Sweet Fern Savanna, a Land and Water Reserve in Kankakee County, was originally registered in 2001. Today, after 11 additions to the register, the site totals 168 acres. Photo courtesy Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

May 1, 2023

INPC Celebrates 60th Anniversary in 2023 Part 2: Building on the Foundation – The Growth of Restoration Management and the Natural Areas Movement

Photos courtesy of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

The best professional advice I ever received came from Judy Faulkner (Dempsey), the long-time Southern Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Specialist for the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (Commission). She told me, “Brian, you are a bean counter, which is OK, but you have to count all the beans, which in this business means counting relationships!”

I moved to Springfield in October of 1985 to become the Director of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. I had left the Kentucky Nature Preserves Commission, a direct knock-off of the Illinois model and one of several that had been established in other states in the two decades since the Illinois system had been established. With only a few Kentucky nature preserves at the time, I had mostly been involved with natural area identification, inventorying high quality communities with an eye out for threatened and endangered species.

An individual in yellow flame retardant gear spreads fire during a prescribed burn in a grassland.
A prescribed fire. Photo courtesy Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

When I got to Illinois 134 sites had been dedicated as Illinois nature preserves. Natural area and endangered species identification, protection, stewardship and defense were all issues demanding attention throughout the nature preserves system. These endeavors drove, and continue to drive, nature conservation.

The need for prescribed fire in Illinois’ fire-adapted prairies was already well understood, but the onslaught of invasive and exotic plant species was just beginning to be documented. Damage to natural communities by deer was becoming obvious. I recall noticing the deer browse line at Busse Woods Nature Preserve when driving to my interview for the position. During my lunch with Karen Witter my first week in Illinois the topic of deer came up. I shrugged the problem off as easily managed with controlled hunting programs. As I recall, she reminded me that unlike Kentucky there was a prohibition in the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act (Act) against hunting and fishing on nature preserves, and she might have suggested I hold off on advocating hunting in nature preserves lest I be “run out of Illinois on a rail tarred and feathered;” at least that is how I remember it. The Act also required that every Illinois nature preserve have a Master Plan, though only a few at the time actually had them, and that the Commission produce a Biennial Report. I remember being concerned by the mismatch between preserve needs and available human resources.

Illinois was a more mature conservation infrastructure than other states because of what had been built into the Act by George Fell. The nine Commissioners served overlapping 3-year terms. The Director of the Illinois State Museum (ISM) and Chief of the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) were advisors to the Commission and, working with the Commission directors, they made recommendations to the Governor for appointments of Commissioners. They also provided access to a bunch of scientists at the ISM and INHS. Through the years a brilliant mix of influential citizens, including Myrtle N. Walgreen, Gaylord Donnelley, Nancy (Ryerson) Ranney and Edmund Thornton, among others, along with prominent scientists, legal experts, businesspeople and conservation activists had been appointed by Illinois’ Governors as Commissioners. Most importantly, Commission staff had made a habit of reaching out to both current and former Commissioners when the need arose, as well as scientists appointed as Commission consultants.

Fire creeps along under some large oak trees during early spring. Smoke lifts up through the naked branches of the trees and partially obstructs the partly cloudy blue sky. In the foreground is a green mowed grassy area.
A woodland prescribed fire. Photo courtesy Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

The Commission and the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board (IESPB) were both administratively attached to the then Illinois Department of Conservation’s (IDOC) Natural Heritage Section in the Division of Forestry. There were only three Commission staff: Lydia Meyer in central Illinois, Gary Burnett in western Illinois and myself. Sue Lauzon, who started as the IESPB Director the same day I started, was their only staff member. Carl Becker, the founding IESPB Director, had become the IDOC’s Natural Heritage Section Manager, and Don McFall was the Natural Areas Program Manager, the Commission’s liaison to IDOC. John Schwegman was the section’s Botanist, and author of the Natural Divisions of Illinois, which was used as a cornerstone of the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (INAI). Jim Garner was the section’s Mammologist and Vern Kleen was their Ornithologist. There were also a handful of District Heritage Biologists including Bill McClain, Fran Harty, Andy West, Randy Nyboer, Bill Glass, Ed Anderson and Randy Heidorn, many of whom had been involved with the INAI in some capacity. It was a small contingent—three Commission staff, one person for IESPB and a handful of staff from IDOC to care for 134 Illinois nature preserves; but I wasn’t counting all the beans. I soon learned how severely I was under-estimating the depth and breadth of the relationships across Illinois’ conservation community.

My first month I hit the road to visit as many preserves as possible and meet the people instrumental in their protection and management. I met many IDOC site managers who oversaw dedicated preserves as well as Forest Preserve District (FPD), Conservation District (CD) and Park District (PD) staff who owned and managed nature preserves. I was particularly taken with the private landowners of dedicated preserves I met; their personal passion for preserving Illinois’ natural heritage was particularly inspiring. I also met the Director of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and several staff who had worked for the Natural Land Institute when it held the contract to administer the Commission and continued to support them after the Commission moved into the IDOC.

The smooth still water of a creek reflects the bright blue sky and yellow leaves of the fall woodland that surrounds the creek.
Beall Woods State Nature Preserve was dedicated as a nature preserve in 1966 and was registered as a Land and Water Reserve in 2022. The 374-acre site is in Wabash County. Photo courtesy Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

I was starting to recognize how many wonderful people were part of Illinois’ natural areas movement and feeling much better about the challenges ahead when it was announced that Natural Heritage was being elevated to a Division within the IDOC; on the same level with Forestry, Fisheries and Wildlife. Carl Becker would be the first Chief of the Natural Heritage Division (NHD) and over the next few weeks plans began to solidify for how the resources available under Governor Thompson’s next budget and the Build Illinois Program would benefit natural area acquisition, landowner contact and natural area management.

It only made sense that there be some division of labor between the Commission, IESPB and NHD. Commission staff would focus on protection: landowner contact, nature preserve dedication and Natural Heritage Landmark registration. The Natural Heritage Landmark Program was a recognition program for privately owned natural areas that established those all-important initial relationships with private landowners. NHD would focus on natural areas stewardship. And the IESPB would focus on listing Illinois’ threatened and endangered species. To assist in identification and tracking of both natural areas and endangered and threatened species, the NHD also became part of TNC’s Natural Heritage Database Network, and IDOC hired John Buhnerkempe to coordinate the effort to integrate the INAI and threatened and endangered listing data into an integrated national database.

Over the next couple years or so a second wave of Heritage Biologists were hired, and Dave Cooper came over from the Division of Forestry to help manage the growing NHD. During this period the Commission hired three new Natural Areas Preservation Specialists (NAPS): Joel Greenberg in northeast Illinois, John Alesandrini in the northwest and Mary Kay Solecki in east-central Illinois.

A black and white photo of a group of individuals. There are four rows of people in the group and the first two rows are folks sitting on the floor and some sitting on a bench behind the first row.
Group photo from the 1996 meeting of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Natural Heritage, Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board.

Among the flurry of activity precipitated by more staff and more dedications of public lands, new management challenges also began to be identified. With more eyes focused on the dedicated nature preserves, the massive scale of the invasion by exotic and invasive plants came into focus. The impact of deer browsing in preserves, especially in northeastern Illinois, was also becoming better appreciated by the public. Several FPDs began to use deer exclosures to visually demonstrate deer impacts. The Illinois Natural History Survey led the creation of an Urban Deer Reduction Program with support of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and IDOC. Over many years the tools were developed to help all preserve owners address deer issues.

Once the demand for dedications of public lands began to ease, attention turned to dedication of private properties. An unprecedented era began of dedications of privately owned natural areas by private landowners who intended to keep them in private ownership in perpetuity. Most private landowners had no professional management capabilities and programs arose to provide assistance on privately owned nature preserves in doing prescribed burns, brush removal, and exotic and invasive plant management. This activity created an explosion in the number of management-related approvals going to the Commission. With establishment of the Natural Areas Acquisition Fund (NAAF) in 1989 it became clear that the problem would only increase as new natural areas were acquired.

It became clear that a significant update of the Commission’s administrative rules, The Rules for Management of Illinois Nature Preserves (the Rules), was needed. In 1989, Gretchen Bonfert, the first Commission Deputy Director, took the lead on stewardship and defense, and began to focus on an update of the Rules, on streamlining the Commission approval processes, and developing Management Schedules, a streamlined alternative to Master Plans.

Registered in 2002, Robert A. Evers Land and Water Reserve lies within the southeast portion of Siloam Springs State Park in Adams and Brown counties. It is named in honor of Dr. Robert A. Evers who did much to establish the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory and land protection in Illinois. Photo by Angella Moorehouse.

When Bonfert left the Commission in 1993, her areas of responsibility were split, resulting in the hiring of Carolyn Taft Grosboll as Deputy Director and Randy Heidorn as Stewardship Coordinator. With Grosboll’s experience as an attorney for the Legislative Research Bureau, she revisited and pushed through the Joint Commission on Administrative Rules another update of the Rules for Management. The late 1980s had seen a huge up-tick in development in northeastern Illinois and Joel Greenberg, also an attorney, had become adept at using the new Natural Areas Consultation process to steer impacts away from protected lands, skills he shared with the other NAPS. But natural area defense issues had grown within the nature preserves systems footprint and Grosboll began providing direct statewide support for NAPS dealing with intrusions upon dedicated lands. Heidorn immediately began employing his computer skills in automating the development of Management Schedules. When 10 percent of the Natural Areas Acquisition Fund of 1989 was dedicated to stewardship of natural areas, the Commission had input, but Heidorn made recommendations every year for priority management projects. Heritage Biologists had been allowed, by policy, to conduct stewardship on privately dedicated nature preserves for some time, but their availability was always limited by demands on their time from state-owned nature preserves. The NAAF finally allowed contractors to be hired for some stewardship projects. Eventually, part of the NAAF stewardship funds were specifically programed by Heidorn for non-Illinois Department of Natural Resources (formerly Illinois Department of Conservation; IDNR) stewardship projects.

With the emphasis on landscape-scale conservation the Commission and IDNR staff recognized there was a gap in the protection tools available. Something was needed between Natural Heritage Landmark protection, which was a recognition program, and nature preserve buffer and nature preserve dedication, which is still the strongest form of legal protection for conservation lands in the nation. The answer was hiding in plain sight—a provision in the Act for a list of “registered areas.” A Register of Land and Water Reserves became available in May of 1994 (see Part 3: of this story series).

On a sunny summer day, a bright blue sky can be seen over a lush green savannah with leafy oak trees scattered in between grasses and beautiful purple prairie flowers.
Sweet Fern Savanna harbors an assemblage of biological characteristics of the Kankakee Sands. Photo courtesy Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

When I left the Commission in 1995 there were 255 dedicated Illinois nature preserves, encompassing almost 35,000 acres. Under the new Register of Land and Water Reserves program the first two areas, totaling more than 100 acres, had been registered. Yes, I was still counting the beans, but I had learned an important lesson which was reinforced in December of 1997 when Illinois was recognized as one of the best examples of integrated conservation in the world during a meeting on the Kyoto Protocol. That recognition reinforced, in my mind and heart, not only how much had been achieved during the decade I was with the Commission, but how many wonderful, devoted, and talented people had joined the natural areas movement in Illinois and how the movement had nurtured each of them in putting their specific skills to use in protecting and restoring Illinois’ natural heritage.

While I may not have been able to mention everyone’s name here, I want to thank everyone who has contributed to Illinois’ conservation. I assure you that you are a bean that has been, and continues to be, counted!

Dr. Brian Anderson was Director of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission from 1985-1995; then C2000 Coordinator and Director of Scientific Surveys for Illinois Department of Natural Resources; Chair of Biology and Physical Sciences and Director of Institutional Improvement at Lincoln Land Community College; and Chief/Director of the Illinois Natural History Survey and Interim and Associate Director of the Prairie Research Institute of the University of Illinois, from which he retired in 2015.

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