May 1, 2023

INPC Celebrates 60th Anniversary in 2023
Part 3: Dramatic Growth and Expansion Leading up to the Commission’s 40th Anniversary in 2003

Photos courtesy of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

The Illinois Nature Preserve Commission’s (Commission) first 20 years established a solid foundation positioning Illinois to dramatically increase the number of nature preserves and expand protections for the state’s most precious ecosystems. The Natural Areas Preservation Act [525 ILCS 30/ Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act. (] had withstood the test of time and 13 other states had established nature preserve programs based on the Illinois model. Progress was spurred by three critical developments. First, the Natural Areas Inventory (INAI) identified 1,089 natural areas qualifying for protection. Second, a landowner contact program was implemented to inform landowners of their property’s significance. Third, the Commission’s budget was gradually increased allowing the State to hire staff who collaborated with conservation organizations and citizen volunteers for management and protection of nature preserves.

New Funding Source Keys Expansion

In 1989, Governor Thompson signed legislation creating the Natural Areas Acquisition Fund (NAAF) establishing a steady funding source for natural areas. The NAAF may be used for “acquisition, preservation and stewardship of natural areas, including habitats for endangered and threatened species, high quality natural communities, wetlands, and other areas with unique or unusual natural heritage qualities.” It receives funding through a percentage of the real estate transfer tax. While NAAF funds fluctuate annually depending on the amount and size of real estate sales, it continues to provide a reliable source of funding to acquire, manage and preserve natural areas.

Another Land Protection Tool

A sign along the edge of a lush green woodland saying, "An Illinois Nature Preserve. All plants, animals and other natural features within this area are protected by law. Weapons, vehicles, pets, horses and camping are prohibited." The sign at the bottom also has the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission logos.

Nature preserve dedication provides the strongest form of legal protection and prohibits certain activities on dedicated lands including hunting and fishing. However, some natural area landowners did not want to give up those uses and their land remained unprotected. A new land protection tool allowing for a broader spectrum of activities was needed.

Although the Natural Areas Preservation Act provided for a register of areas determined by the Commission to be worthy of preservation, such a register had never been established. Under the Act, the register was to consist of areas registered by the Department of Conservation (IDOC) [after 1995 the Department of Natural Resources (IDNR)] with the approval of the Commission and the owner, whether public or private.

In the early 1990s, IDOC Division of Natural Heritage and Commission staff partnered to draft administrative rules to implement what would become the Land and Water Reserve (LWR) program. The Commission had hired a deputy director/legal counsel in 1993 who helped finalize and navigate passage of the rules through the legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. Rules governing the LWR program took effect May 3, 1994 [17-4010.pdf (].

The rules establish the types of lands and waters eligible for the LWR program including property identified on the INAI, areas supporting significant archaeological resources and restored areas of natural communities. Allowable uses are extensive and include hiking, bird watching, scientific research, canoeing, hunting, trapping, fishing, photography and picnicking. Primitive camping, cross-country skiing, horseback riding, bicycling and ATVs are also allowed in designated areas or trails. Both public and private lands are eligible for registration and the landowner may choose to close a registered area to the public.

A gentlemen wearing camouflage winter gear stands with his left hand resting on the top of a sign attached to a metal post. The sign says "Illinois Registered Reserve. Behind the gentleman and sign is a snowy winter woodland. Blue sky can be seen in-between bare tree limbs.

A site management plan is prepared by the landowner for Commission approval outlining types of uses allowed and management needs. After approval by the Commission, the agreement is signed by the IDNR director and recorded in the county where the land is located. As an incentive for landowners to enroll in the LWR program, a 1995 law reduces the valuation of land (for property tax purposes) registered in perpetuity as a LWR.

The first LWR was registered in May 1995; Bob Spanski’s Walden Too Land and Water Reserve is privately owned and consists of 86.8 acres in Mason County. With pent up demand for this new protection tool, another 126 sites were registered as LWRs during the first 10 years of the LWR program. Today there are 205 LWRs totaling more than 56,376 acres.

Demands Lead to Staffing Increase

The LWR program was popular and thriving, and there was an ever increasing need to manage lands protected in the nature preserves system. More staff were necessary. With support from Governor Jim Edgar and IDNR Director Brent Manning, in 1996 the Commission more than doubled the size of its field staff from four to nine and hired two permanent part-time staff to assist with stewardship and threats, respectively. The Division of Natural Heritage reorganized the same year and also added new staff.

The following INPC field staff were hired in 1996: Brian Reilly to cover a portion of the northeastern region, Angella Moorehouse in the west central region, Thomas Lerczak in the central region, Bob Edgin in the southeastern region and Debbie Newman in the metro St. Louis region. These additional field staff helped balance the workload of the four existing field staff: John Alessandrini in the northwestern region, Steven Byers in the northeastern region, Mary Kay Solecki in the east central region and Judy Faulkner Dempsey in the southern region.

Barbara VerSteeg was hired permanent part-time to assist with stewardship. Patti Malmborg (Reilly) was hired permanent part-time to handle threats caused by rapid development in the northeastern part of the state.

In 2000, three new staff joined the INPC: Kelly Neal replaced Barbara VerSteeg, John Nelson replaced Patti Malmborg (Reilly), and Kim Roman replaced Brian Reilly.

Including the director (Carolyn Taft Grosboll), a deputy director for stewardship (Randy Heidorn), a deputy director for protection (Don McFall), secretaries in Springfield (Tammy McKay/Debbie Reider), and a secretary in northeastern Illinois (Loretta Arient), the INPC staff had grown to 17 with a $1.2 million annual budget.

Growth Precipitates Need for Prescribed Fire Legislation

Commission staff had long collaborated with conservation organizations and volunteer citizens to help with stewardship activities on protected lands including prescribed burning. The nature preserve system was growing at a swift pace and the demand to recruit volunteers to aid management increased. This led staff to consider if a legal framework to support prescribed fire was needed in Illinois.

Three individuals monitor a controlled fire in a grassland. All three are wearing fire repellent gear and hard hats. One person is driving a four wheeler with a water tank on the back. Trees are in the background.

Before European settlers came to Illinois, fire was used by Native Americans to manage the Illinois landscape dominated by prairies and woodlands. They often used fire to hunt bison and deer, create favorable conditions for their crops and sustain food and medical plant species found mostly in woodlands. Ecologists later recognized that fire-dependent natural communities require periodic fire to ensure biological diversity.

Over time, prescribed fire became widely used to replicate the fires from pre-European time. Today, it is routinely used to manage public and private lands. Recognizing the importance of prescribed fire, legal scholars across the country drafted legislation to make prescribed burning a property right, establish it is in the public interest and limit liability of those conducting burns.

INPC and Natural Heritage staff drafted similar legislation for Illinois modeled after laws in Mississippi and Florida. The Illinois Prescribed Burning Act [525 ILCS 37/ Illinois Prescribed Burning Act. (] became law in August 2007. Under the Act, prescribed burning is defined as “the planned application of fire to natural or planted vegetative fuels under specified environmental conditions and following appropriate precautionary measures, which causes the fire to be confined to a predetermined area and accomplish the planned land management or ecological objectives.”

The Act provides the “property owner and any person conducting a fire under the Act shall be liable for any actual damage or injury caused by the fire or resulting smoke upon proof of negligence (emphasis added).” In other words, if those conducting a burn do not act in a negligent manner, there is limited liability. Negligence is generally defined as the failure to exercise the care toward others which a reasonable or prudent person would do in the circumstances. As a condition of the Act’s liability protection, a certified burn manager must be on site during a burn, a written prescribed burn plan must be in place, prior permission of the landowner must be obtained, and adjoining property owners and local fire departments must be notified.

The 300th Nature Preserve and Commission’s 40th Anniversary

White Pines Forest, a 43-acre site owned by IDNR located in Ogle County, was dedicated as the 300th nature preserve in October 2001. To commemorate the event, the Commission adopted its slogan “Saving Illinois’ Natural Treasures,” a creation of then Commissioner, Jill Allread, a leading public relations executive.

Two individuals sign papers on a table with a white linen tablecloth, and four children stand behind the two people. Behind the group is banner with the words, "300th Nature Preserve Dedication Celebration." In the background is a green woodland.

Two years later in 2003, several events were held to celebrate the Commission’s 40th anniversary. The Natural Land Institute hosted a banquet in Rockford honoring the Commission and its founder, George B. Fell. Three large events were held in Monroe County, at the Barkhausen Visitors Center within the Cache River State Natural Area and in east central Illinois during the Central Illinois Prairie Conference. A traveling photo exhibit displaying several Illinois Nature Preserves was prepared by Dr. Michael Jeffords and was brought to many Commission events.

As we celebrate the Commission’s 60th anniversary in 2023, it is a testament to the foresight, tenacity and hard work of founder George B. Fell, his wife Barbara and the early commissioners and staff who set the stage for a lasting legacy. The commissioners and staff who followed built upon those early successes. It was an honor and a privilege to have worked during my tenure with so many committed individuals to build on this great legacy and set the stage for the future.

Carolyn Taft Grosboll is an Illinois licensed attorney who served as Illinois Nature Preserve Commission’s Deputy Director/Legal Counsel from 1993-1995 and as INPC Director from 1995 to 2004. Before joining the Commission, she worked as legal counsel for the Illinois Secretary of State’s office and as staff attorney for the Legislative Reference Bureau. After leaving the Commission she practiced law at the Springfield law firm of Giffin, Winning, Cohen and Bodewes, P.C. In 2010 she was appointed by the Supreme Court of Illinois to serve as Clerk of the Illinois Supreme Court, a position she held until her retirement in December 2021.

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