Crevecoeur Nature Preserve. Photo by Byron Paulsen, INPC Natural Areas Preservation Specialist.

November 1, 2023

The Illinois Nature Preserves System: Beyond the Borders

Good fences make good neighbors – a line from the pen of Robert Frost. And fences work well to mark ownership boundaries and for livestock. However, fences are of questionable value where the intruder is not restrained or when the boundary restrains the harmless or the good, as masterfully described in Frost’s poem. As I was preparing for employment with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, I read and re-read the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act many times.

As legislation goes, it’s a good read. One of the key features of the legislation is that it set forth a purpose… “It is therefore the public policy of the State of Illinois to secure for the people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of natural areas…”

During a summer day, trees grow up through standing water in a woodland swamp.
Round Pond Nature Preserve. Photo by Kevin Sierzega, INPC Natural Areas Preservation Specialist.

And 60 years after the inception of this innovative legislation, we now stand at 622 sites in the system. There are Nature Preserves or Land and Water Reserves in 96 of Illinois’ 102 counties. Legal protection from Commission programs has now been extended to more than 90 percent of the 97 natural community types found in the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory. Three-hundred and ninety-eight of 486 different endangered or threatened species occur at least partially within a Nature Preserve or Land and Water Reserve. Four-hundred and forty-three of the 622 Nature Preserves or Land and Water Reserves contain at least one endangered or threatened species. By most measures, the Nature Preserves System is a success story. A demonstration of that success has been on display this year as we have featured 60 sites in a visual presentation through StoryMaps. Beautiful sites with interesting stories behind their path to protection reveals the dedication and passion of individuals, both staff and partners, who carried out and continue to support that legislative purpose. In ecological time, 60 years is a blink, so the real success of an enduring resource of natural areas can only be borne out over time. This is where things are becoming increasingly difficult and good fences fail.

Why Good Fences Fail

Climate change, invasive species, chemical trespass from pesticides and groundwater alterations are no respecter of fences. There are only a handful of natural areas in Illinois that are large enough to provide some isolation of a core area from the impacts of surrounding land uses and even that is debatable. Therefore, part of the strategy behind an enduring system must be in providing a landscape in which natural areas can function. This requires working beyond our borders. This is hard, slow work, yet necessary, but one can start small.

A group of eight people in flame retardant gear stand in a semi-circle on a grassy area drinking from water bottles with three all-terrain vehicles behind them. In the background is a  recently burned prairie and a horizon line of trees against a cloudy overcast sky.
Edward F Vassallo Land and Water Reserve burn crew. Photo by INPC.

A nature preserve in a suburban setting suffers a constant barrage of exotic plants from landscaping. We can work with neighbors to replace exotic plants with native species, we can work with landscaping retailers to deter the sale of problem plants, we can work with the nursery industry to promote better options. And we do, but still, invasive plants have become an overwhelming threat. Control of invasive species occurs on 100 percent of the sites in our system; is the single biggest expense in natural areas stewardship; the single biggest time sink in natural areas stewardship; and therefore, is the single biggest threat to an enduring system of natural areas. Many of the sites in the Nature Preserves System occur within one of Illinois’ 389 parks and sites managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). A recent survey of IDNR site managers produced 1,427 reports of problems with 74 invasive species covering 312,206 treatment acres.

This is a huge problem requiring far more resources than are currently available. A program called Critical Trends Analysis has been monitoring sites for the past 25 years. During that time, stem densities for bush honeysuckle has increased five times on sites where it occurs, and the proportion of sites where it occurs has increased from 15 percent to 60 percent of the monitored sites. This is just one example and new invasive species arrive every year and they grow all around us without regard for the fence. Efforts to prevent new species requires work beyond the borders of Illinois, at the federal level and it does occur, yet we continue to watch the slow march of invasives towards our state and our natural lands. The spotted lanternfly LINK was just reported for the first time in Illinois in September.

Curled green oak leaves are in the foreground illustrating the characteristic symptom of herbicide drift in oak trees. In the background is a canopy of yellow, green leaves of autumn.
Herbicide drift is one example of a natural areas threat that has become increasingly apparent over the last several years. Photo taken at Buck Hill Bottoms Land and Water reserve by Debbie Scott Newman, INPC Natural Areas Preservation Specialist.

Beyond the Border: Herbicide Drift

Herbicide drift is another example of a threat beyond our borders. Herbicide drift has become increasingly apparent over the last several years. Commissioners began to seek more clarity to the severity and pervasiveness of this problem and some quantification of the threat to sites in the Nature Preserves System. Preliminary findings from a study currently under way by the Illinois Natural History Survey on over 100 sites in the Nature Preserve System is finding that damage is statewide, severe in some cases, in all natural community types, and a large number of plant species are affected. The results of chemical analysis shows a range of pesticides, but with 2,4-D, atrazine, and dicamba the most common. Again, we can work with neighbors, we can work with applicators, and we do. But the real need is to work with the agrochemical industry at large. The use of chemicals is not the issue, in fact, natural areas management that includes invasive species management routinely involves the use of herbicides. Everyone wants these chemicals to stay where they are applied, we just need the chemical products and application methods to deliver that outcome.

Beyond the Border: Climate Change

Climate change may be the most extreme example of a threat beyond our border. A strong, healthy natural community is more resilient to climatic events and therefore a stated goal. However, perhaps the most difficult issue in a fragmented Midwestern landscape is species movement. Some level of species adaptation to a changing climate is possible through movement across the landscape but when natural areas are isolated in landscapes that are inhospitable to most native species, then we are left to decide when, where, and how much should we intervene through assisted migrations. Again, there is some opportunity to work with neighbors and connect core areas of biodiversity through corridors of habitat, but this is a monumental task and not feasible for the most isolated sites.

In an art gallery, a woman pauses to admire a painting of a prairie with a blue partly cloudy sky. In the background are more art gallery visitors viewing paintings of different habitats.
Artist Philip Juras captured his view of natural areas in more than 40 paintings. Photo by Dannyl Dolder.

Beyond the Border: Perspectives

Let’s look at yet a different border, perspectives. Traditionally, those of us in the natural areas management arena think in terms of biodiversity, ecological function, endangered species habitat and other similar measures of science. However, the beauty of our natural areas is hard to measure or even capture but readily noticed by even the most casual observer. Recent events celebrating the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Natural Areas Preservation Act brought into the focus the compelling attraction and interest in natural areas from the artistic community. Artist Philip Juras helped us step over the fence and see natural areas from his point of view through more than 40 paintings of more than 20 nature preserves on display at the Lockport Gallery of the Illinois State Museum.

Beyond the Border: Time

Finally, consider the border of time. The remnants of natural areas as we know them today and as first described in the earliest written accounts were largely shaped by countless generations of Native Americans. Further, their sacred lands occur across the landscape and within many of the sites in the Nature Preserves System. Working with Tribal Nations to better include their experience and integrate their knowledge into our understanding is a meaningful action that we are only beginning to explore. Understanding the importance of natural lands in their cultures, combined with implementing the recently signed Human Remains Protection Act, will provide opportunities to heal people along with the land, a border we must cross.

Being Good Neighbors Means Working Together

A group of people on a hilltop prairie pause habitat management work for a photograph. In the background is a flooded bottomland against a partly cloudy sky in the summer.
Fult Hill Prairie Nature Preserve. Photo by Phil Borsdorf, IDNR Division of Wildlife Resources Hunter Heritage Program Manager.

Books can be and have been written about every topic noted above and so the point here is not to educate on the topics themselves. Rather, it is a call for the inclusion of a broader range of expertise and interests in our work. We recognize that neither the Commission nor IDNR can do all this alone, but we can work with others who can help. Working with our sister state agencies and federal government, Tribal Nations, academia, NGOs, elected officials, communities, volunteers – our neighbors – can touch each of these and more. The legislative authority given in the Natural Areas Preservation Act provides boundaries for the work of the Commission, but there is no restriction from reaching across the fence and holding hands with our neighbors. Seeking a new level of understanding, cooperation, and collaboration that enables our highest quality natural areas to survive and thrive in a landscape of compatibility will secure an enduring resources of natural areas.

Good collaboration makes good neighbors. Are we up for this challenge?

Todd Strole is the Executive Director of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

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