Illinois’ Nature Preserve System Is Turning 60. Celebrate By Visiting the State’s Rarest Landscapes

Illinois Beach State Park. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)Illinois Beach State Park. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)

There’s a six-mile stretch of Illinois shoreline near the Wisconsin border that looks much like it would have thousands of years ago. No industry. No bike path. No beachfront bar. 

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Illinois Beach State Park exists in a near-pristine condition because 60 years ago, in 1963, Illinois lawmakers did something groundbreaking: They passed the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act, which created the means of protecting the state’s rarest and most endangered landscapes.

In 1964, Illinois Beach became the first designated state nature preserve in a system that now encompasses more than 100,000 acres spread over 600-plus sites — from bogs to bluffs, wetlands to woodlands — all safeguarded from development in perpetuity.

Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves is marking the milestone anniversary this weekend with a celebration that includes free, public tours of dozens of preserves on Saturday and culminates Monday with a meeting of the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission at Illinois Beach. On the agenda: Commissioners are poised to approve the addition of nearly 200 more acres to the beach.

As successful as Illinois’ much-copied model of nature preserves has been, the notion of what constitutes “land preservation” has changed considerably in the intervening six decades. Along with reflecting on the preserve system’s successes, the anniversary provides an opportunity to chart a new course, said Amy Doll, director of Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves.

“When this law was passed, I don’t think there was a good understanding of what the needs were going to be once land was legally protected. The thinking was, ‘If we can get land legally dedicated and protected, then that’s enough,’” Doll said. “Sixty years later, now we know climate change and invasive species and degradation mean that there’s more to do.” 

The goal of Saturday’s tours, she explained, isn’t just to immerse people in Illinois native landscapes but to share the story of the work it takes to manage and restore natural areas. Come see how a global organization like the Nature Conservancy teams up with a local nonprofit to tend to Nachusa Grassland, or learn about Cook County Forest Preserves stewardship partnership at Somme Woods.

By sharing these stories, Doll said, the hope is to spawn new advocates for the preserves — people who will push for funding or roll up their sleeves and pitch in on volunteer work days.

After years of being starved for resources, both in terms of dollars and staffing (the Nature Preserve Commission went without a director for nearly a decade), the tide is turning at the state level, Doll said. But given the scope of the challenge, the state alone will never be able to provide enough money or manpower. 

“We need to have a paradigm shift of viewing this as all of our responsibility,” she said. “We need to not think of it as just the responsibility of our staff in state government. It’s a partnership between volunteer communities and advocates and contractors and state staff and scientists and all of us working together.”

The vision of Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves is to move what Doll termed the “nature-curious” into “nature-carers.”

“Then we’d never be in position again as the state of Illinois where we would be OK with our state government cutting the resources of our Department of Natural Resources,” she said.

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Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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