Comments by Dr. Dennis Nyberg, professor and natural areas researcher, University of Illinois Chicago, retired, and perhaps equally importantly, for decades the steward of Cranberry Slough Nature Preserve, and for 15 years steward of UIC's prairie in Glenview, IL.
These good thoughts are a response to a recent post on the degradation of Morton Grove Nature Preserve.
Ownership: Nature Preserves in Illinois have a diverse array of owners including the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, County Forest Preserves, School Districts and other government agencies, Universities, Land Trusts, private individuals, etc. It is important for the Nature Preserves Commission staff to work with each owner to assure ongoing understanding of the importance of management and to assist the agency in accomplishing it.
Needs: There are many who still think land acquisition is as important as it once was. Acquisition is rarely a top priority now. Restoration and management are crucial.
Management needs are complex and diverse, but just repeated fire (simple management) would do a lot for most preserves. Superficial monitoring is a minor need. Most people trained as botanists seem to be most interested in rarity. The people I know who have been the most effective conservationists tend not to be trained botanists, but they have an affection for nature, and they learn.
Many botanists are observers (tourists). They focus on keeping records. Such people do not typically know about how to manage populations. So I don’t see more inventories and monitoring as the best way to spend money. (The original Illinois Natural Areas Inventory focused best on prairies. It did not do a good job of identifying natural oak woodlands.)
When Bill Glass was responsible for Iroquois County State Wildlife Area, it got burned regularly, and I thought it was the best natural area in IL, now other sites are where I take students. Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve is another site that’s suffered from lack of needed fire.
NICHES Land Trust has done at least two things I think are wise. First, they no longer accept a donation of land without a contribution to their Stewardship Fund which provides money to manage the donated land. Second, they get volunteer help, including but not exclusively vegetation management, in exchange for white-tailed deer hunting privileges (accomplishing 2 goals at once). The focus of Nature Preserves ought to be on preserving the species of the area rather than forbidding leaving trails, collecting small plant parts for personal use, fishing etc. We need more people out enjoying and using nature. That is how they come to love it.
Trees grow. In 1900 trees were harvested for many purposes. Preventing further harvest on conservation land was important at that time. Now there are bigger trees with shade and water usage that prevent the understory and its insects from flourishing. Conservation people need to support removal of large trees when fire hasn’t been sufficient to keep the canopy open enough for most original plant and animal species.
I believe there needs to be more emphasis on the species that a nature preserve is protecting. Priority species have to have a population (greater than a dozen individuals) with recruitment (or potential for recruitment) and have a greater population at that preserve than other preserves. Populations can be measured concretely; communities cannot. I have maintained an interest in Cranberry Slough nature preserve though I no longer have an official role. I have a list of 17 plants species that CSNP plays a special role in maintaining regionally, i.e. have populations at Cranberry that are bigger than other regional sites that I have visited. If each preserve had a list of such species, it would direct attention to management and provide a measure of management success.
Tomlinson Nature Preserve (Champaign Co FP) does have too many hazel, and they are suppressing herbaceous vegetation. The only special species at Tomlinson (I only visited twice in last couple years) is another woody, Celastrus scandens, the native bittersweet which I heard is being considered for state listing. I am guessing the bittersweet preservation will make hazel reduction more difficult. There were only a few hazel plants at Cranberry and prescribed burning killed all, but when I visited Cedar Creek (in MN) the plot that had been burnt most frequently, 17 times in 30 years, had an understory dominated by hazel. Not easy to make generalizations in vegetation management.
When I was in 8th grade the garden club of Northbrook sent me to Springfield for conservation training by IDNR. That training promoted the use of multiflora rose (in hedgerows to promote pheasant populations). I am aware that the Soil Conservation Service brought in and promoted use of kudzu and other invasive species. There was little interest in managing natural areas at that time. Today there is an interest in managing conservation lands to preserve native species. Almost all work involves the use of herbicides. I have seen good and bad results from herbicide use. I have an affection for the ways of non-economic people (e.g. indigenous) and consider the economy as the main source of loss of native plants. I believe in 50 years some of the current use of herbicide by conservation agencies will be looked on as we currently look at multiflora rose.
At Rocky Glen in Peoria there is savanna on the steep ridges. Rocky Glen impressed me as a once nice site that is dying. Many native species are hanging on (the species list would look impressive), but very few desirable natives are producing seed. Some individual plants can live 100 years, but if they are not producing seed that successfully recruits young individuals the species will disappear. I was encouraged to give my opinions to the manager, but I did not as I concluded he would not be responsive to unsolicited advice,
Good luck persuading people to pay attention to nature and making sure it persists into the future. The fact that the state of Illinois is no longer in financial straits offers hope.
Dennis W Nyberg
31 Oct 2023