Prologue
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3 An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man. Ralph Waldo Emerson To save land, George Fell built not just an institution but several of them, including The Nature Conservancy, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and the Natural Land Institute. In doing so he sparked an entire movement to protect the most important natural lands left—no matter how small—from being destroyed. Although he never would have made the claim himself, in building these institutions he has had a guiding hand in protecting natural lands throughout Illinois, the rest of the United States, and the world: from the everglades of Florida to the Amazon Basin in Brazil; from barrier islands off the coast of New York to vast arid lands in Australia; from prairie chicken preserves in central Illinois to panda habitat in Sichuan Province, China. Fell did not build these institutions alone, of course. Over the years, many individuals have made their own vital contributions. However, it was Fell who was the driving force in conceiving them. It was Fell who had the sheer persist­ ence to turn concept into reality. It was Fell who took it upon himself to staff what he had structured to work through the critical start-up years. And it was Fell whose headstrong ways led to his dismissal from some of the very institutions he built. Prologue = 4 Prologue All in all, Fell was the right man in the right place at the right time to set the path of conservation on a new course. In the United States, conservation began in the mid-nineteenth century to preserve scenic grandeur and ensure that there would be sufficient resources for a growing nation: think national parks and national forests. At the turn of the twentieth century, the study of natural history, fueled by the science of ecology, led to a deeper appreciation of natural lands for their irreplaceable biological value. By the time Fell came of age, following World War II, many of the obvious areas—large landscapes whose aesthetic, commercial, or recreational value was patently clear—had been protected. What natural lands remained were at grave risk of development in the building boom that followed the war. Fell was not the only one to recognize the need to protect the nation’s remaining biological heritage, but he was the galvanizing force in transforming idea into action. Thus was born the natural areas movement. That Fell is not more widely known for the transformative role he played in the nation’s conservation history is not surprising. True, the highest annual award presented by the Natural Areas Association is named in his honor, as is one of the largest nature preserves in Illinois. Natural Areas practitioners who knew him speak reverentially of how Fell inspired them to enter a profession that he himself had pioneered. Yet Fell avoided the limelight. He cared little for attention and accolades. He published little beyond newsletters and a few journal articles. At the end of his career, slowed by illness, he intended to chronicle his nearly half century as a driving force in the natural areas movement. But his cancer proved both advanced and aggressive, and so he never set his own story to paper. Colleagues, friends, and employees recall Fell as introverted, soft spoken, never one to call attention to himself. Without exception they also remember him as “a real bulldog,” tenacious and uncompromising once he put his mind to something: a force of nature. “If one person is determined that something is going to be saved,” Fell reflected in a 1989 documentary, “it can be done. It will be done. If there isn’t that determination, it doesn’t happen.”1 The tenacity of a bulldog was precisely what was needed to launch major new initiatives, such as The Nature Conservancy and the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. In both these cases, however, it was a quality that wore out its welcome over time. Less than a decade after Fell launched the conservancy, his adherence to a singular vision ultimately led to open conflict with the board to which he reported, which forced his departure. Fell lasted twice as long at the helm of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, but his self-acknowledged “worst shortcoming” of insisting upon his own way led to the same unfortunate fate. Despite such profound disappointments, he never quit. He never stopped Prologue 5 devoting nearly every waking moment to coming up with new and creative ways to protect the natural...



Subject Headings

  • Fell, George B.
  • Nature Conservancy (U.S.) -- History.
  • Natural Areas Association (U.S.) -- History.
  • Illinois Nature Preserves Commission -- History.
  • Natural Land Institute (Rockford, Ill.) -- History.
  • Natural areas -- Illinois -- History.
  • Nature conservation -- Illinois -- History.
  • Conservationists -- Illinois -- Biography.
  • Natural areas -- United States -- History.
  • Nature conservation -- United States -- History.
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