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92 4 The Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act If at First You Don’t Succeed . . . In his landmark essay “The Land Ethic,” published posthumously in 1949 in A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold observed that small, scattered natural areas and the significant biotic communities they represented had been effectively “relegated . . . to ultimate extinction.” Leopold reasoned that it was impractical if not impossible for government to own or control such parcels. One solution, which he acknowledged could take countless generations to achieve, was to cultivate “a land ethic, or some other force which assigns more obligation to the private landowner.”1 In theory, George Fell agreed with his former mentor. In practice, he feared that remnant natural areas would be long gone by the time any such ethic might take hold. Deprived of the opportunity to follow through on the national preservation organization he had launched in Washington, DC, Fell returned to Rockford, Illinois, and his original idea of a statewide system for preserving natural areas. With a heightened sense of urgency, he studiously applied the lessons learned during his years of on-the-job training with The Nature Conservancy to inform both the structure and the content of an entirely new kind of state preservation effort. Failing in his first attempt to pass the enabling legislation required, he took up a second legislative campaign, which led to the passage of the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act, making Illinois the first state in the nation to establish a statewide system for preserving natural areas. Although the act ultimately passed was a competing version of the one Fell had championed, he embraced it as his own and shaped it to conform to his original vision. The Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act 93 The Natural Land Institute Upon their arrival back in Rockford in late October 1958, the Fells wasted no time. They rented an apartment from Barbara’s mother and within the first week began drafting articles of incorporation for a new nonprofit organization. A little more than a month later, the articles were signed by Fell, his brother-inlaw and local businessman Edward (Ned) Garst, and Milton W. Mahlburg, head of Rockford’s Burpee Museum of Natural History. On December 24, nine years to the day after the Fells left for New York and eventually Washington to launch what would become The Nature Conservancy, they celebrated Christmas Eve by holding the first meeting of the Natural Land Institute. Starting up a new organization so soon on the heels of The Nature Conservancy experience was not easy. Years later, Fell would reflect, “You’ve got to remember that . . . there was quite a pall hanging over our efforts when we left Washington and started doing things here [in Rockford]. I mean, we created a huge mess in having a proxy war. People knew about it. So . . . they’d automatically think ‘what’s he trying to do?’” However, Fell was adamant that “we didn’t want to set up a competitor to The Nature Conservancy. We had no intention of doing that.”2 Nonetheless, as outlined in the bylaws of the Institute, its conservation goals were indistinguishable from those of the conservancy. Essentially , both organizations were founded to establish and maintain nature preserves to be used for scientific, educational, and aesthetic purposes. Where they differed—aside from geographic emphases, with the conservancy targeting natural areas throughout the country and the institute focused on preserving those within Illinois—was in how they were structured. With the experience of an independently minded conservancy board and a proxy war fresh in his mind, Fell forwent a large, broadly representative board in favor of a small handful of close friends and family. He handpicked Garst and Mahlburg to join him in making up the institute’s entire board of trustees, three being the minimum number of directors required to incorporate as an Illinois nonprofit organization. Fell likewise opted not to cultivate a large general membership base. Instead, the institute’s bylaws stipulated that members were to be selected by the trustees. At the institute’s first meeting, the three trustees selected themselves and Barbara as members. The four inaugural members then elected the following officers: Fell as chairman, Mahlburg as vice chairman, and Garst as secretary. Over the next couple of decades, the number of institute members increased negligibly, and the number of trustees—although the bylaws allowed for up to 94 The Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act nine—never totaled more than five. With a purposefully limited...


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