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Kankakee mallow on Langham Island in 2016.
A Kankakee mallow plant on Langham Island at Kankakee River State Park in 2016.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

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EDITORIAL: Illinois needs to do more to protect its natural wonders

Like a rare native plant struggling to survive, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission needs help if it is to thrive and do its job

When the pioneering Illinois Nature Preserves Commission was created in 1963, it helped save slivers of pristine tallgrass, savannas, sandstone bluffs, ravines and other ecological treasures around the state.

It was the first such commission in the country, and it became a model for other states dedicated to preserving the irreplaceable wonders of nature.

But since former Gov. Rod Blagojevich took office in 2003, the commission has steadily lost funding and its ability to protect land from invasive species and other threats. The position of director has been vacant for nearly four years. The assistant director position has been vacant even longer.

The agency’s website lists a 2015-2020 strategic plan, but — four years in — the plan is still a draft that asks for comments by Sept. 15, 2015.

Like a rare native plant struggling to survive in the man-made world, the commission needs support if it is to thrive and do its job. Many of its holdings are home to irreplaceable plants and animals, but in some areas the commission is losing the fight to maintain their untouched character.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Legislature should give the commission the resources it needs to fulfill its intended mission. A staff member of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources said the IDNR will be working in coming months to boost the staff of the commission, which is part of the IDNR. We hope it does so.

The commission was set up to help landowners protect high-quality natural areas in perpetuity by designating them as part of the Illinois Nature Preserves System, which has hundreds of sites. That protects the land from roads, buildings, power lines and other encroachments, even as the property sometimes remains privately owned.

It’s the highest state level of protection natural land can have.

But legal designations mean nothing to invasive species. The atrophied commission needs bolstering if it is ward them off.

For example, the 2.5-acre Palatine Prairie preserve, which harbors plants that have been around since the glaciers moved north, is beset by invasive crown vetch. Environmentalists say the system is so broken that for years no one could get permission for volunteers to go into the preserve and clear out the vetch.

At Langham Island in the Kankakee River, volunteers are fighting to preserve habitat for the pale pink flowers of the Kankakee mallow, which grows naturally nowhere else, in the face of invasive bush honeysuckle, garlic mustard, sweet clover and buckthorn.

“The wheels have really ground to a halt,” said Arthur Melville Pearson, biographer of George Fell, who founded the commission. “Those nature preserves that are owned by the state tend to be in the worst condition. They are overrun by invasives and are losing the very qualities for which they are protected.”

Besides fighting off invasive species, the commission needs to step in when nearby landowners alter water flows in a way that might flood or dry out a surviving natural area.

Near Zion, for example, the Illinois Beach Nature Preserve, one of the most biologically diverse areas in the state, is eroding because of dredging farther north on the shoreline. The Busse Forest Nature Preserve near Elk Grove Village was threatened by flooding from a proposed nearby dam expansion until environmentalists worked out a solution that provided both flood control and habitat protection.

“In a lot of ways [flooding] is worse than building a road,” said Benjamin Cox, executive director of the Friends of the Forest Preserves, who worked on the compromise.

To protect the remaining areas where native plants and animals survive, the state can’t rely solely on volunteers, who come and go over the years, particularly if there isn’t a state staff sufficiently large to recruit new volunteers.

This past spring, the Legislature took an important step by allocating $25 million in the capital plan to acquire new land, but money also is needed to protect preserves already under the commission’s care. A natural site without proper protection can degenerate quickly.

“We just can’t buy a site,” said Donald Dann, former chairman of the commission. “We have to manage and steward the site. There have to be regular burns. There has to be removal of noxious weeds and invasive species. There has to be protection against encroachment by neighboring landowners.”

Illinois government has many pressing challenges. We understand that. But once natural areas are lost, they are gone forever.

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