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Volunteers Care For Rarest Illinois Ecosystems

Nov 28, 2023 ● By Sheryl DeVore
Volunteers gather on an Illinois Nature preserve to work the land.

Volunteers gather on an Illinois Nature preserve to work the land. Photo courtesy of Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves.

Bolingbrook environmentalist and nature lover Tori Cunningham admits that she knew little about the Illinois Nature Preserves until just a few years ago. But after attending one of the Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves meetings, she quickly became dedicated to helping protect some of the state’s rarest ecosystems. “I also found an amazing ecosystem of people,” she says.

The Friends formed in 2020 to educate others about the preserves and to work in the field to maintain these high-quality natural areas, some of which have degraded over the years. “No matter what your skill level is, your knowledge is, when you join Friends, you are going to be useful, you are going to be wanted there,” says Cunningham, who serves as a volunteer land steward at Old Plank Road Prairie, in Matteson. “You are a piece of the puzzle,” she says, adding that there is work to be done year-round, including in winter, when invasive plants like buckthorn are removed.

Illinois has 622 state nature preserves, which landowners have dedicated to remain intact for perpetuity. Photo by Sheryl DeVore.

Since 1963, when the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission was created by the Springfield legislature, 622 sites encompassing 121,532 acres throughout the state have been dedicated as state nature preserves or land and water reserves. “That dedication means it cannot ever be developed,” says Amy Doll, director of the Friends of the Illinois Nature Preserves. “You can’t put a road on it. You can’t put a farm on it. It can be sold or donated, but those rules go with the land. These lands were never developed in Illinois, and that’s what makes them so precious, so valuable and so special.” These lasting remnants show what the state looked like in the early 1800s.

Nature preserves range in size from one acre to more than 2,000, and include prairie, wetlands, woodlands, sandstone bluffs and other natural areas. They provide homes for federally and state endangered species such as the prairie white-fringed orchid, which grows in one of the preserves in northern Illinois.

“These nature preserves may be owned by a government, public entity, the state or private citizen,” Doll relates. “It’s the landowners’ decision to dedicate the land. They recognize this is so valuable to the public that they choose to dedicate it in perpetuity.” Some of these preserves can be explored by the public.

The state’s governor appoints nine volunteer commissioners, and several Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) staff are hired to work with the many partners, including conservation staff and volunteers to identify, protect and care for these rare lands. For six years, the paid position of the commission’s executive director and others went unstaffed, partially due to the political climate, Doll explains. “It was at a time when there was a lack of constituency and a lack of awareness,” she says.

Friends was formed to ensure that never happens again. We need to keep growing and building awareness. In addition to doing advocacy and communication work and helping people understand and celebrate the preserves, we are also working on building volunteer stewardship communities at Illinois Nature Preserves, especially those that are needy. Not all the landowners are able to care for them,” Doll advises.

Volunteers bring a woody plant to be burned on the burn pile at Kishwaukee Fen Nature Preserve, in McHenry County. Photo courtesy of Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves.

One example is Kishwaukee Fen Nature Preserve, in McHenry County. “The preserve is owned by the village of Lakewood, but the village is small with limited staff resources,” Doll says. “Nobody there even knew at one time that the village owned a nature preserve.” The Baltimore checkerspot, a butterfly that depends on a plant called turtlehead for its larvae, lives in the fen, along with other butterflies depend on wetland habitat. No one was taking care of the fen, and that did not bode well for these rare species.

Friends got involved, reaching out to the village manager. “We are building a community here,” Doll says. Volunteers have cleared invasive plants, planted seeds and done prescribed burns om the fen to allow its formal brilliance to re-emerge. “Now village members are excited about the fen and making sure it’s cared for,” she notes. “The village manager and village trustees have even come to work days.”

Todd Strole, an IDNR employee and the Nature Preserves Commission’s executive director, says the Friends group plays an important role not only as worker bees maintaining the high-quality of the preserves, but also as advocates for these lands.

“People love what they understand, and they understand when they engage and invest time,” Strole explains. “When they are invested, a sense of ownership leads to defensive posture that watches for misuse, overuse, loss of funding, lack of attention and more. This leads to public support and the political will that provides the resources for success. When a volunteer recognizes their support to a larger purpose that is beyond the immediate task in front of them, good things happen. We absolutely need them.”

After two years of volunteer work, Old Plank Road Prairie Nature Preserve, in Cook County, is blossoming with healthy, native prairie plants. Photo courtesy of Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves.

Cunningham says she knew little about natural landscape management when she joined Friends, but soon learned, for example, “Trees don’t belong in prairies.” She also learned ways to collect seeds from plants and sow them elsewhere. She meets her friends and fellow volunteers every other Sunday at Old Plank Road Prairie to engage in work days. In October and November, they collect seeds. In winter, they remove buckthorn, a woody invasive plant, cutting and then putting it in a brush pile to be burned.

“Winter is all about using loppers, bow saws and sometimes even chain saws to remove invasive species,” she says. “It’s hard work, but we always have a brush fire going. I make homemade marshmallows for s’mores to cook over the brush fires. In the middle of each work day, we have a break to rehydrate,” Cunningham adds. “I bring baked goods, including both vegan and gluten-free choices, as well as nuts and chips. I like to make sure everyone is nourished and ready to tackle the second half of the workday.”

Cunningham enjoys meeting with the volunteers every other Sunday on cold winter days. “It’s such a welcoming, warming community,” she says. “It’s not only about caring for the land, but also forming human bonds,” she says.

Cunningham admits that when she hears about the destruction of important natural areas in Illinois she can become discouraged, but in two years, she has already seen positive results. A few years ago at Old Plank Road Prairie, a few plants called wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) were hanging on and blooming with a buttery yellow and coral-colored flower in spring. Volunteers cleared invasive plants and brush from the area to give the wood betony room to grow, and so many more returned that this autumn they were able to collect several grocery bags full of seed heads from the plants to spread elsewhere. She says, “It gives you hope.”

Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature, as well as nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications. Read more at