Matters

In Duplin County, NC, only 10% of residents over 25 hold bachelor’s degrees or higher, and despite deep cultural connections to natural resources, the area is home to significant environmental injustices. More broadly, people of color are underrepresented in the environmental field, comprising only 12.4% of environmental nonprofits, 15.5% of environmental government agencies and 12% of environmental foundations.

Our Resourceful Communities program works with community organizations to strengthen locally-driven programming in economically- and socially-distressed rural communities. We recognize the critical role of organizations like DNA to increase awareness of career opportunities and engagement with natural resource professionals, particularly professionals of color, in addition to changing inequities in access to public natural spaces for under-represented populations.

Brown Trout

Recreational trout fishing is a common pastime in states with waters that support the biological requirements of this popular sportfish. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MD DNR) raises and stocks the majority of trout for fishermen in their state; however, they have a finite capacity to grow fish at their hatcheries.

Our Role

To add to the number of fish stocked in Maryland streams, MD DNR turned to the Freshwater Institute to grow thousands of extra brown trout. A similar partnership took place from 2011-2015 when the Freshwater Institute grew and supplemented more than 100,000 rainbow trout for Maryland’s stocking program. While Freshwater Institute's fish production staff is well-versed in rainbow trout culture, they had never raised brown trout before. Despite this, the team was up for the challenge.

In 2018, Freshwater Institute procured brown trout eggs from a Virginia hatchery. Over the next few months, the fish hatched and were successfully grown in Freshwater Institute's state-of-the-art aquaculture systems, reaching ¼ pound in just 7-8 months.

Why this project matters

In late May 2019, more than 10,000 brown trout were picked up and taken to a MD DNR hatchery for eventual Fall stocking, at which time they’ll be large enough to stretch a line and put up a fight on rod and reel. Recreational fishing not only gives Maryland residents the chance to get outdoors and connect with nature, it also brings in valuable revenue to support conservation efforts and boost the local economy. The Freshwater Institute plans to continue supplementing these colorful and highly sought after fish to the State of Maryland and its anglers in 2020 and beyond. 

Brook trout in Pendleton County, W.V.

The brook trout is the only trout species native to West Virginia streams. And just like the state it thrives in, it’s quite a sight to behold. The trout has a dark green back with small markings, bluish sides and a pink belly. Its sides are covered in yellow and red dots and its fins are orange-red with a white strip on the front.

Unfortunately, West Virginia’s natural choice for a state fish is declining. Changes in land use, increasing water temperature and loss of streamside canopy and shade have caused populations to dwindle.

Our Role

Freshwater Institute staff noticed Rockymarsh Run, a local stream that flows next to their facility, has the correct water temperature and environmental conditions to support brook trout. However, the stream was empty of the native fish, suggesting other variables could be partly responsible for the decline of brook trout. A conversation with WV DNR biologists theorized that calcium precipitate could be having a negative effect on juvenile brook trout.

Calcium precipitate, also known as marl, is common to hardwater streams. However, calcium ions only remain in solution when water pH is low or slightly acidic. When hard water is aerated, the pH shifts upward and calcium precipitates out of solution, forming a powdery silt that could cover and potentially suffocate brook trout eggs and young fish.

An experiment was developed to test the hypothesis. Three very different water types that are common to Rockymarsh Run were created in the Freshwater Institute's new research facilities for use in the trial, including a raw springwater condition with low pH, a lightly aerated water with mid-range pH, and a continuously aerated treatment with high pH and obvious calcium precipitate. Brook trout eggs from Virginia's Paint Bank Fish Hatchery were obtained and stocked in replicate trays with fine gravel to simulate the substrate used in brook trout nests.

Juvenile brook trout survival was low across all treatments; however, not a single brook trout survived in the high pH and calcium precipitate condition. Calcium siltation covered the gravel and brook trout eggs in these containers.  

Why this project matters

While the results were not entirely conclusive, the findings supported the hypothesis that calcium or marl precipitate could be limiting brook trout survival in hardwater streams like Rockymarsh Run.

Additionally, Freshwater Institute staff continued to grow the remaining brook trout onsite. In mid-March, several hundred brook trout were picked up by WV DNR and reintroduced into the local Opequon Creek with hopes that they continue to grow and thrive. The stocking was carried out in partnership with Shepherd University's Ichthyology class as a hands-on learning experience for local college students.

This synergistic project between the WV DNR and The Conservation Fund's Freshwater Institute resulted in positive outcomes that are aiding brook trout reintroduction efforts and contributing to successful conservation in West Virginia.

Sodalis Nature Preserve. Photo by Steve Orr.
At the southern border of Hannibal, bat biologists from the Missouri Department of Conservation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that an extensive network of mines and caves, like those immortalized in Twain’s novels, provided essential hibernating habitat for an estimated 168,000 Indiana bats—approximately one-third of all the Indiana bats known to exist. No other bat hibernaculum of this size occurs anywhere else in the world. Prior to this discovery, experts presumed that all Indiana bats hibernated further south and in considerably smaller numbers, changing what we know about the species.

Our Role

With our extensive experience in infrastructure mitigation projects, we saw an opportunity to preserve this sensitive habitat, nearly triple the amount of recreational trails in the city and create environmental education opportunities—with absolutely no cost to the City of Hannibal.

The Conservation Fund, in partnership with the City of Hannibal, purchased 185 acres with funds from the Flanagan South Pipeline Mitigation fund provided by Enbridge Inc., which supports mitigation for impacts to endangered species and migratory birds resulting from the construction of the nearby pipeline.

The Sodalis Nature Preserve is now the second largest park in the City. Plans for the new nature preserve include nearly 6 miles of recreational trails and a mile long paved accessible hike/bike trail. It will also serve as a hands-on laboratory for students to observe and research bats.  Gates were installed over the mine entrances that allow bats to enter and exit the mine and keep people out.

The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation holds a conservation easement, ensuring the property—and the bats—will be protected forever, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will monitor and manage the bat populations on the property. 

Why This Project Matters

The conservation value of this property cannot be overstated. It had to be preserved, but its cost would have crippled the budget of a small city like Hannibal. The Conservation Fund’s knowledge of mitigation funds led to a solution that saved the City millions of dollars and created the potential for additional economic benefits through nature-based activities and recreation on the new preserve.

“It was an incredibly stressful project to work on, but it was top-notch fun. This is the kind of stuff we live for. What I hope is that I can bring my grandkids here one day and be able to stand at the entrance and look down the corridor and see the mines. And then sit here in the evening and watch the bats come out in tens of thousands.”

Clint Miller, Midwest Project Director, The Conservation Fund

Protecting Open Space for People and Nature: Sodalis Nature Preserve

Dedication Of Sodalis Nature Preserve in Hannibal, Missouri


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Fortunate enough to have an intact historical district and access to recreational amenities, Tracy City has begun a serious effort to become the gateway community to the region’s outdoor and cultural assets for travelers. Seeking to leverage their early successes to drive local economic development, a group of Tracy City representatives formed a team to attend The Conservation Fund’s Appalachian Gateway Community Regional Workshop, an offering of the Appalachian Gateway Community Initiative in partnership with the Appalachian Regional Commission and the National Endowment of the Arts that helps communities capitalize on their natural assets to develop comprehensive strategy to catalyze natural and cultural heritage tourism. 

The Tracy City team—representing the area’s Arts Council, South Cumberland State Park, Tracy City Council, and the Mountain Goat Trail Alliance—attended the workshop in Ringgold, Georgia, with other Appalachian gateway communities from Virginia, Georgia, West Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina. Through a mix of expert-led instructional sessions focused on building local asset-based economies, funding and building partnerships to implement projects, and tackling bigger efforts like transportation, wayfinding, marketing and dedicated facilitated team planning time, each team came out of the workshop with an action plan.

The Tracy City team’s plan focused on the revitalization and connection of two culturally significant landmarks: Railroad Avenue and Mountain Goat Trail (MGT). Railroad Avenue—home to a former roundhouse and depot facility that was once the regional economic engine of coal and coke production—would be transformed into a public park and trailhead. The plan also called for extending the MGT—a rails-to-trails style project—from the town of Monteagle into downtown Tracy City, connecting four municipalities in Franklin and Grundy Counties. Tracy City was to serve as a gateway for access to this new park and trailhead, to be known as Old Roundhouse Park, and their action plan gave them tangible steps to make it happen.  

TracyCity image
Tracy City Old Roundhouse Park model. The proposed Mountain Goat Trail is a 35-mile rails-to-trails project connecting communities from Cowan to Palmer. Credit: Hedstrom Design

Why This Project Matters

The vision for Old Roundhouse Park will provide an outlet for local residents and nearby communities to have a place to gather, provide a venue for the arts, and enhance downtown life for families as well as welcome visitors. The team planned for an aggressive timeline to complete the acquisition of the Old Roundhouse property, complete the Tracy City section of the Mountain Goat Trail, and create a master plan for the design of the park in a matter of seven months—and they did it!

The workshop gave team leaders tools to leverage partnerships with the stakeholders like the City of Tracy City, Discover Together Grundy—a county-wide effort to support family resiliency organization—the Tennessee Department of Transportation, and the Southeast Tennessee Development District to secure critical funding for their project. The city won a $604,000 Alternatives Transportation grant from the Tennessee Department of Transportation to pay for the trail completion. A seed grant from the workshop helped support the procurement of a consultant to develop a master plan for the park. The team and their partners will continue to raise funds for the construction of the park as the Mountain Goat Trail enters its final construction phase to link Tracy City and develop its newest gateway amenity, continuing their progress in celebrating their natural assets, while building community wealth.

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Photo credit: Sam Dean

Through training, technical assistance, workshops and events, CLN’s expertise has served more than 3,500 communities across the country and has distributed more than $3.6 million in grants and community services.

We’ve also developed national and regional programs like Balancing Nature and Commerce, which helps rural communities like Rockbridge County, Virginia, capitalize on the economic opportunities of their natural assets and their locations as gateways to our great American parks, forests and other public and private lands. Rockbridge leaders created an action plan that sustainably supports more than 100,000 acres of public land and builds an outdoor recreational economy, generating jobs and small businesses, as well as increasing visitor spending in local communities. Our Balancing Nature and Commerce programs were utilized in more than 150 communities in 2018 alone.

In 2018, we celebrated two decades of success at CLN – and it was a banner year. We served more than 350 communities, far surpassing our annual average of 179 communities, and we more than doubled the average number of grant recipients this year.

We’re proud to be the catalyst for such innovative conservation, and we’re excited to see what the next 20 years brings.

“Taking six folks with diverse backgrounds and community goals to a workshop hundreds of miles away seemed like risky business.  We were, however, inspired by workshop presenters as well as the other attending communities and from that adventure have been able to create partnerships and collaborations that are producing tangible results and excitement in our region.  I am forever grateful for the opportunity.”

                                                            - Jean Clark, Director of Tourism, Lexington & the Rockbridge Area Tourism