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Illinois Department of Natural Resources
May 2022
May 2, 2022
Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

Students Leading a Movement to Conserve Lands

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By Kathy Andrews Wright

Across the world, natural areas are rapidly disappearing. In Illinois and elsewhere, rapid land development has led to the loss of vast acres of lands and waters. The resultant decline has impacted our economy, quality of life and environment. 

In 2021, the America the Beautiful Executive Order declared “conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030” a national goal. 

At Pontiac Township High School (PTHS), students in Paul Ritter’s environmental earth science class were intrigued by the international movement 30 by 30 and its goals to ensure that they, and future generations, can benefit from natural areas through outdoor recreation, employment in natural resource-related industries and experiencing a flourishing natural environment. 

Three young women sit together on gray concrete steps. Behind them is a path with bushes on either side.
Pontiac Township High School students (left to right) Olivia Schickel, Emma O’Lone and Ava Nollen. Photo by Kathy Andrews Wright.

In authoring a Student Call to Action, PTHS students Olivia Schickel, Ava Nollen, Emma O’Lone and Emilie Collins wrote: “At this very moment, we are knee-deep in the sixth mass extinction, and the only one in Earth’s history to be caused by humans. About 150 species go extinct every day, nearly 1,000 times the rate it would be had humans not invaded every stretch of our planet. With only 4 percent of our state’s land and water conserved, 483 Illinois species are now threatened or endangered, and we have a long way to go to fix where we are today. However, with humans creating this issue, humans have the power to reverse it.”

Following conversations with the Campaign for Nature, several law- and policy-makers, the Illinois Environmental Council and Illinois Department of Natural Resources, PTHS students submitted a proposal to the Illinois General Assembly. In 2021, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Illinois Thirty-by-Thirty Conservation Task Force Act, which Governor Pritzker signed into law on August 27, 2021. 

The Task Force Act called for the establishment of a bold goal for protecting a portion of the state’s lands and waters by 2030. Also contained within the Act was a call for the creation of a Task Force to support the development of this goal. Over the past few months, this Task Force conducted four remote listening sessions. The first listening session provided an overview of the 30 by 30 initiative, with subsequent sessions focused on agriculture, cities and towns, and natural lands and waters. In each session, participants discussed and heard testimony on strategies to conserve and protect 30 percent of Illinois’ lands and waters; resources available to the State and how they are being utilized to protect land and water resources; tools and resources for landowners and private industry to manage resources responsibly and restore natural areas; private, public, and philanthropic funding for expanding protection and helping to manage protected lands; and, the ability of the State to manage more public lands for future generations

A wetland with large trees growing out the the water.
Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

The Task Force is composed of 24 members, including four high school students sitting at the table with representatives of five state agencies, four state legislators and 15 experts in the fields of the environment, economics, and recreational aspects of conservation. Members of the team were appointed by the Director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Serving as one student representative on the Task Force, Ava Nollen noted “I enjoyed the experience of developing the 30 by 30 process during the school year and participating in the Task Force has made my senior year a richer experience.” Nollen will be attending the University of Iowa in the fall, double majoring in Ancient Civilizations and Asian Languages and Literature with plans for a career as a Museum Curator.

“This project was an unexpected experience for we high school students,” said Emma O’Lone, a second student representative on the Task Force. “I enjoyed listening to the variety of voices emerging through the Task Force—students, the general public, leaders of agricultural and conservation organizations and members of the Illinois General Assembly.” Following graduation, O’Lone plans to major in Art Education at Illinois State University.

Along with follow senior Olivia Shickel, O’Lone and Nollen will remain involved with the 30 by 30 process beyond their May high school graduation as the Task Force is required to present a report to the Governor and General Assembly in July.

An orange, black, and white butterfly nectars on a purple flower. To the right of the image is text indicating a quote by John Rogner, Chair of the 30 by 30 Conservation Task Force and Illinois Department of Natural Resources Assistant Director.
Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

“We are finalizing the review of data collected throughout the year and are debriefing the listening sessions,” explained Shickel, a senior who will attend Illinois State University to major in English Education and minor in Art History. “The report will include recommendations we heard on how the goals of 30 by 30 could be achieved, such as identifying lands no longer profitable for the current use, as well as conservation easements.

Just as Shickel, O’Lone and Nollen took over the reins from their predecessors Emilie Collins, Kegan Hall and Emilee Bencivenga, this trio of graduating seniors will pass the torch before fall when they head off to college.

“I was approached by a junior who had listened to the interviews we conducted,” explained Nollen. “He wanted to know how he could get involved, and we are confident that other students are preparing to follow in our footsteps.”

Despite graduation, their future physical distances from Pontiac Township High School and the commitments they will face in the coming years, this author is confident that these three young women will carry a passion and dedication for protecting the natural lands and waters of Illinois throughout their lives.

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Kathy Andrews Wright is retired from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources where she was editor of Outdoor Illinois magazine. She is currently the editor of Outdoor Illinois Wildlife Journal and Illinois Audubon magazine.

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