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‘TLC’ for the Land

Property acquisition and conservation enable The Land Conservancy of McHenry County to protect our natural land for generations to come.

The outcry to save public land has not fallen on deaf ears at The Land Conservancy (TLC) of McHenry County. Programs have been established to work with private landowners, helping them leave a legacy of biodiversity for future generations.

TLC was set up in the late 1990s as a non-profit to accept conservation easements and preserve land.

The backbone of TLC is supported by environmental, philosophical and functioning green implications. According to Lisa Haderlein, executive director at TLC, “Landowners have the right to sell their land for development and they have the right to set their land aside and make sure it is never going to be developed. Setting it aside as an easement is binding and it is in perpetuity. It protects our land for every future generation.

“The Land Conservancy has a big responsibility to make sure that as property changes hands, the land stays in private ownership,” she continued. “We are the caretakers, the ones that will make sure that all future land owners are going to abide by the restrictions.”

Preservation Record

The county’s clean air and water and abundant natural beauty is due in no small part to TLC’s conservation efforts. To date, TLC has preserved about 1,700 acres of land. “We naturally have the woodlands with the grasses underneath and you see a lot of the people that have beautiful oaks in their yards,” Haderlein said. “This is what we need to preserve, as well. Even on 1-acre sites, you have to be very careful and stay back far enough from the trees to preserve the root systems. This is critical in areas of new development.”

When Haderlein started at her post seven years ago, there were only 150 acres in TLC’s preservation cache. “One of the founders, Bill Wingate, had this vision of McHenry County where every child would be able to walk to nature,” she said. “They wouldn’t have to get into a car and drive to a preserve, but there would be nature in every neighborhood. Today, there are city, regional and national movements like Chicago Wilderness’ Leave No Child Inside program. This also lends credence to the research that has been done on the benefits of open space for kids with Attention Deficit Disorder and obesity, as well as other diseases.

“I use that vision as a filter when we are creating new projects,” she continued. “The Land Conservancy promotes plans that fit with our legacy mission [such as] children planting oak trees. These types of programs fit because they support the notion of kids being outside, enjoying nature and appreciating and understanding our local landscape. The children become stakeholders and take ownership of the future of our county’s lands.”

TLC’s work doesn’t stop at conservation, however; it is an integral part of supporting community infrastructure. “There needs to be a balance or land needs to be treated in a different way,” Haderlein said. “That’s why we work with communities on projects where there are natural resources and development.”

One of TLC’s objectives is to work with communities to make sure realistic goals can be met. TLC works with developers and city managers early on in order to protect natural resources on the construction site. For example, the residential development Apple Creek Estates on the south side of Woodstock has a creek running through it, a network of open space and bike trails. “The kids in that neighborhood will grow up having nature in their backyards — 181 acres of open space woven in with where they are living,” Haderlein explained.

Shortly after its inception, TLC honed its focus and expertise. Working with other organizations and individuals in and around McHenry County — such as the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) — quickly became a priority.

For example, “I spent a lot of time understanding what the USACE does and how they work with wetland permitting,” she said. “If there are natural resources on the property that are going to have an impact on wetland resources then the USACE recommends that the respective town talk to TLC.”

Seeds of Success

With a successful past in mind, TLC is developing a strategic plan going forward. “TLC’s goals that were set in 2004 projected that by the end of 2008 we would have preserved 1,000 acres — we obviously surpassed that,” she adds. “[Now, we must] make sure that we are clear about where we are going. We need to have a bigger membership and more local support. Everything that we’ve accomplished so far has been working well from a land preservation standpoint.”

The organization’s most recent program addition has been Project Quercus. This program works to preserve and restore the oaks of McHenry County through education and awareness, ordinances, planting programs and community involvement.

In addition, TLC has recognized vulnerable natural areas — including high-quality wetlands, woodlands, farmlands and prairies — that are too small, fragmented or isolated for either the Conservation District or the state to buy. “These are target locations that we would like to preserve,” Haderlein said. “More focus needs to be on land use and water quality in relation to the local economy, health of the environment and our local agricultural land resources. Our goal is to have a program to help preserve agricultural land.

“The bottom line: This is a vanishing landscape and it needs to be safeguarded,” she stressed. “There are great old oaks still out there, but in many places, there aren’t many young ones.”

Community Involvement

TLC also manages some natural areas that it does not own. “We encourage volunteers to be stewards at sites … in conjunction with people from the community,” Haderlein said. “They are really making a difference at places like Rider’s Woods where they have cleared out garbage, buckthorn and other bad undergrowth. It’s now a community park.”

In Spring Grove, TLC is working with storyteller Jim May to put together a series of local tours that focus on different natural aspects of the community. Scheduled for this summer, these events will illustrate where the town’s name came from and where those natural assets are — even though they may be in some hidden places.

Families can also support nature in their own backyard. After a young Cary resident recently died, leaving behind four children, one of his friends contacted TLC to help put together a program for people to donate oak trees planted in his memory. “We worked closely with the Cary Park District at Main Street Prairie Nature Preserve where there is an oak savanna,” Haderlein said.

Ways to get involved in supporting the county’s landscape is unlimited, from hands-on projects like helping to burn a natural area to data-collecting projects and monitoring an oak woodland.

“There is a family who owns 80 acres, with 25 of them surrounded by the Marengo Ridge conservation area,” Haderlein commented. “The family sold 25 acres to the McHenry County Conservation District and also procured a conservation easement with The Land Conservancy. The property is just magical with a great history of its own. [For their efforts], the owners were named Tree Farmers of the Year by the State Forestry Association.”

Thirsty for Preservation

The Land Conservancy works closely with local government officials to reach mutually beneficial goals. TLC recently began working with State Rep. Michael Tryon (R-Crystal Lake) on legislation related to ground water and conservation easements, which outlines the conservation values that would qualify a property for recognition as a conservation easement property.

Since McHenry County’s water is sourced from the ground, Haderlein believes that the community recognizes land preservation as essential for clean drinking water. She reasons that preserving land “allows water to percolate down through the natural soil profile and into the aquifers where drinking water comes from,” which makes it an important conservation value.

“You can’t see it, but we need to have that land preserved,” Haderlein said.

In the case of private property, land conservation comes down to individuals taking the right steps to protect their land. “Each of us can take measures to ensure that our land will never be developed,” Haderlein said. “They need to own the land, use the land, live on it and enjoy it, but then they can make sure that when it does move out of their hands — if the dollar return is not the primary reason for selling the land — that the land is preserved for the legacy of our children and as an integral part of the fabric of our community.”

The Land Conservancy of McHenry County is located at 4506 Dean St. in Woodstock. For more information, call 815.337.9502 or visit www.conservemc.org.

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