Michael Howard, Deputy Director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, delivered the keynote address at the 11th Prairie Lands Environmental Summit on the campus of Western Illinois University in Macomb.
"We have to be so much more aware of our surroundings because what's happening is we're losing the purity, the cleanliness, of the earth," Howard said in an interview with Tri States Public Radio.
Howard knows first-hand what it's like to live in an environmental wasteland. In the 1990s, he and his wife moved from one of Chicago's middle class neighborhoods to Fuller Park, a poor area on the city's South Side. The couple started the Fuller Park Community Development Corporation which began as a series of social welfare programs. But soon, the Howards realized that "cleaning up" the neighborhood was going to take actual cleaning.
For 35 years, companies used an empty field in the neighborhood to dump their trash.
"You know, word would get around where you could go and illegally dump at two or three in the morning," Howard said.
Mounds of construction debris, rusty cars, and even the discarded steel beams that held up Chicago's train system were discarded. The pile rose more than two stories high.
But the neighborhood's biggest mess was the ancient lead pipes that made up its water system.
"The community had been in a state of lead poisoning for many, many, many years," Howard said. "As the system aged, it would leach more and more lead every year."
It took time, but eventually the city replaced the lead pipes and agreed to provide three years of free medical care to resident children under 16 years old.
"Once the children got the medical care that they needed from a licensed doctor, the lead levels [in their blood] dropped dramatically, and if you look at the reading and math scores in our local schools, they actually started improving," Howard said.
The illegal dumping ground in Fuller Park has been transformed as well. For the past 16 years, Howard has worked to turn it into a wildlife oasis called Eden Place Nature Center.
Instead of trash, he said, "Today you're going to find a wetland, you're gonna find a prairie … a wide range of wildlife, from coyotes to ring neck pheasants to white tailed deer."
Howard said he uses the lessons he learned in Fuller Park to do his job now with IDNR. For example, when people are apathetic towards habitat destruction, Howard gets right to the point about how connected they are to nature.
"I say to them, 'Did you know if businesses logged all of the trees they want to log for the sake of a dollar today, that you won't have any air to breathe tomorrow? Then where you gonna be?'"