The Illinois Recreational Access Program and the Helms Family — How One Man’s Vision Became a Family Legacy of Conservation
Photos courtesy of the author.
Approximately 97 percent of the land in Illinois is privately owned. Many Illinois landowners are now struggling to manage the ecological quality of their timber and grasslands, due in large part to the increase in infestations of non-native/invasive species that has occurred in recent years. Consequently, landowners who may have inherited their lands from other family members are now finding it harder to be good land stewards for future generations.
While Illinois landowners are struggling to find effective, cost-efficient ways to manage their lands, many of Illinois’ hunters and anglers are simultaneously finding it harder to find places to hunt and fish. The widening gap between Illinois recreationists and good places to recreate, coupled with the increased need for habitat management on private lands, is what makes the existence of public access programs such as the Illinois Recreational Access Program (IRAP) that much more important. This is something that the Helms family understands well.
The Helms family has been an enthusiastic advocate of conservation and introducing recreational activities to youth for years. Their Lee County property was enrolled in IRAP in 2012 by William Helms, husband to IRAP’s 2021 landowner of the Year, Lois Helms. Unfortunately, William died in 2016, followed by Lois in 2022. The desire to improve the ecological quality of their lands while continuing their father’s vision of maintaining a place not only for his family, but also for other youth to learn to how to hunt, fish, and conduct land stewardship, is why the Helms family has remained enrolled in IRAP for the past 10 years.
Lack of access is one of the biggest issues facing recreationists today, and it is the number one reason lapsed hunters give when asked why they no longer hunt. According to data provided by the Illinois Conservation Congress in 2009, two-thirds of all hunters rely on private land to pursue game, and access to that private land was getting more difficult. The Congress therefore recommended that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) develop a public access program on private land. This led to the creation of the Illinois Recreational Access Program in 2011.
While there was initially some skepticism over whether landowners would be willing to allow strangers access to their property, many landowners were receptive to the idea of semi-controlled public access (where participants have to apply for access and be awarded a specific site) and being provided liability insurance during IRAP activities. Additionally, many landowners were drawn to the idea of receiving habitat management assistance from IRAP. Within just the first few years, IRAP had more than 10,000 acres leased.
IRAP started out with youth turkey hunting, fishing and hiking. Once it became established and successful, IRAP began adding additional hunting activities, such as first-time adult spring turkey and small game hunting. As the demand for IRAP has grown and landowners have become more comfortable with IRAP’s success, more hunting activities have been introduced. As of 2022, IRAP has grown to include more than 27,000 acres in 50 counties leased for youth turkey hunting, adult spring turkey hunting, youth shotgun deer hunting, archery deer hunting, waterfowl hunting, upland game hunting, rabbit and squirrel hunting, and pond and riverbank fishing.
IRAP’s Benefits to Landowners
Anyone tasked with managing a vast amount of land can attest that it has become an increasingly difficult thing to do these days without help. The prevalence of non-native/invasive species in recent years has left many landowners unsure of where to start. IRAP assists Illinois landowners by having a management plan written or updated for lands they enroll. The lands also become eligible for 60 percent cost-share assistance to implement habitat restoration projects. IRAP-enrolled lands are often the recipient of aerial foliar and manual invasive/non-native species removal, prescribed burns, native plantings, timber stand improvement and more.
Aerial foliar spraying is a particularly unique way that IRAP treats invasive species on enrolled properties. Although the window to apply aerial spraying can be small and additional “spot-treatments” are sometimes necessary to hit what might get left beneath the top-layer, it provides greater coverage for less money in far less time than hand or machine removal. Aerial spraying is therefore viewed by many landowners as a much more effective, affordable, and time-saving way to treat large, infested areas.
In 2014, IRAP partnered with Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever (PFQF) and the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center (NGRREC), which has allowed the program to utilize the assistance of two habitat strike teams to implement IRAP management plans. The efforts of IRAP’s partnerships have not gone unnoticed, as many landowners mention seeing more game animals and birds on acres previously untouched. Within the last six years alone, habitat projects have been implemented on more than 17,000 acres of private land leased to IRAP.
William and Lois Helms’ daughter, Mindy Berge, explained that William was initially inspired to begin conducting land management on the property after noticing there were fewer pheasants than in years past. Indeed, dwindling numbers of wild game on the property, and the desire to restore or create better habitat, have been major factors among landowners who decide to enroll in IRAP. Many of the habitat management practices that IRAP helps to conduct can contribute to increased variety of songbirds, greater diversity in plant and other animal species, and reduced crop depredation by deer.
William Helms initially sought out Pheasants/Quail Forever, and then became enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). He also had a forestry plan drawn up through the Illinois Forestry Development Act (IFDA) cost-share program. In fact, one of the unique benefits about enrolling in IRAP is that acres can be simultaneously enrolled in other private lands programs, including the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), CRP and the Wetland Reserve Easement Program (WREP).
William Helms was passionate about trees, and his family thinks he likely planted around 1 million of them on the property. He also helped neighbors add trees to their property. He started out by planting pines, and then gradually started shifting efforts to conducting prairie restoration. Although the desire to manage the land for hunting has tapered off in recent years, the Helms family remains passionate about land conservation. Everyone, including the grandchildren, helps with management practices such as mowing and invasive species removal. The family has focused on eradicating garlic mustard, honeysuckle and multi-flora rose on the property, and they have also planted flowering native shrubs to help with pollinator conservation. The Helms are particularly concerned about declining biodiversity, and they noted having observed more insect species on the property since maintaining active management. They have also noticed an influx of morel mushrooms since IRAP staff began conducting prescribed burns on the property.
IRAP’s Benefits to Illinois Hunters
The benefits that IRAP and landowners like the Helms provide to Illinois hunters are numerous. Thanks to IRAP and its landowners, hunters both new and experienced have much better access to what has become a dwindling resource. Hunters who participate in IRAP are placed on specific sites via lottery, with youth placed first, then first-time hunters and veterans, and finally, seasoned hunters. IRAP therefore helps reconnect families to the outdoors and provides opportunities to carry-on hunting traditions and make memories. Offering the chance for youth to experience the outdoors and learn about how to care for the land is something that William Helms was particularly passionate about providing, according to his daughter, Mindy Berge.
“My father mainly wanted to ensure that the family would be able to enjoy the property for years to come, and that his children and other youth would have the opportunity to learn how to hunt and take care of the land,” Berge explained.
In fact, the whole family agrees that having the opportunity to expose youth to hunting and land stewardship is one of their favorite aspects of having property enrolled in IRAP. Being an “outdoorsy” family themselves, they want to make sure that others, particularly youth, have the opportunity to enjoy similar experiences.
The experiences enjoyed by IRAP participants on IRAP-enrolled properties are often two-fold. IRAP participants frequently comment on the habitat quality and beauty of IRAP-enrolled properties, noting the abundance of both game and non-game wildlife species. IRAP participants therefore not only gain access to hunting land, they also get to observe greater biological diversity and enjoy some truly unique and memorable experiences.
The Illinois Recreational Access Program helps landowners continue to be good stewards of their land for future generations, since it provides enrolled landowners with the opportunity to receive technical and financial assistance with habitat restoration projects. IRAP and landowners like the Helms also provide opportunities for new or displaced hunters to reconnect with our outdoor traditions while also putting on their best behavior and casting hunting in a positive light. Providing controlled access to one’s property comes with its share of benefits, as landowners can take comfort in the fact that a responsible hunter is keeping an eye on their property for them. As Mindy Berge noted, the IRAP signs that have been posted along the driveway and edge of the property have done a lot to deter trespassers. Therein lies one of the biggest advantages of all for both hunter and landowner: IRAP helps build strong communities and allows neighbors to be neighborly. It also helps to restore and maintain the quality of lands that have been passed from one generation to the next, all while helping youth and first-time hunters to take part in the time-honored traditions of our hunting heritage.
Alex Davis is the IRAP Marketing and Outreach Specialist. She has a degree in Anthropology (B.A.) from SIU Carbondale, and a degree in Environmental Studies (M.A.) from UIS Springfield. She was a graduate student intern with IDNR’s Natural Heritage Database in 2017, and then spent two years working as an ecological restoration technician for Nelson Land Management where she conducted invasive species management, timber stand improvement and prescribed burns. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, botany, mycology and nature photography.