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Environmental Defenders mark 50 years of lasting change in McHenry County

Curbside recycling. The McHenry County Conservation District. The Land Conservancy of McHenry County.

These and many more environmental causes and groups all began with the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County.

“We’re kind of the mama of environmental groups, I would say,” said Cynthia Kanner, who became executive director of the Defenders about two years ago.

Like all involved with the organization – which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year – she began as a volunteer passionate about environmental issues. 

Hundreds upon hundreds of volunteers have played roles in five decades’ worth of the lasting change the Defenders have brought to McHenry County.

The group will host a 50th anniversary dinner from 4 to 7:15 p.m. March 8 at the McHenry Country Club, 820 N. John St., McHenry. For information, visit www.mcdef.org or call 915-338-0393.

Called the McHenry County Defenders upon its creation in 1970, the nonprofit clarified its name about eight years ago by adding in the word “environmental.” The Defenders grew out of efforts during the 1960s to stop what was known as the Fox Valley Freeway. Community groups merged to form one group working together to fight for environmental issues.

The list of the organization’s accomplishments throughout the years includes everything from saving parks and crafting ordinances to awarding scholarships and advocating for renewable energy, as well as stopping freeways, power plants and landfills. 

“Because we take care of the entirety of the environment, we’re everywhere,” Kanner said. “We’re land. We’re water. We’re air. We’re sustainable energy, and, of course, we’re educating people all the time about why that’s important.”

A 50th anniversary goal is to grow the organization’s official membership from about 630 to 1,000 households. 

With membership support, the Defenders have helped save Allerton Park near Decatur and Ryder’s Woods in Woodstock; protected the Volo and Wilson bogs, as well as Middlefork River near Danville; banned phosphates in detergents; created a Crystal Lake watershed protection ordinance; passed the Illinois Groundwater Protection Act and Solid Waste Management Act; regulated gravel mining; prevented landfills on permeable soils; and aided in the adoption of the McHenry County Stormwater Ordinance.

Most recently, the organization helped bring about an ordinance requiring the planting of native plants with pollinators on community solar farms. The group also was behind a 2019 Woodstock ordinance requiring all major retailers to charge a 10-cent plastic bag fee.

Efforts are underway to create electric vehicle charging stations near the Woodstock Square, increase partnerships with schools, encourage curbside pickup of restaurant food waste and much more, Kanner said. 

“It’s really born out of grassroots, about people seeing a need, fighting for the environment, making a difference, and that’s what we continue to do today,” said Kanner, who first volunteered with the group in 2001. “We’re just building on the fantastic organization that it already was.”

For years, Kanner helped organize the group’s annual It’s Our River Day in Algonquin, a day of cleanup along the river. She then authored and created the organization’s newsletter for about 10 years before becoming executive director. 

“I just feel like it definitely brings purpose to my life to help make this a better place, not just for future generations of humans, but for all species,” she said. 

Kanner also helped out (and still does) at the Defenders’ two used bookstores – The Green Spot in Woodstock and The Green Read in Crystal Lake. Proceeds from both businesses, which are mainly staffed by volunteers, help support the organization.

The passion and commitment of the volunteers – “all pieces of the puzzle” – keep the group alive, Kanner said. 

Volunteers since the group’s beginning, Bill and Alice Howenstine of rural McHenry, who own Pioneer Tree Farm, still are at it. Among the many ways they’ve been involved, they’ve promoted the use of solar energy in homes as they’ve incorporated it into their own farm. 

The group has set an example for other environmental groups outside the county, Alice Howenstine said.

“If we aren’t doing something ourselves, we aren’t helping as much as we should,” she said.

Both earned graduate degrees related to environmental issues, and the couple said the need to support the organization and the environment is ingrained in them. 

“I think the Defenders have done tremendous work in the county in five decades,” Bill Howenstine said. It’s an amazing organization, and one of the greatest needs now is to work on global climate change.”

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