Volunteers collected seed at Shaw Prairie in Lake Forest during the third annual “Shaw Prairie Day” that was organized by the Shaw Prairie Stewards community. Photo by Patrick Williams, Bold Bison.

November 1, 2023

How Will We Celebrate a 100th Anniversary?

A group of people pull invasive plants at the beach at Illinois Beach Nature Preserve. To the right is Lake Michigan and to the left is a grassy area with a few trees.
Volunteers from the newly formed Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves supported the Illinois Dunesland Restoration Project by pulling invasive sweet clover at Illinois Beach Nature Preserve. Photo by Stephen Packard.

After celebrating the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the much-copied Illinois Nature Preserve System in 2023 a question arises: What will Illinois nature look like in 40 years when we celebrate the 100th anniversary?

A Vision for 2063

What if – in 2063 – Illinois biodiversity is so highly appreciated that it’s hard to believe there was ever any question about the need to protect such important places? What if by then it is ludicrous to think that nature would ever have needed more than the millions of people who are caring for these wild and natural spaces?

If there is a place that can lead in making such a vision a reality it is Illinois – this Prairie State that led the nation, and to some extent the world, in creating an ambitious and collaborative model for protection. We can lead again.

True Power in Protecting Nature

The farsighted Illinois Nature Preserve system is powerful because of two features put in place 60 years ago: legal dedication and multi-level partnerships. No single force could have done it alone.

Illinois Nature Preserves are owned by dozens of agencies and individuals. They are protected in perpetuity, first because of landowners’ decisions to dedicate these lands forever for the public benefit and second by community support. As founder George Fell believed, it was essential to foster a grass-roots organization “that would have the size and strength to take its rightful place” in the broader culture.

Initially the collaboration was merely envisioned. Step one was the creation of a Nature Preserves Commission made up of independent and effective volunteer commissioners, beholden to no one. It became reality on the ground when landowners chose to collaborate with the state and each other. Owners in this collaborative network include statewide and local public agencies, nonprofit organizations and private citizen landowners. But the collaborative spirit extends not just to the initial dedication of the land but to its ongoing stewardship and care. Dozens more organizations and thousands more individuals are a part of the collaborative web that increasingly makes Illinois’ nature preserves secure. Our fundamental strength is in this nature preserve community. And it needs to grow bigger.

We’ve had our ups and downs. Let’s face it, the mood was different at the 50th anniversary. Ten years ago, new commissioners were not being appointed, budgets were being cut, and staff positions were going unfilled. Ominously, these losses occurred discouragingly at the same time as invasive species infiltrated and the biodiversity of many of our highest quality “preserves” suffered. Conservation voices were not being heard. A hard truth was dawning. Threats to nature from invasives, climate chaos and other changes meant that biodiversity would require a lot more stewardship than the Nature Preserves System’s founders ever imagined.

It took a while. But many people recognized the need to go back to fundamentals and rebuild crucial public support. Thanks to an upsurge of effective constituency, a new administration in Springfield, and revitalized staffing, we are at a point where Illinois biodiversity conservation is ready to lead again. Of the People – By the People – and For Nature. This broader community of government, advocates, nonprofits, paid staff and expert volunteers increasingly work together – as they must – once again to set a global example.

The Dual Crisis – A Singular Solution

We are in the midst of a world-wide biodiversity crisis. While nature forms the web of life that we depend on for food, water, medicine, a stable climate, economic growth and more, it is in critical danger. Large parts of the planet’s natural communities, species and genetic richness are threatened with extinction. Conserving and restoring natural areas and the biodiversity they contain is essential. Is there a needed force that is largely untapped?

Three individuals wear fire retardant gear while conducting a prescribed burn on a road-side prairie. In the background is a blue sky filled with fluffy clouds.
Volunteers at the Old Plank Road Prairies conducted a prescribed fire in partnership with staff from The Nature Conservancy at this black soil prairie remnant in southern Cook County. Photo by Eriko Kojima.

In May of this year the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation and lack of connection in our country. Disconnection fundamentally affects our mental, physical and societal health. Lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking daily! The Surgeon General’s advisory lays out a strategy to deal with this crisis that includes social infrastructure and cultivating a culture of connection.

Vigorous and empowered volunteer communities have made life-and-death differences to many preserves in Illinois. They have great potential to do more, both because the ecological need is increasingly recognized, and because the human communities benefit so much as well. As volunteers remove invasive species that crowd out diverse plants and animals, they work together with neighbors and landowners to save nature, share knowledge, eat snacks, and plan and collaborate. In short, they create a culture of connection.

To achieve our vision – where people 40 years from now marvel to think that our culture once might have let biodiversity just go away – we need more people connected to nature and to one another in community.

How Do We Get There?

Illinois is poised to lead again in conservation. This is a time of growing awareness, growing local land trusts and other conservation organizations, and volunteer stewardship communities all focused on caring for Illinois’ best nature. Yet we need more of them and more collaboration among broader communities of people who are engaged in various ways: amateur botanists, birders, butterfly conservationists, natural gardeners, many types of citizen scientists, and “outdoors-people” of all kinds. The number, power and sophistication of these nature loving communities of needs to grow exponentially.

A mother and son remove invasive exotic plants at a nature preserve. In the background is a grassy area with shrubs.
Amy Doll, Executive Director of the Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves, and her son Foster worked at a volunteer kickoff workday at Volo Bog State Natural Area. Photo by Janet McBride.

I see evidence that we are poised to do just that. The dual crisis of vanishing biodiversity and the loss of human community are a wake-up call that many of us are heeding. We are looking for places to spend time with other people, and we are looking for ways to save the planet.

For a new volunteer to become a deeply involved and knowledgeable steward, several things need to happen. The volunteer needs:

  • to learn of the opportunity,
  • an accessible and compelling introduction to the hands-on work,
  • to come to understand and identify with the broader mission of biodiversity conservation,
  • to feel that they are contributing something important and meaningful toward this mission,
  • coaching on basic ecology tenets, skills, etc. from a patient and knowledgeable teacher,
  • to learn continuously and have access to ample educational opportunities,
  • logistical help to perform stewardship activities and
  • to feel embedded in a supportive broader community of naturalists, stewards, professionals, etc. who are equally motivated by the mission.

Stewardship fosters an intense connection with the land. Thus, in learning to care for it, new stewards come to value nature deeply, and are frequently the best educators and advocates for nature in their communities. Thus, in this vision, at the 100th anniversary of the Illinois Nature Preserves System, there will be millions of steward-advocates across the state who will laugh that anyone ever thought of destroying our natural heritage and that such a visionary law was necessary 100 years ago. This is the vision that inspires me.

Amy Doll is the Executive Director of Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves.

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