Photo courtesy of Deb Stone.

August 1, 2023

INPC Celebrates 60th Anniversary in 2023 Part 4: Role of the Commissioners

When I served as a staffer to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (Commission), a gentleman drove from northcentral Illinois to Sparta, southeast of St. Louis, to attend a meeting. He sat at the back of the room and watched for about four hours. At the end, he approached staff and said that he was impressed with the Commission’s deliberations and asked how he could dedicate his land as a nature preserve.

The land turned out to be 43-acres on the western side of White Pines Forest State Park in Ogle County and was dedicated in October 2001 as the 300th Illinois nature preserve. The land donated by the owner greatly increased the size of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) park.

Without reading our visitor’s mind, I attribute the success of this interaction and the INPC’s interactions with private landowners to several characteristics of the Commission, as well as to the excellence of the staff.

Who are the Commissioners? What do they do? Why have a Commission?

At each public meeting of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, nine people hear petitions from landowners to place the highest legal protections on natural lands they own. The commissioners weigh evidence, presented with help of staff, on the sites’ worthiness, and vote on whether to designate the site as a nature preserve.

The Commission was created by the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act in 1963. The Governor appoints its members, who serve, without pay, for two three-year terms. The act specifies that “the Chief of the Illinois Natural History Survey and the Director of the Illinois State Museum shall advise the Governor on the making of the appointments to the Commission and shall recommend persons suitable for appointment.” This helps assure integrity of the appointments and minimizes the role of politics. The staggered three-year terms help provide stability and an enduring vision across gubernatorial administrations.

Current commissioners hail from areas around the state, including Edwardsville and Chicago, Champaign and Brookfield, Monroe County and Lake County and other diverse communities. They bring deep expertise in biology, zoology, anthropology, conservation, science education and social justice activism. They include a fisheries scientist who was chief of the Illinois Natural History Survey, experts on endangered and invasive species, and an expert in conservation easement law. They have ties to local land trusts, museums, zoos, environmental advocates and higher education.

But most importantly, Commissioners care deeply about Illinois’ natural areas and devote their own time to making sure that they are preserved. Commissioners meet for two full days, three or four times per year. And they visit nature preserves across the state, helping strengthen the culture of service to natural areas that imbues the Commission.

A field of purple coneflower in bloom at Cox Creek Prairie Natural Area within Jim Edgar Panther Crrek State Fish and Wildlife Area. The flowers have thin purple petals that hang down around a brown seedhead.
Cox Creek Hill Prairie Natural Area is a 175-acre site within Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area in west-central Illinois.

The Commission’s powers and duties set forth in the act include:

  • To compile and maintain inventories, registers and records of nature preserves, other natural areas and features, and species of plants and animals and their habitats. The Commission uses the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory as a key to determine what lands are worthy of protection. They advise the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on land acquisition through the Natural Areas Acquisition Fund, monies from the Real Estate Transfer Tax that are set aside to acquire, preserve and steward natural areas.
  • To seek and approve the dedication of nature preserves. The Commission approves dedications for nature preserves and nature preserve buffers and registrations for land and water reserves. There are 416 dedicated nature preserves protecting 62,803 acres; and 206 registered land and water reserves totaling 58,729 acres. Altogether, there are 622 sites with 121,532 acres protected in the Illinois Nature Preserves System.
  • To prepare master plans for nature preserves, and to “keep watch over the protection, management and use of nature preserves.” Over the past 60 years, the Commission has included individuals with deep expertise in natural areas management and its deliberations helped shape best practices on management such as removing invasives and the use of prescribed fire to encourage native species. Commissioners must also vote to approve deviation from the original nature preserve dedication. Whether the request is to widen a road, repair a bridge or to create new installations offshore from Illinois Beach State Park to stem beach erosion, proposed activities in protected lands are brought to the Commission. Commissioners ask tough questions so that any intrusions are in the best interests of the nature preserves.
  • To conduct investigations and to disseminate information and recommendations pertaining to nature preserves and other natural areas. For instance, commissioners recently called for a comprehensive investigation into herbicide drift, which is causing extensive damage, especially to oak trees, across Illinois and beyond.

The Commission meets in public, with advance notice of agendas, following the Illinois Open Meetings Act. This is one of the key benefits of a Commission, as opposed to having the functions simply done by IDNR staff.

Transparency is key to the trust placed in the Commission by private landowners who are willing to dedicate their land and by conservation nonprofits across the state who purchase land for dedication to hold it for future acquisition by the IDNR. The Commission’s longstanding relationships with the Illinois chapter of The Nature Conservancy and other nonprofits has led to many such land acquisitions, to the benefit of IDNR, the Commission, and natural areas preservation.

John Schewman sits with collegues on metal bleachers at an outside event.
John E. Schwegman literally “wrote the book” on types of natural areas in Illinois He is the principal author of The Natural Divisions of Illinois, a classification of the state’s natural lands that guides the development of the Illinois Nature Preserves System. A botanist, Schwegman established the Natural Areas Program at IDNR. After his retirement from the IDNR, he served as INPC commissioner. Photo courtesy INPC.

The Commission also assures that nature preserves meet rigorous standards. The Commission evaluates the quality of land proposed for dedication as nature preserves or registration of land and water reserves and uses objective criteria so that the system admits the best of natural land in Illinois.

Because dedication has tax advantages for private landowners, it is especially important that the process be transparent and that standards be upheld. For property taxes, the assessed value of dedicated nature preserves is reduced to $1 per acre. And like other conservation easements, dedication of a nature preserve may have income tax benefits for the owners.

Commissioners are unpaid volunteers, not government staff. Earlier articles chronicled the amazing contributions of the knowledgeable and dedicated INPC staff. But having a Commission that is separate from government staff can open doors to discussions with landowners who may have a distrust of or had negative experiences with government. After all, it is only because landowners are willing to give up development rights on natural areas that any nature preserves can be created.

Finally, having a Commission can safeguard against inherent conflicts that come with the Commission being staffed by IDNR employees. The IDNR also has duties under the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act. They include:

  • Dedicating land held by the department,
  • Cooperating with the Commission in matters related to the purposes of the Act, and at its discretion, to provide the commission with resources,
  • Reviewing, approving and enforcing Commission rules,
  • Acquiring land and managing it for the purposes of this Act.

The IDNR is the nature preserve system’s largest landowner, and having an independent Commission helps hold IDNR to the same standards of protection of nature preserves as other landowners in the system, despite the IDNR being the source of the budget for Commission staff. The Commission has sometimes urged the department to designate sites for dedication, as appropriate. And the Commission has advocated for more resources for natural areas management.

George Fell, the original advocate for the creation of the Commission, had an uncompromising view of the need for an independent Commission, which he felt should be a separate body from the IDNR, with not only the ability to place legal protections on privately owned lands (which it has), but also its own powers to hire staff and to acquire and hold land (which it does not).

The IDNR’s multiple missions, including recreation, flood control, wildlife management and resource extraction as well as protection of natural areas, can lead to conflicts over the best uses for a piece of land, and over scarce resources. While these conflicts are a natural condition of government, Fell warned of the impacts of those conflicts on the mission to preserve natural areas, and of the changing priorities of different state administrations, frequent reorganizations of IDNR’s natural areas responsibilities, and the politics that can accompany land transactions and agency policies.

Abigail Derby Lewis poses for a photo in front of tree-covered mountains.
Abigail Derby Lewis, the current chair of the Commission, serves as Conservation Tools program director in the Keller Science Action Center of the Field Museum of Natural History. Her background includes research on community and behavioral ecology, land use practices and resource management in the tropics. She is co-chair of the Chicago Wilderness Climate Change Task Force and editor of the Chicago Wilderness Climate Change Newsletter. Photo courtesy Abigail Derby Lewis.

Fell’s vision was not completely realized, but it was substantially carried out. After two versions of the Act (in 1963 and 1981), and a time during which the Commission was supported by the nonprofit Natural Lands Institute (with and without state budget), the Commission as we know it today emerged, with IDNR hiring staff for the Commission. The partnership between IDNR and the Commission has been notably productive despite occasional frictions. The Commission has inspired that partnership to be even more fruitful, due to the extraordinary individuals who have served.

Deborah Stone is Director of the Cook County Department of Environment and Sustainability, which regulates pollution from business operations and solid waste facilities, and oversees sustainability and environmental justice projects such as energy and water efficiency, renewable energy, expanding electric vehicle charging infrastructure, creating recycling centers, restoring contaminated brownfields, nature-based flooding solutions and others. She previously served as Deputy Director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Director of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and was later appointed as a Commissioner. She lives in Chicago and enjoys workdays clearing invasive plants in the forest preserves and walking along Lake Michigan.

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