Photo courtesy of Randy Heidron.
INPC Celebrates 60th Anniversary in 2023 Part 5: The Leadership of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission Family
The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (Commission) was a leader in nature conservation from its beginnings. During its 60-year history the Commission would help lead the national movement of natural area identification, protection, stewardship and defense through constant and meaningful participation both locally, regionally and nationally.
George Fell, the author of the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act that created the Commission, and the founding Executive Director for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), built the Commission into one of the first public/private coalitions for nature conservation. His innovative approach of using governor-appointed, volunteer commissioners overseeing a system of dedicated lands, was adopted as a model in 13 other states. Fell built the Commission under contract with Illinois Department of Conservation (IDOC; now Illinois Department of Natural Resources or IDNR) administered by the Natural Lands Institute (NLI). However, a more accurate and complete description would emphasize that natural areas conservation efforts in Illinois were carried out by an INPC family of conservation agencies (public and private) and individuals. In addition to NLI staff and IDOC Natural Areas biologists, botanists and program managers, and unpaid commissioners, groups like the Illinois Chapter of TNC and Illinois Audubon Society, and the Open Lands Project contributed staff. A whole host of volunteers and activists played key roles. This was a tight knit group with a focus on protecting nature. They were a strong team. I’m not saying there were no differences of opinions, but the goal was common and the people collegial, much like you would expect with a large family.
My introduction to that Commission family occurred in 1979 when I was a recently graduated teacher at Cary Junior High School, in Cary. Bill Wingate, a high school librarian and naturalist, was teaching a plant identification class for teachers through Northeastern Illinois University. I pointed out that a lot of the prairie plants he highlighted were found in the un-mowed portion of the hill next to my school. That discussion led to a site visit and the identification of that site as a high quality remanent of gravel hill prairie. Through these discussions, I met the local District Natural Areas Biologist, Fran Harty, who represented my introduction to the Commission family. We hatched a strategy to protect and manage Cary Prairie. A few years later I sat in my first Commission meeting as Cary Prairie was dedicated an Illinois Nature Preserve. I did not have any clue that I would someday become the Director.
My time at Cary Junior High was short thanks to teaching staff reductions. Being enamored with prairie and nature in general after a summer stint at McHenry County Conservation District, in 1980 I left for graduate school at Southern Illinois University. There I met other INPC family members: Andy West, a District Natural Areas Biologist in southern Illinois and Dr. W. D Klimstra, a Commissioner and my advisor. West told me about the Eighth Natural Areas Conference (NAC) to be held in Mountain View, Arkansas by the Natural Areas Association (NAA) that had formed at the Fifth NAC. What an amazing group of conservationists from across the country who loved nature. I met most of the active professionals for Illinois, including Fell, the Natural Areas Biologists (Harty, West, Bill McClain and Randy Nyboer), John Schwegman (Natural Areas Program Leader), Max Hutchinson (TNC), John Humke (TNC), Jack White (Illinois Natural Areas Inventory [INAI] Director), Carl Becker (Illinois Endangered Species Board Director) and Lydia Meyer and Don McFall (INPC Field Representatives from NLI).
Attending the conference were contingents from other states, including John Bacone and Don Kurz, both former participants in the INAI then serving in Indiana and Missouri, respectively. Much of the meeting was made up of workshop roundtables, where we discussed how to identify, protect, and steward natural areas, and hands-on, practical discussions and field trips to natural areas. Robert Jenkins, founder of TNC’s Natural Heritage Programs, spent a significant part of the meeting contrasting the INAI approach to finding natural areas with TNC’s Natural Heritage Program’s approach. Both the INAI approach and the Natural Heritage Program databases (now Nature Serve) are the industry standards today.
I became a part of the INPC family as a District Natural Heritage Biologist (formerly known as Natural Areas Biologist) in northeastern Illinois. I made it a priority throughout my career as a district biologist, then Commission Stewardship Coordinator and finally Commission Director, to participate in the NAC. It was the place where I could share with peers across the profession.
The NAC and NAA were central in identifying the needs of natural area conservation professionals and trying to meet them. Illinois’ own natural areas program manager and eventual State Botanist John Schwegman was the first president. Fell served as the first treasurer and incorporated the Association in Illinois in 1978. He supported its growth with donated personal funds. Many members of the INPC family served on the NAA Board of Directors throughout the years. Since its formation, five members of the INPC family (Schwegman, Harty, Humke, Becker and myself) served as president. The NAC grew from meeting in small camps and field stations, to a major conference with multiple hotels and a conference center. At its peak, more than a thousand participants were at the St. Charles, Illinois. Illinois also has hosted the NAC twice in Chicago, and once each in Peoria and Starved Rock State Park. Government, non-government and corporate partners that make up the INPC family served as sponsors for the NAC. Illinois’ leadership has been memorialized by NAA’s annual awards named after INPC family members. The Carl N. Becker Stewardship Award is given to recognize achievements in natural areas stewardship. Persons with lifetimes of excellence of contribution to natural areas conservation may be awarded the George Fell Lifetime Achievement Award.
The NAC played key roles in identifying conservation issues. Invasive species, plant and community identification, classification and monitoring were standard topics for discussion. Some of the earliest discussions heard about climate change were at the NAC in the 1980s. Commission family members leveraged their participation in NAA and its conference by looking for answers to important issues. Some key examples include the use of biological control for invasive species management, liability issues relating to use of prescribed fire for natural areas and State Wildlife Grants.
Purple loosestrife and garlic mustard were invasive species that could not be controlled with conventional methods. At the NAC in St. Charles, the Commission family met at a roundtable with other practitioners and researchers. We formed a working group seeking funding to begin the lengthy process of establishing an effort in Europe to identify insects that fed exclusively on purple loosestrife, as candidates for biological control agents. The seed money from this effort eventually led to the U.S. Department of Defense funding this project. Today, biocontrol is one of the tools for this species’ management. A similar effort is under way for garlic mustard biocontrol.
Liability associated with prescribed fire was another issue addressed in this manner. Prescribed fire in Illinois has been a practice since the late 1970s. Interactions with fire departments were always a bit uncertain since the law did not recognize fire as a tool. In some areas, fires that were needed did not happen because of liability concerns. This was a common issue across most of the country. A NAC session to discuss liability of fire use was chaired by INPC Director Carolyn Taft Grosboll, an attorney. Material presented at that session led Grosboll to draft a bill that became the Illinois Prescribed Burning Act. The Act made it a landowner’s right to properly conduct prescribed fire. Meanwhile, INPC staff played a critical role in the formation of the Illinois Prescribed Fire Council. With the support of the Council and my work with the Commission and IDNR staff, the Act passed, and rules were established to safely conduct prescribed fire with limited fear of liability. Today the Council maintains the only comprehensive accounting and mapping of prescribed fire in the state. A process that began with INPC staff working on a national conference solved a practical natural areas issue.
Stewardship of natural areas has always been an expensive problem. Federal dollars for these efforts are difficult to obtain. Federal agencies historically focus on migratory animals, particularly those that are hunted or fished, excluding many INPC protected lands from these federal funds. The INPC family always served as an advocate for federal funding. Carl Becker, Natural Heritage Division Chief, working with the Teaming with Wildlife Coalition, a part of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, worked to establish the legislation that authorized Wildlife Action Plans and the State Wildlife Grants. Working as President of the NAA and Director of the INPC, authorized by the IDNR and the Governor’s Office, I actively lobbied the U.S. Congress to fund the State Wildlife Grants. Another victory rooted in the INPC family but connected to a broad coalition of supporters.
The approach of building coalitions of people to address problems is the “superpower” of the INPC family. Continuously building relationships with the land trust community, forest preserve districts, conservation districts, professional organizations like NAA, educational institutions, conservation advocacy groups and numerous volunteers has led to successes including, the above, stewardship grants for land trusts, regulations to protect groundwater that supports nature preserves, and a strong and growing coalition to conserve nature. Today’s conservation landscape includes some newer groups like the Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves and the Prairie State Conservation Coalition which are effectively filling needs in the conservation community. In fact, this conservation community recently led an effort that resulted in a House Resolution declaring August 2023 Illinois Nature Preserves Month. It has been said that conservation is a marathon not a sprint. I would add that it is a team sport.
Randy Heidorn retired as Director of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission at the end of 2015 after serving as Stewardship Coordinator, Deputy Director for Stewardship, Acting Director, and Assistant Director working for the Commission from 1993-2015. He began his public conservation career as a District Heritage Biologist. He spent 17 years on the Board of Directors for the Natural Areas Association including serving as president, vice-president and treasurer.