As of today, 596 precious and irreplaceable Illinois Nature Preserves are, in theory, “legally protected forever” by a powerful law. But neglect has caused widespread degradation. In the main office in Springfield, the three top positions are vacant. The "Director" position has been vacant for four years. See Endnote 1a (The Staff).
The system needs support, volunteers, funds, contractors, and more. Many agencies, starting with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, need to hire nature preserve and natural heritage staff and bump up their budgets. But it starts with support from “we the people.”
The Illinois Nature Preserves System is globally famous – the best, precious remnants of some of the temperate world’s most productive and diverse biodiversity. But the system is failing, or barely holding its own, in many cases.
Young Matt Evans (in photo below, third from left, beaming with youth and optimism) travelled around the state interviewing staff and volunteers about nature preserves. He got an earful. Many people said a Friends group was desperately needed.
|On October 24, 2019, these people met in Springfield. For who they were and what they said, check out Endnote 4. Great group! But don't expect us to do what's needed. We're mostly old. And spread too thin - like you. We'll all do what we can.|
|Ornate box turtle and bird's-foot violet at (unnamed) nature preserve. Many details of many nature preserves need to be secret for their own protection. Just we site volunteers and a few others know. |
Photo by Michael Jeffords and Susan Post
Many of us have long been Nature Preserves volunteers. But a system of 596 vulnerable preserves cannot be maintained without a strong staff. The current organizational chart shows three of the five main office positions as "Vacant." Much of the funding, creativity, and organization of the system depended on those demanding jobs. The nine field staff have responsibility for an average of 66 preserves apiece. That leaves not much time for fending off threats, collaborating with owners, finding and training volunteers, writing and improving management plans, and evaluating proposals at each preserve. The field staff is stretched recklessly thin, especially with diminished support from Springfield.
Endnote 1b. The Preserves
Site Reports on Nature Preserve Conditions
These reports and comments came from a wide variety of staff and volunteer conservationists. They are unverified. They are assembled here as a first draft toward a list of needs.
“Many of these sites have seen good efforts in recent years, but then most work was put on pause, due to funding or other constraints.”
“I'll forever be a fighter for nature preserves in our state.”
"All it takes is a few passionate people supporting each site … This is a time to be optimistic but also a time for action.”
REPORTS BY COUNTY
Boon County: Flora Prairie: “Gets care from Conservation District staff, but still suffers from a lot of sumac and other shrubs and invasives.”
Caroll County: Brookville Lutheran Cemetery Prairie. “Overrun with sumac.” “Majorly impacted by spray drift from adjacent agriculture.” “There are some quality spring flowers (Oxalis violacea comes to mind) but by late summer it is almost completely covered by sumac. If you go in the spring you might see that there is some hope, but by summer it looks like a complete loss.”
Champaign County: Tomlinson Pioneer Cemetery Prairie: Seems not to have been burned sufficiently often. Domes of dense hazel have shaded out the previously diverse vegetation over substantial areas.
Cook County: Morton Grove Prairie: Two large cottonwoods that shaded the prairie were cut back by the Park District in 1983. Since then, more cottonwoods have grown to shade the prairie and should be cut.
Cook County: Wolf Road Prairie: “Lost a lot of ground with the FPD moratorium and the difficulties of burning, etc, etc. Dr. Darrel Murray has documented the loss of Grade A prairie down to a small area. Not sure if it can be brought back but we should try.”
DuPage County: Belmont Prairie: Invasive Convallaria is blotting out some areas. Needs to be herbicided.
Fayette County: Ramsey Railroad Prairie: Conservative plants seem to be declining. “Needs stewardship.”
Ford County: Sibley Grove: Degraded mesic savanna “in desperate need of management.” A very rare community type.
Grundy County: Short Pioneer Cemetery Prairie: It appears not to have been burned recently. Also needs cutting to remove shade from invading woody plants that are degrading some areas.
Henry County: Mineral Marsh, while burning into the encroaching thickets is helpful (and ongoing), the brush comes back. This site would really benefit from herbicide and seeding.
Kane County: Ferson Creek Fen is being worked on by the St. Charles Park District staff and volunteers. It needs a lot of work, but they are working on it.
Kankakee County: Grant Creek: It has had some management in the last year or so, but it is still teetering. The main problems here are birdsfoot trefoil and autumn olive. They are coming in from the interstate (I-55) and from the Midewin side. Contract help is under way, but more is needed. Without it, one of our best nature preserves will quickly deteriorate.
Kankakee County: Iroquois Woods: It hasn't been burned in maybe 5 years. It is a beautiful sandy floodplain forest full of small mouth salamanders and buckeye trees. Because of the lack of burning and other management, honeysuckle is creeping in and the canopy is closing. Probably the best spring wildflower spot in the Kankakee area.
Kankakee County: Langham Island: This site deteriorated badly from eight or ten years without of burning and other management. A volunteer crew is hard at work to restore it. Langham Island is one of three parts of Kankakee River State Park Nature Preserve.
Kankakee County: Kankakee River State Park: Langham Island is one of 3 parts of this park that are Nature Preserves. The other 2 parts are not being receiving much management but deserve it. The southern portion has been burned a couple times in recent years and has a rich spring flora and steep slope down to the river. The northern portion is a black/white oak sand savanna with dunes not much different than Braidwood just to the west. A number of rare plants have been seen here in the past and may still be here. There is a small cluster of lupines and small openings where prickly pear is hanging on. All the ingredients exist here for something really special. The actual nature preserve portion of the woods has not been burned in recent years. Honeysuckle and general canopy closure are major problems.
Lake County: Illinois Beach: parts of the Nature Preserve and nearby undedicated natural areas are being lost to erosion, caused by blocking littoral sand flow. State and federal action is needed. Very high quality being lost. “Like seeing a dear friend in the last stage of hospice” says one steward.
Lake County: Middlefork Savanna: Invasives including reed canary grass, teasel, and white sweet clover are on the increase within and near the highest quality area. North of that remnant, restored grassland and wetland are massively infested by saltmarsh goldenrod. Is salt draining into the preserve from somewhere?
Lee County: Bartlet Woods had problems with dumping by large equipment (in 2018?).
Mercer County: Brownlee Pioneer Cemetery: This place needs fire. The sumac component is quickly expanding.
Rock Island County: Josua Lindahl Hill Prairie saw brush clearing and fire for a few to several years. The work stopped all together before the conservative plants could successfully re-establish and as a result oriental bittersweet has taken hold with a major population on the hill prairie and spreading into the adjacent woodland. Privately owned.
Rock Island County: At Black Hawk Forest, winds damaged and knocked down large oaks. It is unclear if sufficient recovery efforts are under way to prevent the expansion of the already dense clusters of winged-stem burning bush.
Stephenson County: Freeport Prairie: Half (of the best part) seems to get burned each year. The dry hillside prairie is in fine shape. There are some invasive shrubs, mostly in disturbed areas, and the buffer is very weedy.”
Whiteside County: Lyndon Prairie needs help with woody invasives toward the middle. Was very well managed by Tim Keller for many years.
Will County: Pilcher Park is one of the best quality forests in NE IL, just recently dedicated, owned by Joliet Park District. IL Audubon (and ICECF) helped in its protection. It’s in a heavily populated area. Lots of hand-cutting and pulling to do. The park district has all the equipment needed to support a volunteer group, but help would be great in finding leadership stewards. NAAF has just funded $20k for contractor work, and NP staff plans to start burning where needed, but they can’t do it all. This site needs local stewards and volunteer organizer.
|Photo by Michael Jeffords and Susan Post.|
Jill Allread – former chair, Illinois Nature Preserves Commission
Donnie Dann – former Chair, Illinois Nature Preserves Commission
Abigail Derby Lewis – Commissioner, Illinois Nature Preserves Commission
Harry Drucker – former Commissioner, Illinois Nature Preserves Commission
Ben Haberthur, Director of Natural Resources, Forest Preserve District of Kane County
Wendy Paulson – conservationist
Arthur Melville Pearson – George Fell biographer
Here's the promised info about the people in this photo and what they said:
From left to right: Jim Herkert (director, Illinois Audubon), Fran Harty (conservation director, Illinois Nature Conservancy, Matt Evans (Chicago Botanic Garden and volunteer steward), Steve Packard (volunteer steward) Karen Witter (former director, Illinois Nature Preserves), Virginia Scott (former IEC director), Randy Heidorn (former director, Illinois Nature Preserves), Brian Anderson (former director, Illinois Nature Preserves), Pen DauBach (Nature Preserves commissioner), Bill McClain (Nature Preserves commissioner).
“We have been reaching out to a sampling of INPC staff, DNR staff, Commissioners, and other volunteer and staff participants in the Illinois Nature Preserve System (INPS or ‘the System’). There emerged a strong consensus that a Friends group could provide valuable support to the System in both the short and long term.”
The INPS has been a world model, with many strengths. But it’s in trouble, at many levels. Many of us know that it has had no director for four years; its crucial independence has been diminished; and staff has been cut severely. But there needs to be more awareness that many preserves have deteriorated seriously and even irreversibly. Some prioritized sites are doing better than others, but many sites get little help. Why? Partly because staff is overextended. Also, there is little capacity for supplementary fundraising, recruiting and training volunteers, maintaining needed constituency, and working the system to solve problems and reverse losses.
Many preserves have deteriorated beyond full recovery. In many cases, the deterioration has been going on for ten or twenty years or more. Revis and Fults Hill Prairie monitoring by Bill McClain shows continuing losses for sites that deserve major restoration (Revis: more than 60% gone since the 1930s). The Old Plank Road Prairies, once called by some the “best in State” have lost all their Grade A areas to invasives. Another major preserve, Langham Island, is now a dramatic story of abandonment, then rescue – see https://woodsandprairie.blogspot.com/2019/10/degradation-and-redemption-at-langham.html .
The Illinois Nature Preserves System was designed to thrive as a partnership among INPC and DNR staff, other preserve owner agency staffs, and volunteerism of many types (commissioners, scientists, advocates, outside funders, volunteer stewards, citizen scientists, and more). To restore this collaborative System, there needs to be a reinvigoration of many components including advocacy (to promote funding and staff), outside funding, and volunteer stewards and monitors.
Fran cited the recent “big mess” where some within IDNR tried to further reduce the Commission’s independence by incorporating INPC staff into INDR – without even consulting the Commission. Thanks to advocacy from Commissioners and others, this move was halted. From time to time the System has benefitted from helpful “defensive players” that have stepped in to support the Ccommission, but we need a team on the offense – that would be supporting the Commission and the preserves.
Karen Witter pointed out that IL legislator Tim Butler has been assembling a legislative conservation working group that could help. Karen will find out more about this effort.
Jim Herkert reminded us that the staff-reduction issue goes way back in time. Regions are too large for one person to handle.
Steve warned against arguments about whether the System needs more staff or more volunteers. Many agencies have demonstrated that more volunteers and more constituency promote more staff and more funding. Friends can help organize this. Every part of the state has potential volunteerism. The Chicago area forest preserves added staff largely in proportion to how many volunteer stewards and advocates there were. Nachusa and Langham have vigorous volunteer communities despite being in agricultural areas well distant from cities. Both rural and urban people volunteer.
Fran: In every town in Illinois with 5,000 people there is a millionaire. They may dislike government, but they love where they live. Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves will need to adapt to regional differences, but it can be effective everywhere.
Karen discussed the value of having a good connection between Friends and IDNR, reaching out right away to the new administration. One important job for us is to clearly demonstrate to the current leadership that the independence/collaborative model of the INPS is helpful for them.
Most participants today advocated that the INPC director needs to report to the new Director of IDNR (Colleen Callahan). Some advocated for a report to John Rogner (assistant director, IDNR), for now.
People change, but organizations need to have continuity and consistency. The Commission having a strong relationship with IDNR leadership is a paramount concern.
There are sometimes needed actions that IDNR, as a government agency, cannot take; so it is good to have the Commission at arms-length to be able to do that thing. Yes, sometimes there will be conflicts, but the partnership has to be strong enough to work through it.
Someone needs to push hard on IDNR right now about director position, everyone agrees. Make our opinion known. There are important conversations going on at IDRN right now. It will not work for the Director to be a union position. It’s not at that level.
Brian: Private NP owners want to work with a Director who does not come across as a State bureaucrat. There are all kinds of ways to make this work, but the director needs to be an at-will employee of the commission.
The complexity of INPS will never be able to be represented on a simplified organization chart.
There is something that is different about this organization. If we have a good network, we will have people on the ground all around the state who are dedicated to the Illinois Nature Preserves System. And all those people have state reps. It used to be that the Commission had people who could talk to the Governor. We need that again. One job of the Friends would be to find and empower them.
Karen reminded us that former Governor Thomson supported the INPS impressively because there was a strong constituency that supported it.
Bill McClain said that this is an opportune time. People are interested charismatic issues such as pollinators, and we could work with these charismatic environmental issues.
Bill compared the nature preserves with Nachusa. There are three people on the payroll at Nachusa for 4,000 acres. The rest are seasonal interns and volunteers, and the place is beautiful. Volunteers manage land, donate money, and are bring the conservation message to their friends and neighbors. We could have examples like that all over the state
Virginia Scott: Is there any reason to believe that the Governor knows there is a nature preserve commission? How can we get on his radar?
We discussed a variety of people who seem to have the Governor’s ear: We should give them a clear package to present: “We just need to make the governor aware of A, B, and C. Here is the vision; this is why it would work.” We need the governor to hear it.
Fran: This group meeting today is important because among us we have the history. This group includes important influencers and advocates.
Virginia: Most people in the room at this meeting are veterans. We need to reach out to the missing generations.
Many people described “next generation” leaders “cued up for leadership” in the land trusts and among many volunteer groups. Many leaders are dedicated to sites but know little or nothing about the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission or the Illinois Nature Preserves System.
Fran on next steps: We would like to show we can raise some funds, then move to incorporate so we can have a well-funded organization, right off the bat. Pledges, people who put money into this idea. Then the day we incorporate, we hire someone to do the first steps, that makes it effective, and newsworthy. And, like Jim said, keep IDNR in the loop, tell them the plan of what we are going to do, that we have support, that we are going forward, that we want to have them as a partner, but we are going to be asking for things that we are working for.
Karen: We may need an “Ambassadors” group committed to this Friends vision, to act on questions that need immediate attention.
Bill: There is a sense of urgency with this for me. Many natural communities are on the brink of loss.
Karen: The draft Friends Proposal should convey that better. We’re talking about the survival of the state’s biodiversity. It should be more visionary.
Steve: We drafted it more that way originally, but many people worried that it would be perceived as negative and as criticizing the staff. But Karen’s right. We need to clearly convey the stakes and the urgency.
We may want a fiscal agent. Friends of the Forest Preserves in Chicago has offered to help with that. Jim will explore the possibility that Illinois Audubon could be a fiscal agent statewide.
Karen: It’s not our local fault that threats are growing in the age of climate change. We need to make the point that we need the people and the resources to deal with the future.
Fran: At this point we can count on a a sympathetic administration. We have a four-year window to become strong enough to deal with possible future Blagojeviches and Rauners. Do we here all agree that we need to get to work on this? All agreed.
Pen DauBach summarized administrative steps:
§ Finalize a name
§ Write a more complete mission statement and proposal
§ File for incorporation
§ Make memorandum agreement for umbrella C-3 status pending full independent C-3 status.
§ Set and start to meet goals.
Organizationally and politically, many of us can get to work spreading the word, reaching out to decision-makers and other organizations, and drafting more detailed goals and plans.
Or to contact us ...
Please go to the Friends website.
To donate to the Friends now ...
before we have our tax status ...
please donate through Illinois Audubon Society
(who have generously agreed to be our fiscal agent) ...
at the Audubon website. When you get to "Check Out" please write "In support of Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves." It will help this work get started. Thank you.