If the Native Americans and early settlers could see Illinois now, they'd hardly recognize it. Prairies have been replaced by corn fields, forests are housing developments and golf courses, rivers are lined with industries, and the swamps of the northeast have sprouted skyscrapers.
In fact, the Natural Areas Inventory of Illinois found that only seven-hundredths of one percent of the entire state resembles what the first Europeans saw less than 200 years earlier. The inventory lists 1,199 sites in pre-settlement condition worth preserving for their biological significance and the education of future generations.
Since the early 1960s, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission has been working to protect these precious remnants of our past. The nine-member Commission was the nation's first, and its success has since caused 13 other states to emulate it.
The Commission marks a major milestone this month with the dedication of a 43-acre parcel at White Pines Forest State Park in Ogle County as Illinois' 300th nature preserve.
Nature preserve designation affords the highest form of legal protection to Illinois' largest remaining stand of white pine trees. State law restricts land use on nature preserves to activities such as hiking and birdwatching. Commercial activities, such as farming and logging, and recreational activities, such as hunting and fishing, are not allowed.
A separate program administered by the Commission allows hunting and fishing on preserves if they don't significantly impact an area's natural features. Land and Water Reserves use less restrictive conservation easements to protect high-quality natural areas.
Since the first nature preserve was dedicated in 1964 at Illinois Beach State Park, 39,000 acres located in 78 counties have been protected. They are both publicly and privately owned, and range in size from the 1/2 acre Fairchild Cemetery Prairie in Vermilion County to the 1,900-acre Heron Pond/Little Black Slough in Johnson County.
The Commission is a separate entity that works with DNR to assist landowners in voluntarily protecting lands on the Natural Areas Inventory. Preservation specialists contact owners of those areas, explain the significance of their site, and if the landowner wants to proceed, draw up a proposal to protect it. Proposals contain the history and location of the property, biologically significant species present and a proposed management plan.
If the Commission determines the property is eligible, it goes to the Governor and me for our signatures.
Nature preserves are dedicated in perpetuity. The landowner retains title to the land, has his property tax reduced to $1 an acre and receives continued land management assistance from DNR. Land and water reserves can be registered for 10 or more years, rather than forever. However, if they are not registered in perpetuity, reserves are not eligible for the 75-percent reduction in taxes offered to permanent registrants.
Getting landowners to agree to forever protect their property for the benefit of future generations is no easy task. That 300 areas have gained such protection is nothing short of remarkable.
The Commission and its employees
deserve a huge round of applause as
they dedicate Illinois' 300th nature preserve. I think those Native Americans
and early settlers of long ago would
also appreciate their efforts.