Arthur Melville Pearson plans to visit 50 nature preserves in 2017. He is the author of Force of Nature: George Fell, Founder of the Natural Areas Movement, published last week by the University of Wisconsin Press. Here he presents one of a series of blog posts, to be continued on his own website, paying tribute to the conservation efforts of George Fell and the extraordinary natural areas we can still enjoy because of those efforts.
Among the joys of writing the biography of George Fell has been the opportunity to see some of my favorite nature preserves with entirely new eyes. Prior to writing the book, I had no clue—as I hiked and birded and paddled throughout Illinois and beyond—that so many wild and wonderful places would not exist save for a man who went out of his way to deflect any credit for their preservation.
Take the Cache River wetlands, for instance. Many times have I enjoyed a quiet kayak trip through its slow-moving, black water sloughs, navigating among massive cypress trees that make me feel as if I had been magically transported from the southern tip of Illinois to the bayous of Louisiana. At the time, I had no idea that it was George (after working on his biography for so many years, I think it’s appropriate for us to be on a first name basis now) who acquired the first 65 acres of Heron Pond, which today anchors the state’s largest Illinois Nature Preserve, which in turn anchors a 60,000-acre protected corridor along a 50-mile stretch of the Cache River.
At the opposite end of the state, at Illinois Beach State Park, lies the largest expanse of undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline within the borders of Illinois. Its diverse complex of lakeshore, foredune, sand prairie, sand savanna, fen, panne, sedge meadow, marsh, and pond habitat makes it one of my favorite birding spots. In fact, it is the one of the best in all the Midwest for viewing the semi-annual migration of raptors. It was news to me that it was George who kept the southern end of the state park from being developed as a golf course, marina, and swimming pool by dedicating it as the very first Nature Preserve in Illinois.
As far back as the 1920s, there had been calls to protect the lush woodlands and picturesque limestone outcroppings in an area along the Rock River, named for an iconic geologic feature: Castle Rock. I was fascinated to learn that it was George who singlehandedly negotiated the acquisition of the first one thousand acres to establish Castle Rock State Park. Today, the park has grown to nearly twice that size and—this was news to me, too—it harbors the largest dedicated Nature Preserve in northern Illinois, aptly named for George B. Fell.
Currently, thanks to George’s tireless efforts to pass the landmark Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act, there are 400 dedicated Nature Preserves in Illinois. Thanks to George, who was the driving force in transforming the Ecologists’ Union into The Nature Conservancy, there are countless TNC preserves scattered throughout the country and across the world. Obviously, I could touch upon only a fraction of these preserves in the book.
However, to celebrate the release of my book Force of Nature, I have pledged to visit 50 Nature Preserves in 2017 and blog about each one at http://arthurmelvillepearson.com/. At this pace, it will take me eight years to visit all of the dedicated Nature Preserves in Illinois, and more years still to visit as many TNC sites as I can. For those who enjoy the book, my blog will serve as a living addendum, celebrating the wild places protected by a true force of nature, George Fell.
is the director of the Chicago Program at the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, which helps protect and restore natural lands in the Chicago region and the Lowcountry of South Carolina. His writing has appeared frequently in the magazines Chicago Wilderness and Outdoor Illinois and in the blogs A Midewin Almanac and City Creatures.