Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation

Books seldom sell themselves. Especially if you write a biography of an important but little known conservation leader.

Fortunately, I’ve been having a great time barnstorming the state on my book tour, preaching the gospel of George Fell. Born in Rockford, Illinois, he was about as unlikely a conservation hero as you can imagine — no pedigree, no job, no money, no connections, no experience. And yet, through sheer tenacity, he protected more land in Illinois than anyone before or since. More importantly, he was the driving force behind the establishment of The Nature Conservancy, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and other powerful engines of conservation that will protect even more lands far into the future.

Another thing I love about the book tour is meeting the conservation heroes of today — those who build upon Fell’s legacy to protect the lands they love.

This past weekend, my wife, Susan, and I traveled to the Drifltess Area of northwest Illinois to give a talk to the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation. What a great group of folks. Executive director Steve Barg gave some introductory remarks about JDCF, including the fact that since its founding in 1993 it has protected nearly 7,000 acres of land.

After my “revival tent sermon” about George Fell, my wife and I joined the staff, board and supporters for a country supper of brats, sauerkraut, and cheddar beer soup. In addition to the delicious food, we relished learning about the different ways folks help preserve and celebrate the lands they love — as donors, as volunteers, as nature photographers, artists and writers, and by placing conservation easements on their own lands.

The next day, Steve treated Susan and I to a tour of Casper Bluff Land and Water Reserve. Whereas only the highest quality natural lands may be dedicated as Illinois Nature Preserves, areas that harbor significant natural and cultural heritage may be dedicated as Land and Water Reserves. Either way, these formal dedications by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission afford and exceptional level of protection.

Casper Bluff is a stand out reserve both for its panoramic views of the Mississippi River and its high concentration of effigy mounds from the middle to late Woodland Society of Native Americans, circa A.D. 700 to A.D. 1,000. Among the protected effigies is the last, intact bird or thunderbird with a wingspan of 216 feet.

JDCF does a terrific job not only protecting important sites, but providing rich interpretive signage. For instance, at Wapello Land and Water Reserve — a sacred site for two late Woodland cultures — I learned that Chief Wapello was among the last Fox chieftains to resist selling any more ancestral lands in the Driftless area. I learned, too, that the original name for Hanover — the town in which the reserve is located — was Wapello.

On the last day of our three-day weekend, Susan and I continued our quest to visit all 400+ Illinois Nature Preserves. There are at least three in Jo Daviess County.

Hanover Bluff was the first to be dedicated in the county, in 1987. It was too wet and muddy to climb the steep slopes up to the aptly-named “goat prairies” tucked amid the oak woodland communities, but we did manage to catch a glimpse of the towering bluffs.

Wards Grove is described as “a large forested island between extensive rowcrop areas to the east and forest areas to the west. Its large size, unbroken canopy, mature understory and position with respect to other regional forested areas, make Wards Grove a very valuable site for area sensitive bird species.”

Last on our list was Apple River Canyon. Most folks know Apple River Canyon as a popular state park. What most don’t know is that there are dedicated Nature Preserves within many of our state, county, and municipal parks, including Apple River. This assures that the most ecologically sensitive areas of the parks have the extra level of protection they need. Not surprisingly, then, there are no established trails in the Apple River Canyon Nature Preserve. But keep an eye out for the distinctive white triangle signs for a glimpse of the very best of the best nature in all of Jo Daviess County.

Nachusa Grasslands

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

Nachusa Grasslands Nature Preserve — a beacon of beauty and biodiversity

These oft-quoted words of Daniel Burnham — architect, urban planner, visonary for the World’s Columbian Exhibition, chief author of the Plan of Chicago, commonly known as the Burnham Plan — apply perfectly to George Fell.

My biography of George Fell recounts his extraordinary efforts to launch both The Nature Conservancy and the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission

Fell made no little plans. He aimed high in transforming a loose band of academics into The Nature Conservancy, now the largest conservation organization in the world. He was insistent in establishing the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, which in turn sparked nearly every other state in the nation to establish similar ways of protecting the remnants of our biological heritage.

Perhaps the best place to experience where Fell’s big, realized plans come together most inspiringly is at Nachusa Grasslands Nature Preserve.

One of several species of coreopsis you’ll find blooming in the recovering prairie lands of Nachusa

Among Fell’s many strengths was his ability to lay out a “logical diagram” for his big plans. No mere dreamer, he painstakingly put into place The Nature Conservancy’s operational infrastructure, including its vaunted chapter system.

The spiky white flowers of rattlesnake master poke at the puffball clouds on a hot summer day at Nachusa

Among the first chapters to be established was the one in his home state. Fell played an active role in the early days of the Illinois Chapter, serving as board treasurer and personally negotiating its first acquisition — Volo Bog. Much later, as executive director of the Natural Land Institute, Fell helped TNC acquire the first 115 acres of remnant prairie near Franklin Grove, IL, which today anchor Nachusa Grasslands.

The heliocentric blossoms of compass plant doing what sunflowers do — turn their faces toward the sun

In 2013, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission dedicated the 1,000-acre core unit of Nachusa as an Illinois Nature Preserve. It’s hard to say which of the 400+ Illinois Nature Preserves is the best, but by several measures Nachusa has to be near the top of the list. In addition to the fact that it is among the largest restored grasslands in the entire state, a small army of passionate volunteers has helped to ensure that its prairies, oak savannas, woodlands and wetlands are exceptionally well stewarded.

Spying lots of Culver’s root put by wife and me in mind of the root beer floats we were going to order at the first Culver’s Frozen Custard joint we found on the way home after a hot, humid day on the prairie

Nachusa harbors more than 700 native plant species and hosts 180 different kinds of birds. Although several other Illinois Nature Preserves boast equally rich biodiversity, Nachusa is the only one that has bison. Only at Nachusa can you experience the beauty, the blood-stirring magic that is The Nature Conservancy, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and a growing herd of Bison bison, America’s national mammal.

Look closely — on the left is a sign warning about Nachusa’s wild bison and on the right is the familiar white triangle sign letting folks know that they are looking at a dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve

Thanks, George, for aiming high and realizing your big, beautiful plans. Thanks to all those who build upon what George accomplished and stagger us with their own big plans and achievements.

Since bison were reintroduced to Nachusa in 2014, the herd has grown from 30 to 100
The new visitor center pavilion provides a little shade and a lot of terrific information about the history, the beauty and the biodiversity of Nachusa

Hetzler Cemetery Prairie

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) towering above the tombstones at Hetlzler Cemetery Nature Preserve

On July 7, I discovered quite few towering, flowering compass plants in a one-acre pioneer cemetery in Bureau County, Illinois.

This was a couple of weeks earlier than Aldo Leopold typically found his “pet” compass plant in bloom every year in a corner of an unnamed pioneer cemetery in Sauk County, Wisconsin. He figured it may have been the last of its kind in the western half of his home county. That is before it was cut down by a road crew, unlikely ever to grow back.

At the time Leopold wrote about this “funeral of the native flora” in “A Sand County Almanac,” there was no law, no regulation, no mechanism to protect small, isolated prairie remnants from destruction. In fact, in another essay Leopold relegated some of those remnants to “ultimate extinction” because it was impractical to expect government to own and take care of them.

George Fell was a huge fan of Leopold. He drank deeply of “A Sand County Almanac” Kool-aid. Except the bit about the extinction of remnant natural areas. Like Leopold, he agreed that landowners should expand their ethical spheres to protect the last vestiges of our native plant and animal habitats. But also like Leopold, he understood that could take years, decades, generations to happen. If ever.

So, George Fell — on the heels of being the driving force in the launch of The Nature Conservancy —  was the driving force in the establishment of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. This was the nation’s first state agency empowered to provide virtual ironclad protection to the highest quality remnant natural lands.

Hetzler Cemetery Nature Preserve among a sea of corn

Bureau County lies within the Grand Prairie Division of Illinois, which means that most of its 599,360 acres was originally covered in prairie. Today, exactly one acre of its original blacksoil prairie is permanently protected. It lies within the Hetzler Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve. Surrounded by a sea of corn and soybeans, this pioneer cemetery was never disturbed, saved for the burial of some of the state’s earliest pioneers. It contains a rich mix of prairie grasses and flowers, including plenty of compass plants — some of which are likely older than the pioneers sleeping among their roots reaching 15 feet into the earth.

The white globe flowers of rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) gracing one of the sun-bleached headstones at Greenlee Cemetery Nature Preserve

In Henry County, directly to the west, there are two additional acres of protected prairie — one acre each in Greenlee Cemetery Nature Preserve and Munson Township Cemetery Nature Preserve. In addition to compass plants, they contain healthy stands of rattlesnake master, hoary puccoon, prairie violets and hundreds of other plants — the diversity of which stands in stark contrast to the monoculture corn and soybean fields surrounding them.

All in all, there are 29 pioneer cemeteries dedicated as Illinois Nature Preserves. Together, the contain about 50 acres of some of the best prairie remaining in the entire state of Illinois. That isn’t very much. In fact, it’s about .000002 percent of the 22 million acres of prairie that once blanketed the Prairie State.

But thanks to George Fell, our native prairie remnants — containing hundreds of different kinds of beautiful plants and the bugs and birds and other critters that depend upon them for their very existence — are not extinct. They may be small and scattered, but they are very much alive thanks, too, to the Greenfield Cemetery Association, the Henry County Natural Area Guardians, and all the other local groups who volunteer their time to tend these precious remnants of our cultural and natural heritage.

Up and close personal with compass plant blossoms, towering ten to twelve feet above the pioneer prairie headstones

Carpenter Park

What better way to celebrate receiving an award for my biography of George Fell than to visit Carpenter Park — one of more than 400 Illinois Nature Preserves for which he provided permanent protection.

But first things first. Receiving an Outstanding Achievement Award for scholarly publications from the Illinois State Historical Society was an exceptional honor — especially since the awards ceremony was held in Representatives Hall in the Old State Capitol. To stand where Lincoln stood when he delivered the “House divided against itself” speech, offering a few words about my own effort to chronicle a small but important sliver of our state’s history — well, that’s a moment I’m going to remember for a long time.

Afterward, my wife and I took advantage of the perfect spring weather and spent the afternoon in the only dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve in all of Sangamon County.

Carpenter Park is located along the Sangamon River, about 15 minutes from the Old State Capitol. It is owned and managed by the Springfield Park District, which acquired the site way back in 1922. Prior to that, it was owned by the Carpenter family, who used the river to power a sawmill and a flour mill. Prior to that — because no Springfield, IL history story is worth its salt unless it includes a tie to the 16th President — a young Abraham Lincoln canoed down the Sangamon River, past the modern-day Carpenter Park, on his way to establish his own homestead at New Salem. Prior to that, the Pottawatomie gave the river its name, Sain-guee-mon,  meaning “where there is plenty to eat.”

Today, Carpenter Park is a popular place. Small wonder. Any one of the several trails quickly leads you through an exceptionally rich and varied landscape — from upland forest down to floodplain forest along the river, with seeps and intermittent streams, and scenic sandstone outcrops.

The forest floor was filled with spring ephemerals, including phlox, trillium and buttercup and may apples, to name a few. (The Park District might do well to engage a few Scout troops to pull up invasive garlic mustard, which is threatening to overrun some areas.)

Even more impressive was the number of birds we saw. Carpenter Park is home to at least 82 bird species. We didn’t see quite that many, but it was a joy to spy several red-head woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, many different kinds of warblers, and a rose-breasted grosbeak.

Heroes comes in all different shapes and sizes. Abraham Lincoln was a hero of epic proportions for many things, including keeping the country from being divided. George Fell was a hero in his own right, keeping the the last remnants of our ecological heritage — the prairies, woodlands and wetlands of the Prairie State — from being destroyed.

Chicago Ridge Prairie

Come November, there’s not much color left in a prairie. A last splash of yellow, perhaps, in a few lingering coreopsis petals or a stubborn spring of goldenrod. Nonetheless, on my first visit to  Chicago Ridge Prairie , it’s easy to see that it is a special place, a well managed place, a well interpreted place.

To learn just how special, all you have to do is read the signs. Of the nearly 50 nature preserves I’ve visited this year, perhaps only Volo Bog rivals Chicago Ridge Prairie for interpretive signage. Already I knew that prairie remnants are rare in Illinois — of the estimated 22 million acres of prairie that once blanketed Illinois, only about 2,500 acres remain, mostly in small, isolated sites throughout the state. But from the signage I learned that Chicago Ridge Prairie — currently owned and managed by the Oak Lawn Park District — is among the rarest of the rare. It is one of only two gravel prairies remaining on the lake bed of ancient Lake Chicago.  Its calcerous conditions support a distinct combination of about 150 prairie plants — many of them uncommon to rare.

I also learned from the signage that in the 1980s, about a third of the site was ruined by illegal dumping. That’s how we’ve lost so much of our natural land. For some, the last vestiges of our native prairies, wetlands and woodlands are not oases of biodiversity and beauty, they are merely convenient places to dump garbage. But in this instance, someone cared enough to undo the damage, to remove the equivalent of a thousand dump trucks of trash. Someone cared enough to use seeds gathered from the rest of the site to begin restoring the dump site back to its prairie glory. Someone cared enough to work with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission to get the site dedicated in 1994 as an official Illinois Nature Preserve, providing permanent protection for the site.

I love learning about these hero stories. However, some mystery remains. How is it that this 11.7-acre prairie remnant survived at all? How come it didn’t get plowed up or developed long ago, like everything surrounding it in this inner ring suburb of Chicago?

The triangular-shaped Chicago Ridge Prairie is hemmed in on all three sides — by a raised rail line, an elementary school, and residential housing.

That’s the story I’d love to learn about this and so many other nature preserves — how did they escape the plow, the developer? Who were the other heroes who first had a hand in protecting them? Who once owned the land, perhaps, and chose beauty over commerce? Or who signed petitions, or raised money to keep the site from falling victim to “progress.” Or maybe, as was the case with Gensburg-Markham Prairie, what was the planned development that failed, leading to preservation by neglect, until someone came along and gave these remnants of our shared ecological heritage the care and attention they so richly deserved?

I’ve put out a few feelers to learn more about Chicago Ridge Prairie. Perhaps by the time I visit next summer — when the prairie is in full bloom — I’ll know a little more, rendering my experience of the site richer still.

Volo Bog

Today was a toss-up as to which was more fun — talking to folks about the George Fell biography or taking a guided tour of one of the natural areas that George protected first by buying it and then designating it as an Illinois Nature Preserve: Volo Bog.

First of all, how cool is it that a bog has its own book group: Of Bogs and Books. That’s due to Stacy Iwanicki, a long-time naturalist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. According to an article published last year in the Lake County News-Sun she started the book group back in 1994.  Since then, they’ve read more than 233 books. Some books, including Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, they’ve read several times.

Stacy Iwanicki, Site Supervisor, Volo Bog State Natural Area

I was flattered to be invited to talk to this group about my biography of George Fell. It’s a great group of folks, who share a deep passion for nature. Not only do they enjoy reading about it, but many of them roll up their sleeves as volunteer stewards, to help keep our natural area gems healthy for future generations to come.

Even more exciting was when Stacy popped in a video she had made many years before — featuring George Fell. I never met George. He passed away several years before I started writing about him. I had seen him in a 1989 documentary entitled Saving Nature,  in which he voiced his signature brand of determination: “If one person is determined that something is going to be saved, it can be done. It will be done. If there isn’t that determination, it doesn’t happen.”

Volo Bog State Natural Area has done a great job preserving its history, too – articles about the efforts to protect the site are on display in the visitor center

When Stacy first arrived at Volo Bog, she had had the foresight and wisdom to gather George and others who had been involved in saving Volo Bog, and to record them reflecting upon their past experiences. Seeing George talk about the history really brought the book alive for all of us. It’s a moment I’ll savor forever — thanks, Stacy.


But Stacy wasn’t done. After the book group, she gave my wife and me a personal tour of the bog. This was my first visit to the bog, after having written about it fairly extensively in the book. George had had a direct hand in negotiating the acquisition of both Volo and Wauconda Bogs on behalf of the Illinois Chapter of The Nature Conservancy — this was just a few years after he had taken the leadership role in transforming the Ecologists’ Union into The Nature Conservancy. More than a decade later — after he spearheaded the establishment of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission — he championed the dedication of Volo Bog as the 25th Illinois Nature Preserve.

Bogs are exceptionally rare in Illinois. They are also one of the most dramatic reminders of the glaciers that once covered northeastern Illinois in ice a mile thick. When they retreated, among the landforms they left were large lakes. The vegetation in some of these lakes decomposed and turned into peat mats, which in turn support unique assemblages of plants, including tamarack trees. Volo Bog is the only one remaining in Illinois that includes “all the stages of classic bog succession,” from the open “eye of water at its center to the forested bog around its perimeter.

Just as amazing as the bog was Stacy’s enthusiasm for the site. As she guided us along the floating walkway, she stopped and talked to every other visitor we met along the way, sparking their imaginations with interesting facts and insights into the landscape surrounding them. If George Fell was a force of nature in protecting our natural lands, Stacy Iwanicki is the equally necessary next generation force of nature who helps steward and interpret these sites. Again, thanks, Stacy. Susan and I look forward to a return trip to the bog soon.

The tamarack trees of Volo Bog Nature Preserve

Harlem Hills

Harlem Hills Nature Preserve holds a special place in my heart because it meant so much to George Fell.

As George feared, more houses did appear, but he was able to save nearly 100 acres of this rare, wonderful prairie heritage

A school paper George wrote as a young boy revealed both his love for such native landscapes and his fear that they were being destroyed. “Every spring this bare, desolate hill becomes a beautiful flower garden, equaling, in some respects, any ever made by man.” After describing the seasonal parade of native prairie blossoms, from pasque flowers in the spring through purple asters in the fall, he concluded his essay, “Soon, however, there will be houses and streets, bordered with bushes and dried up flowers, which really belong in Europe, in place of the pleasant hilltop which is now there.”

George and Barbara on their wedding day, May 21, 1948

George and his wife, Barbara, spent their honeymoon night camping among the prairie flowers of what then was known as Byron Easton Hill.

George co-authored with this father — a noted amateur botanist who inspired his son in his passion for our native plants — The Gravel-Hill Prairies of Rock River Valley in Illinois, of which Harlem Hills is the largest and best remaining.

When his father died, George redoubled his effort to protect Harlem Hills, which he did first by buying the land and then having it dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve in August 1973.

Today, the site is co-owned and stewarded by the Natural Land Institute (founded by George) and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

This past March, Susan and I visited the site with Jerry Paulson, former executive director of NLI, who worked many years with George. We were too early see pasque flowers — one of the first bloomers on the gravel ridge prairie. And by the time I was able to return in July, the pasque flowers long since had gone to seed.

In past visits, I’ve seen other early season wildflowers. And today, at the height of summer, there are yet other beauties to behold before they give way in turn to the fall bloomers. As George observed, Harlem Hills is indeed, “a beautiful flower garden, equaling, in some respects, any ever made by man.” But its survival is entirely dependent upon humankind, beginning with one man — George Fell.

Hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) with shooting stars (Dodecatheon)
Tick trefoil (Desmodium)
Yellow coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata)
Flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata)
White wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) with bee (and its impressive pollen sacs) and weevil
Tall cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta) with beetle
Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)

Liberty Prairie, Almond Marsh, Oak Openings

Liberty Prairie Reserve is exceptional for many reasons. It’s a big, public-private vision to protect nearly 5,800 acres of land in the heart of Lake County, Illinois, as open space. To date, nearly 60% has been protected by donation, acquisition or easement. The reserve also harbors three dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves. Today, I visited all three.

Fittingly, Liberty Prairie Reserve is anchored by Liberty Prairie Nature Preserve. There are no developed trails in this particular Nature Preserve, although a regional bike trail does run alongside at least a part of it.

George Fell argued strenuously against trails in dedicated Nature Preserves. he had a point that because so little natural land remained in the Prairie State, he was unwilling to give up a single square inch more. In the case of Liberty Prairie Reserve, the case for limited public access and no added infrastructure is particularly apt because it is among the rarest of the rare: it was never plowed and only lightly grazed, leaving intact the soils, the topography, the diversity of habitat types — including graminoid fen, sedge meadow and marsh — and a rich mix of more than 150 species of plants, and some rare fauna, as well.

So, too, am I OK with the fact that the main entrance to Almond Marsh Nature Preserve is closed to the public today. In order to minimize disturbance to the adjacent rookery, the parking area is open only Saturday mornings April through July. A small price to pay to maintain a healthy colony of herons. (Anyway, I’ve been to Almond Marsh many times and yesterday — through my camera lens –I got a close up peek at some of the fledgling herons during the regular open visitation hours.)


In the adjacent Oak Openings Nature Preserve, there is a narrow footpath spur into Almond Marsh. But the mosquitoes along the heavily wooded path got the better of me and so I remained on the main trail that runs through wide open space of Oak Openings.

Yes, the trail through the preserve. I empathize with George Fell not wanting wide trails through Nature Preserves, but I have to admit they are kind of nice. The crushed gravel trail through Oak Openings is busy with lots of Sunday morning bikers and joggers. But there is plenty of room for all to enjoy this exceptional landscape, inclusive of prairie, wetlands, woodlands and savanna.


The original Illinois land surveyors back in the early- to mid-1800s tended to use the terms “savanna,” “openings,” and “barrens” interchangeably. Today, there are technical differences, but common among them is a combination of prairie understory and open canopy woods, typically oaks.


There is a lot of restoration underway at this site , including a major effort to reclaim monoculture corn and soybean fields for richly diverse communities of native plants and animals. Some of this reclamation/restoration work is occurring on land previously owned by the Donnelley family.

I’m incredibly fortunate to work for the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. (As a reminder, this blog reflects my personal views and not those of the foundation) Its founders, Gay and Dot, were instrumental in the establishment of Liberty Prairie Reserve, an ethic they passed on to their children. The Donnelleys helped protect some of the first lands within Liberty Prairie Reserve. Now those lands are being restored to their native habitats by Conserve Lake County and Libertyville Township Open Space District, and have been formally dedicated as buffer lands to two of the three Liberty Prairie Nature Preserves.

As memorialized on the Conserve Lake County website, Strachan Donnelley, founder of the Center for Humans and Nature, had this to say about protecting our natural lands:

“How practically can human communities and individuals fit and live well within nature? We can work unflaggingly to promote effective cultures of conservation and help to spread their influence to an ever widening circle of communities regional, national, and global. Is there really any other moral and civic alternative?”

Old Plank Road Prairie, Dewey Helmick and Hickory Creek Barrens

Susan and I recently enjoyed an Illinois Nature Preserve-alooza while getting a good workout. Pedaling our bikes along the Old Plank Road Trail, we cruised through Old Plank Road Prairie and Dewey Helmick Nature Preserves. The third site was the Butterfield Creek Headwaters Land and Water Reserve. A few weeks later, we returned to the trail and took the spur to Hickory Creek Barrens Nature Preserve.

The Old Plank Road Trail derives its name from the plank road that was authorized in 1849 but never built. In 1855, the right of way became the corridor through which ran the Joliet and Northern Indiana Railroad, leased to the Michigan Central Railroad. The line ran both freight and rail for nearly a century, but was abandoned in the early 1970s.

It took more than 20 years to acquire the right of way, raise funds and overcome certain local opposition, but in 1997 the first segment of the Old Plank Road Trail was opened to the public. At the ribbon cutting in 1997, Dewey Helmick, a former village trustee for Park Forest, remarked, “We salute all those people who love to walk, run, ride and skate and admire nature in safety and serenity.”

That same year, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission named one of the two new nature preserves in his honor. Dewey Helmick Nature Preserve and Old Plank Road Nature Preserve are prototypical railroad prairies. They survived because they remained relatively untouched since the rails were laid more than a century and a half ago — aside from periodic fires set by sparks from passing trains. But that was a good thing, since prairies are dependent upon fire to keep their soils healthy and to keep invasive trees and shrubs from encroaching.

Directly across from Dewey Helmick lies the Butterfield Creek Headwaters Land and Water Reserve. At 83+ acres, it is more than six times the size of the two nature preserves combined, and is popular for the many cormorants and herons that populate its small island. Land and Water Reserves afford a sort of second tier level of protection by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.


The Old Plank Road Trail runs for 22 miles from Chicago Heights to Joliet. A little west of Frankfort, a short spur leads to Hickory Creek Reserve. At more than 2,000 acres, it is the Forest Preserve District of Will County’s largest preserve. More than a quarter of it — 575 acres — was dedicated in 1998 as the Hickory Creek Barrens Nature Preserve.

Like the plank road that was never built, neither was a planned regional stormwater reservoir along Hickory Creek. Instead, the accidental openspace, if you will, allowed for the eventual permanent preservation of an exceptional kind of natural area community — a barrens.

Early Illinois land surveys, conducted largely between 1804 and 1843, were not consistent in their terminology. Different surveyors in different parts of the state used “barrens,” “openings” and “savannas” interchangeably. But a modern understanding of  barrens is that it is a specific type of dry forest with open canopies, with understories of grasses and other prairie plants.

Biking through the preserve is fun both for the beauty of the recovering landscape, as well as for the steep up and down hills.

Among the joys of biking the entire Old Plank Road Trail is its rich mix of woodlands, prairies, dedicated nature preserves and well tended backyard gardens. Next time you’re on the trail, make sure to stop by Frankfort Prairie Park, as well. It’s an outstanding example of green infrastructure, using a complex of wetland and prairie — filled with native grasses and flowers — to help store and filter stormwater, and also provide a beautiful place to take a walk, catch a fish and watch some butterflies. Leaps and bounds better than a conventional detention basin for the adjacent residential community. Kudos Village of Frankfort.

Truitt Hoff

Photo courtesy of Sandy Kaczmarski, The Conservation Foundation

There are two things I love most about having written Force of Nature. The first is traveling around the state sharing George Fell’s story with a broader audience. The second is using these trips to explore more of the nature preserves that George helped to protect.

Today, I was invited to speak at the annual luncheon for The Conservation Foundation. There were about 100 people in attendance at Arrowhead Golf Club in Wheaton, DuPage County. Per usual, only a small handful of them had heard of George Fell. After the talk, a lot of folks bought books to learn more about him — George was as complex and fascinating a man as he was a hugely accomplished conservationist.

After the luncheon, I changed into my hiking gear and set out to explore a few nature preserves. There are eight dedicated nature preserves owned and managed by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. I decided to visit three of them, beginning with Truitt Hoff, located in West Chicago Prairie — #18 on my way to visiting 50 nature preserves this year.

A terrific online history of Truitt Hoff (would that every nature preserve had such a thing) confirmed what a long-time steward had told me at the annual luncheon. Namely, that Truitt Hoff was one of those forgotten places — former farmland turned to stockyards and eventually sold for development, when former West Chicago mayor Richard Truitt “discovered” the prairie remnant and shared the news with Ray Schulenberg, one of the early pioneers of prairie restoration.

The online history also tells how the other man for whom the site is partly named — Mel Hoff — was appointed the Volunteer Steward in 1982 and formed the West Chicago Prairie Stewardship Group. It took 24 years of sweat equity to remove invasive species, abandoned cars and all kinds of other debris. But eventually, the diverse site — containing freshwater marsh, mesic silt loam savanna, and at least three different kinds of prairie communities — returned to health and was designated as the Truitt Hoff Nature Preserve in 2006.

The work of stewarding our natural areas is never done. The West Chicago Stewardship Group remains active. It is guided by a detailed management plan developed by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, in accordance with the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act, which requires such plans for all dedicated Nature Preserves.

At the trailhead, the stewardship group had posted its most recent newsletter, that helped me better see and understand the site. Out in the field, I found brush piles, evidence of the clearing reported in the newsletter. I also encountered lusher grasses yet fewer wildflowers than anticipated, which the newsletter chalked up to a wet spring.

The grasses were so dense and lush, in fact, that they all but obscured the narrow footpaths, which reminded me of a question raised at the annual luncheon — about public access to nature preserves. I acknowledged that George Fell was more of a nature-for-nature’s-sake kind of guy. Whereas most of his Illinois Nature Preserves Commissioners preferred wider, more inviting trails to encourage people to explore nature, George was adamant that trails be kept to a minimum, and that visitors should walk single file, like the “Indians” used to do.

George would have been much pleased by the trails at Truitt Hoff. They afforded a particularly up close and personal experience of the prairie. (Along with a few ticks and chiggers.) There may have been fewer wildflowers than usual, and most of the birds appeared to have taken a siesta to avoid the mid-day sun, but the preserve was teeming with all different kinds of dragonflies.

Eastern pondhawk (female), Erythemis simplicicollis

Thanks, George Fell. And Mayor Truitt and Mel Hoff. And all those who continue to steward this exceptional site, which “is different from other DuPage County forest preserves in that it contains no large picnic areas or fishing lakes. Instead, it offers visitors the unique opportunity to enjoy a tranquil walk through one of the state’s rarest — and richest — prairie ecosystems.

Widow skimmer (female), Libellula luctuosa
Common whitetail (male), Plathemis lydia
White-faced pondhawk (female) Sympetrum obtrusum
Twelve-spotted skimmer (female), Libellula pulchella