Lisa Haderlein remembers when the Land Conservancy of McHenry County was struggling to keep pace with the rapid, steadfast development of the early 2000s that transformed the county into suburbia.
But the economic downturn and housing bubble burst of the late 2000s granted Haderlein and the local conservation group a breather. As development halted, the Land Conservancy refocused its attention on how to preserve the numerous open spaces – including farmland, wetlands, woodlands and prairies – vital to the ecosystem and quality of life in the county, rather than pockmark their conservation efforts.
“With the recession, things have slowed. It’s nice not to have that pressure where you are always reacting to the next mega development being proposed,” Haderlein said. “We can sit back and look at the landscape and speak to the value the land has.”
Haderlein, the executive director of the Land Conservancy, and others in agencies such as the McHenry County Conservation District and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, exist to preserve and acquire open spaces throughout the county.
Across the country, almost 6,000 acres of open space a day are being lost to developers looking to convert parcels into a subdivision or business park, the U.S. Agriculture Department estimates.
But in McHenry County, the recession dampened the feverish pace of development, Haderlein said. The reprieve has allowed the Land Conservancy to preserve nearly 700 acres of creeks, farmland and woodlands throughout the county since the recession hit.
The nonprofit often works with private landowners and local governments to negotiate land donations. The effort has allowed the group to perserve roughly 2,000 total acres of open space that is needed to ensure groundwater aquifers recharge and farm soils replenish for production.
“We all breathe air. We all drink water. We need food to live. Open space and underdeveloped land provides those things,” Haderlein said. “I don’t care if there is a $2 million mansion being developed. If there is not water to flush the toilet, it’s worth nothing.”
The MCCD has the greatest authority to acquire and protect land in the county. The agency used two successful referendums in 2001 and 2007 to preserve open space and watersheds, improve recreational areas and restore wildlife habitats.
All told, the district manages more than 25,000 acres of open space scattered throughout the county, including areas such as Coral Woods in Marengo, Glacial Park in Ringwood and Pleasant Valley in Woodstock.
The McHenry-Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District doesn’t actively acquire open spaces, but it provides the conservation district with constant input, said District Manager Ed Weskerna.
The group has stressed the importance of protecting the county’s prime farmland, which makes up 60 percent of the county landscape, primarily located in less developed areas to the north and west.
“We are not trying to promote development, and we are not trying to promote all land preservation,” Weskerna said. “We are just trying to steer development away from the prime farmland in the county.”
MCCD and the Land Conservancy have said they will protect the declining oak tree population that once represented a large portion of the county’s natural habitat.
The county’s 2030 plan even carves out a goal to preserve 15 percent of the county’s open space through land acquisition and other preservation tools such as private land donations.
“Open space is essential to our neighborhoods to provide relief from suburban stressors like traffic congestion, blacktop roads and a horizon of only rooftops,” said Elizabeth Kessler, executive director of MCCD.