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Q&A with Mary Vandevord, president and CEO, HeartLands Conservancy

    IBJ: For years, HeartLands has played a quiet, behind-the-scenes role in community planning, but we’ve noticed lately that it’s been more publicly active. Are we right? What’s behind that?
p06 Vandevord    Vandevord: HeartLands as an organization has been around for 30 years but we’ve kind of evolved. In the past we were part of a federal program. So, we were behind the scenes in that way, providing support through GIS mapping. But since then, as we’ve broken away from the federal program and are an independent entity now, we’ve started taking a lead role in trying to work on community planning as a core part of our mission. Although we are a conservancy nonprofit primarily, we know the best way to really influence conservation is to address it is at the policy level with communities and counties.
    IBJ: Being more proactive, it sounds like?
    Vandevord: Yes, absolutely.
    IBJ: So, what are your strategic priorities?
    Vandevord: Well, as an organization, we are still true to our mission of conservation of natural areas in this region. We focus a lot on land and water conservation. For instance, we protected almost 9,000 acres of open space in Southwestern Illinois to date. We continue to do that and have a lot of things in the works that way. But we also have a priority of helping communities be more resilient and addressing some of their local environmental and conservation issues, like storm water management issues and smart growth issues and how they can develop parks in a more sustainable way.
    IBJ: How much does economic development enter into what your goals are?
    Vandevord: Economic development is a very important aspect of community planning. As we work on comprehensive plans, for example, that is one of the bedrock pieces of every comprehensive plan. Sometimes we’ll work with partners on economic development strategies. Our primary goal is to take a holistic look at a community, which includes all these other things, like land use. Are we using our infrastructure in the most efficient way for the community so as it grows it’s considering future generations that are going to live there? Is it going to be an extra burden to them? We also like to integrate the natural system of a community, which can help save costs, too. It is also builds a better quality of life. If we protect a stream corridor, for example, it could reduce flooding, but it could also be a natural asset with walking trails. That’s an economic strategy because it helps property values and makes a community more attractive.

    IBJ: A lot of people think of conservationists as anti-commercial, but that’s not what you are at all, is it?
    Vandevord: No, it’s not. We want to encourage growth in this region; it’s part of what makes this region great. We all work here, too, so we want to see the region thrive, but enhancing the natural assets when we can. There’s appropriate commercial development and appropriate conservation.
    IBJ: How much do partnerships play in your planning?
    Vandevord: Oh, gosh, they are incredibly important. We partner with lots of different organizations. Sometimes, we’ll partner with other nonprofits, sometimes we’ll work with engineering firms, in particular, because we don’t have engineering expertise on our staff. As a nonprofit, we’re always collaborating with someone.
    IBJ: How much do contributions play a role in your existence?
    Vandevord: Besides just our community planning operations, we have other things that we do, including an education component and land conservation, so we do rely on private contributions for a lot of that work. Probably, a little more than a third of our total operating budget. Our organization is very broad and not the easiest thing to talk about to the general public. As a nonprofit, it makes it a challenge to raise funds. It takes a long time for people to see the benefits of what we’ve done.
    IBJ: What is the annual budget?
    Vandevord: We’re about a $2.6 million budget.
    IBJ: What kind of staffing do you have?
    Vandevord: We have eight staff. Some of them are part time. We have five full-time staff and three of them are totally dedicated to working on community planning projects and conservation projects, restoring wetlands, managing prairie, that sort of thing.
    IBJ: What is the territory for HeartLands?
    Vandevord: Traditionally, we cover seven counties considered Southwestern Illinois. That is, Madison, St. Clair, Monroe, Randolph, Bond, Clinton and Washington. But we also stretch out farther, where our services are needed in Southern Illinois. We serve greater Southern Illinois down to the Ohio River along the Mississippi.
    IBJ: I would think that smaller communities would see you as a colleague because they don’t have the expertise on their own staffs.
    Vandevord: Yeah, we do work with a lot of smaller communities. For example, we’re working with the city of Murphysboro, helping with their new comprehensive plan that they haven’t had in decades. We think they like the aspect of working with a nonprofit and we’re able to help them in a cost-effective manner, based on our low overhead.
    IBJ: You’re doing the same with Shiloh, aren’t you?
    Vandevord: We are, yes. We’ve been working with them for the past year, had some public meetings and now we’re pulling together a draft plan.
    IBJ: What led you to where you’re at personally?
    Vandevord: I started with HeartLands back in 2014. I came in as a community planner. Before that I was in the Phoenix metro area, working as a planner for the city of Scottsdale. I was out there for about eight years.
    I came here because I’m originally from here, my family is from Madison County. I’m from Dorsey and went to Edwardsville High School (Class of 2001).
    I found HeartLands because of the community planning work that they did and their conservation ethic, which was a passion of mine. I got the job here, and then our executive director transitioned out in 2016. I became the CEO in October of 2016.
    IBJ: What sort of things are in the near future for HeartLands?
    Vandevord: HeartLands just adopted a new strategic plan this last year. We’re increasing our emphasis on our education and engagement portion of what we do. Our board of directors realizes that to really make an impact with our mission of conservation and resiliency that we have to be out there, letting people know why this is so important and how they can get involved and help. So, we’ve been ramping up our educational events. Take people out on hikes to see the different resources we have in this area. Different science programs.
    We also kicked off, last year, a new urban forestry program. We got a federal grant for that. We’ll be working with communities in Madison and St. Clair counties to address some urban tree canopy issues. A lot of communities have lost tree cover over the last several decades. We’re going to be working with them on a strategy to fix that. It’s important for air quality, storm water control, overall quality of life and property values.
    IBJ: You mention the educational component. Do people seem more willing to be educated when it comes to greenspace? It strikes me as something that the current generation has a grasp on.
    Vandevord: The younger generation has a really good understanding of the importance of the environment. But I think all generations (understand) different aspects of it. They think about it in different ways and engage in different ways. A lot of the boomer generation, for instance, we have a lot of master naturalists and Master Gardeners who are very interested in making sure our natural areas are well cared for. They do a fantastic job as volunteers in this region. The millennials want to do something fun to get engaged with nature. This coming year we’re doing what we’re calling the “Frog Frolic,” which is a celebration of amphibians at a wetland. We’re trying to attract families and hit conservation from all different angles.
    IBJ: Volunteers play a role in all this, don’t they?
    Vandevord: Absolutely. Volunteers are so, so important. I’ve met so many fantastic people since I started as the ED of this organization. Without them we wouldn’t be able to do half the work we do.

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