Thursday, July 18, 2013

Illinois Nature Preserves protect habitats, plants and animals for the long haul

Illinois Nature Preserves protect habitats, plants and animals for the long haul 

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In a commentary from June, I spoke about an Illinois Nature Preserve without much attention to what the designation “nature preserve” means. Today I correct that, and call attention to the work of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The Nature Preserves 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 first site dedicated by the commission was Illinois Beach Nature Preserve, in 1964. Located within Illinois Beach State Park, it preserves high-quality beachfront along with the dune complex connected to it.

[Photo: A least bittern, one of the state-threatened bird species that breeds at Sun Lake Nature Preserves. Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserve District.]

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 fifteen species of plants and animals listed as threatened or endangered in the state.

In between, the commission has dedicated another 370 Preserves around the state, which range in size from one acre to more than 2000 acres.

I spoke recently with Mary Kay Solecki, who is the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission field representative for 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. 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 tallgrass prairie around the state and elsewhere.

Solecki added that east central Illinois is also 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 worst heat of the day.

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 Nature Preserves Commission, the Land and Water Preserve program. 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.

You can learn more about the work of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and access a directory of nature preserves through or find them on facebook.