After 22 years, the local nonprofit environmental group Conserve Lake County is thinking bigger and will merge with Openlands, a well-known and deep-rooted regional organization.
The move has been about a year in the making and is effective Jan. 1. After an in-depth examination of its strategic plan, Conserve directors determined its impact could be strengthened by approaching the more extensive Chicago-based Openlands.
"This is something I wanted to explore for some time now and I wasn't the only one thinking that way," said Sarah Surroz, a veteran conservationist who joined Conserve in 2005 and was named its executive director a year ago.
She said the merger would improve the capacity, leverage and impact of the group's mission and initiatives by maximizing resources.
Openlands was established in 1963 and works to protect natural and open spaces in northeastern Illinois, northwestern Indiana and southeastern Wisconsin. It is among the country's oldest metropolitan conservation organizations.
"We feel nature is vital to all people and they should have it close to where they live," said Jerry Adelmann, Openlands president and CEO. "It's a priority landscape for us -- Lake County," he added.
Conserve is not in debt, has a balanced budget of about $500,000 and assets of $2.7 million, Surroz said. But Lake County deserves a "more robust, nonprofit land conservation partner" as it tackles new and long-standing issues, she added.
The organization was established as the Liberty Prairie Conservancy in 1995. It initially focused on protecting the 5,800-acre Liberty Prairie Reserve between Libertyville and Grayslake before extending its reach countywide.
"Lake County has the richest diversity of natural resources in the state of Illinois, so there's a lot of interest in these lands and waters," she said. Surroz' title with Openlands will be director of Lake County projects and a local office will be established.
Openlands has spawned offshoot organizations, such as Friends of the Chicago River and Alliance for the Great Lakes, but has not absorbed another group, according to Adelmann.
"We're excited," he said. "We share such common values and missions and goals. We have a long history in Lake County."
The new direction will be feted Dec. 7 at Conserve's annual meeting and holiday party at Independence Grove Forest Preserve. The gathering is complimentary for Conserve's 500 members and $75 for nonmembers. RSVP to ConserveLakeCounty.org.
The organizations know each other well and for years have partnered, collaborated or advocated for a variety of land protection projects. Those included the countywide open space referendum approved by voters in 2008 that raised $185 million for the Lake County Forest Preserve District to acquire and improve property.
Conserve also provides stewardship for conservation easements held by Openlands, such as Oak Openings, Liberty Prairie Reserve and the new Donnelley Prairies and Oaks Preserve.