Partnering with Friends to Benefit Nature Preserves
Photos courtesy of Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves.
Help wanted. People passionate about preserving Illinois’ precious natural resources. No experience necessary. Knowledgeable and dedicated mentors will show you the ropes. Become a Friend of Illinois Nature Preserves today.
“The Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves (Friends) envision a statewide force that chips in where we can be helpful, supporting the preserves and the many good staff and volunteers who work on this challenging and important mission,” explained Matthew Evans, President of the Friends Board. “The mission of Friends is to support the Illinois Nature Preserves System by advocating for and finding increased support, resources, funding and staff for the system, and assisting local volunteer communities as they help restore and care for their Illinois biodiversity reserves.”
Joining Evans on the Board are Fran Harty (Treasurer) and Steve Packard (Secretary).
A former Zamboni driver at a northern Illinois ice rink, Evans entered the natural resource stewardship arena with little experience. His rise in the field is a prime example of how others can gain knowledge and become empowered when learning from mentors.
Established by the Illinois General Assembly in 1963, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC) oversees more than 600 sites protected within the Nature Preserves System, spanning more than 115,000 acres across the state.
According to Dr. Leon C. Hinz Jr., temporary Director INPC, INPC “serves the people of Illinois by protecting high-quality natural communities, habitats for threatened and endangered species, and geological and cultural features from degradation and loss. Sites enrolled as Nature Preserves are considered to be put to their highest, best, and most important use for the public benefit by the State of Illinois.”
“From its beginning nearly 60 years ago, the Illinois Nature Preserves system was envisioned as a partnership and collaborative effort between the INPC and IDNR, landowners and volunteers,” explained Dr. Pen DauBach, an active land steward volunteer in southwest Illinois and one of nine experts serving as an INPC Commissioner. “The 1963 Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act charged INPC to keep intact ‘natural communities (that) are a part of the heritage of the people.’”
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) assists the Commissioners by providing biological expertise, land management staff, and other resources to protect, defend, and manage sites.
Hinz noted that at present there are about two dozen staff within the Division of Natural Heritage who split their time between recovering the state’s endangered and threatened species and managing IDNR’s protected lands that make up approximately half of all land within the Nature Preserves System.
“Even with the assistance of public (e.g., Forest Preserve Districts, IDNR) and private (e.g., Land Trusts, individuals) landowners, management of this system is a monumental and increasingly difficult task,” he continued.
Hinz identified that these sites are continuously threatened by stressors, including invasive species, isolation from similar natural communities or populations of key species, incompatible activities on adjacent lands, and a changing climate.
DauBach noted that the staff report from the most recent INPC meeting highlighted how INPC staff continues with a primary mission to propose new areas and more acres for permanent protection, but with that growth comes more management responsibilities and the need for continued, strong partnerships to deliver creative solutions to meet that demand.
“During the late winter, despite some extreme cold and storms, and an early spring with attendant wet spells and winds, INPC staff partnered with organizations and volunteers to accomplish numerous prescribed burns,” she noted. “INPC staff, again in cross-agency collaborative work, continue to monitor, ameliorate and rectify threats to existing protected lands.”
Recognizing the growing and often unmet demand for management of these precious gems of the historic Illinois landscape, all living former INPC Directors, some current INPC Commissioners, the Executive Director of the Illinois Audubon Society and other experts in the science and politics of Illinois conservation met in October 2019 to talk about the needs of the Illinois Nature Preserve system. Out of this meeting the Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves was born.
“We value the Friends organization as a way to reinvigorate all parts of the system,” DauBach noted. “These dedicated advocates for the importance of our natural areas serve a valuable role in stewarding, monitoring, and caring for these vital areas, and helping others learn about and engage with our state’s splendid natural treasures.”
The Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves gained 501(c)3 status in the spring of 2020 and Amy Doll was hired as their Executive Director in March 2021.
With a background in public land management, Doll has a passion and energy for the conservation of natural lands, and experience in building collaborative partnerships.
Working alongside dedicated volunteers on workdays over the past year, Doll has been moved by the deep-felt passion that exists for Illinois Nature Preserves. One recent workday was at Oakwood Hills Fen Nature Preserve, a 15-acre site in McHenry County that includes fen, seep and sedge meadow natural communities. While the Friends facilitated awareness of the need for a workday, it was a diverse team consisting of members of the community, local Boy Scouts, and trustees from the Village of Oakwood Hills that generated excitement and kept things going.
“That workday was highly successful because, at the close of the day volunteers asked one simple question: ‘How can we to do this again?’” Doll recalled. “Looking to the future, the Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves will be investing significant energy on inspiring additional partnerships of nature preserve owners and managers, and enthusiastic volunteers, to collaborate and embrace actions to preserve the remainder of the irreplaceable treasures that are the nature of Illinois.”
“At the conclusion of each workday we take a moment to congratulate the participants who have assembled,” Evans added. “Every day spent on the land is a good day that occurred because Illinois citizens stepped up in support of the Illinois Nature Preserves System.”
“Such workdays can connect people with natural landscapes that support at-risk species and provide opportunities for directly maintaining and enhancing these sites,” Hinz elaborated. “INPC staff look forward to working with the Friends in defending, enhancing, and maintaining the Nature Preserves System and the irreplaceable resources that it protects.”
“The model that Friends are using is almost magical, but certainly is inspirational,” remarked Todd Strole, IDNR Division of Natural Heritage Program Section Manager. “Their workdays are not just a ‘show up and work day’ but provide the opportunity for volunteers to work with experts, learning about the ecology of the site and the work necessary that day, be it cutting brush, pulling invasive species or preparing for a prescribed burn. A network of knowledgeable people, people having a passion to care for one of Illinois’ rarest habitats, is created right before their eyes.”
“Listening to volunteers describe their experience, it is easy to see that the work provides a sense of purpose and a generosity of spirit that they hope leads to a way of life that is ingrained as much as Little League or Scouts, developing new leaders to teach other volunteers that organically arise,” Strole continued.
Climate change, new invasive species and encroachment from neighboring land uses have mushroomed the workload of every land management organization—federal, state, county and local. These organizations are doing a phenomenal job at doing their best to manage lands within their staffing and fiscal constraints, but most do need and want help. Partnerships and collaboration with a variety of government and non-government groups make possible the great expansion of protected acres and the ever-growing need for boots-on-the-ground stewardship. Adding the Friends to the mix, with their locally developed groups of volunteers, is another piece of the puzzle. The volunteer development strategy used at Oakwood Hills Fen can be replicated anywhere. It will be a different mix of people every time, but always motivated and held together by a common thread of passion for a very special place.
“The Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves created a prime pandemic relief for people as they found solace in their natural heritage,” noted DauBach. “Their work, and anticipated growth and commitment throughout the state, makes celebration of and advocacy for the Illinois Nature Preserves system more effective than ever.”
The Friends method is exportable and can be taken anywhere. The missing pieces of this process are the individuals willing to raise their hand and be the catalyst that starts the magic. Imagine the potential impact benefitting Illinois’ remaining high-quality natural communities if even a modest fraction of our 9 million residents become a Friend of Illinois Nature Preserves.
Kathy Andrews Wright is retired from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources where she was editor of Outdoor Illinois magazine. She is currently the editor of Outdoor Illinois Wildlife Journal and Illinois Audubon magazine.