Environmental Almanac: Illinois nature preserves serve important purpose

In a column from June and others in the past, I've written about properties dedicated as Illinois Nature Preserves without much attention to what the designation "nature preserve" means. Today's column is intended to correct that and to call attention to the work of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The commission was established by the state Legislature and is affiliated with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Its mission is "to assist private and public landowners in protecting high-quality natural areas and habitats of endangered and threatened species in perpetuity, through voluntary dedication or registration of such lands into the Illinois Nature Preserves System. The Commission promotes the preservation of these significant lands and provides leadership in their stewardship, management and protection."

The first site dedicated by the commission was Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in 1964. Located within Illinois Beach State Park, it encompasses 829 acres and preserves high-quality beachfront along with the dune complex connected to it: "One of the richest, biologically most diverse areas in the state," according to the commission's description.

The most recent addition to the system is Sun Lake Nature Preserve in Lake County, which was dedicated along with seven other sites this past May. It's a 530-acre property that preserves a lake, freshwater marsh and upland forest, and supports 15 species of plants and animals listed as threatened or endangered in the state.

In between, the commission has dedicated another 370 nature preserves in 84 counties around the state. They encompass more than 56,000 acres and range in size from 1 acre to more than 2,000 acres. (That's a good bit of land overall, but for perspective, there are 500 acres of agricultural land in Illinois for each acre of nature preserve. And the total portion of the landscape that remains as it was when settlers of European descent arrived is less than 0.1% of the whole.)

I spoke recently with Mary Kay Solecki, who is the commission's field representative for nine counties in East Central Illinois. She pointed out that some of the most accessible nature preserves in our part of the state are located in Forest Glen County Park in Vermilion County.

There, you can hike through the Russell Duffin Woods Nature Preserve on the River Ridge backpack trail, where the trail follows the Vermilion River. If you've been there, you may have noticed the magnificent old growth beech trees, the ones with the smooth gray bark that people feel compelled to carve their initials in. Vermilion County marks the western extent of beech-maple forest at our latitude, so you won't see such trees at Busey Woods or Allerton Park.

Also at Forest Glen, you can walk through the Doris Westfall Prairie Restoration Nature Preserve, which was established in 1972 and serves as a model for restorations of tall-grass prairie around the state and elsewhere.

Solecki added that East Central Illinois also is home to some accessible nature preserves at cemeteries where small remnants of original prairie remain. These include Prospect Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve in Ford County and Loda Cemetery Nature Preserve in Iroquois County. Late summer is a great time to witness the profusion of native flowers blooming at these sites, although you probably want to visit in the morning or evening to avoid the heat of midday.

Because sites dedicated as nature preserves represent the highest-quality habitats and protect rare plants and animals, enjoyment of them is limited to hiking and observing.

That's not the case for sites protected by the other program administered by the commission, the Land and Water Preserve program, which was instituted in 1994. This program promotes conservation of larger blocks of habitat that are useful for wildlife but not necessarily pristine. Landowners may use property enrolled in the Land and Water Reserve Program more intensively, for hunting, fishing and camping, for example, and even timber harvest. Currently, the Land and Water Reserve Program protects 48,000 acres at 170 sites.

You can learn more about the work of the commission and access a directory of nature preserves at http://dnr.state.il.us/inpc/ or look them up on Facebook.

Environmental Almanac is a service of the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.

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