This year, Illinois proudly commemorates the 60th anniversary of its Nature Preserve System! Whether you’re a nature lover, conservationist or an outdoor enthusiast, there is a lot to celebrate in Illinois and its 622 preserves and 121, 492 areas of protected natural areas across the state! The Illinois Nature Preserves System (INPS) was established in 1963 and has played a pivotal role in safeguarding the state's natural heritage, ensuring that future generations can continue to enjoy its diverse ecosystems.
Last week, anniversary celebrations took place and hundreds of people from all over Illinois came to celebrate, experience the wonder of nature and wildlife, and had the opportunity to meet naturalists and artists inspired by the parks and tour some favorite parks. The celebration concluded with a public meeting of the Illinois Preserves Commission at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion where state officials officially recognized August as Illinois Nature Preserve Month and signed official documentation to protect an additional 186 acres of Illinois Nature Nature Preserves.
The mission of the Commission is to assist private and public landowners in attaining legal protection for high-quality natural areas and habitats that are home to threatened and endangered species. The organization promotes the preservation of these lands and provides leadership in their stewardship, management and protection. Areas dedicated as Illinois Nature Preserves may only be used for passive activities such as hiking, wildlife watching, photography and approved scientific research and programming.
To understand the significance of this anniversary, we must understand the history of the region. In the early 1960s, Illinois faced increasing pressures of urbanization and development. The state's once-vast wilderness areas were steadily disappearing, and with them, the rich biodiversity and unique landscapes they contained. The creation of the Illinois Nature Preserve Act in 1963 came to be as many concerned citizen and environmentalists recognized the urgent need to protect these areas. This legislation marked the birth of the Illinois Nature Preserve System – empowering the state to designate and protect areas of ecological value. This commitment to preserve the state’s rare natural treasures made Illinois the first state to create such an innovative land protection program and it became a national model for many others.
One of the primary goals of the INPS has been the conservation of biodiversity. These preserves are home to a staggering array of plant and animal species, many of which are threatened or endangered. Currently, nature preserves protect over 900 occurrences of endangered and threatened plants and animals. In fact, more than 20% of all Illinois endangered species are in state dedicated nature preserves like the Cerulean Warbler and Bobolink.
By preserving these ecosystems, Illinois has not only protected native flora and fauna but also contributed to global conservation efforts.
Many of the preserves are part of Audubon’s Important Bird Areas (IBA) Program. Illinois currently has 91 recognized IBAs. These sites are located in all regions of the state and represent various types of ownership and habitat. Breeding birds at IBAs include Henslow's Sparrows, Greater Prairie-chickens and Blue-winged Warblers in prairies and shrublands, Red-headed Woodpeckers in savannas, and Worm-eating Warblers in our southern woodlands. Hundreds of thousands of ducks use the Illinois and Mississippi River stopover sites.
When it comes to protecting wildlife, there is little time to spare. We have lost 3 billion birds since 1970 and two-thirds of North American bird species are at risk of extinction due to climate change. Additionally, Illinois, the Prairie State, has lost over 99% of its original prairie and 90% of its original wetland acreage. These and other habitat losses have lead to sharp declines in many bird populations. Of the eleven fastest declining grassland and shrubland birds in the nation, seven spend either their winter or summer months in Illinois. We must continue to protect wildlife habitat that birds and other wildlife need before they become endangered.
Be sure to get out in nature and visit some of the protected sites in celebration of Illinois Nature Preserves Commission 60th Anniversary and beyond.
While celebrating the 60th anniversary is a momentous occasion, it's important to acknowledge the ongoing challenges facing Illinois' natural landscapes. Climate change, habitat loss, and invasive species continue to threaten these valuable ecosystems. To ensure the legacy of the INPS endures for another 60 years and beyond, efforts to address these challenges and expand protected areas must continue.
We celebrate with conservation organizations, agencies, volunteers, and site stewards that have continued to protect hill prairies, streams, forests, woodlands, and other high quality natural areas for the past 60 years and will continue to do so in order to preserve the state's biodiversity and natural heritage for future generations.