Rapid changes in land use and expanding urban development prompted the Illinois General Assembly to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission in 1963 to create a system of natural areas representative of Illinois’ landscape. The Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act (525 ILCS 30) governs the Commission and charges it to preserve, protect and defend natural areas and endangered species habitat for public benefit.
Permanently protected by state law, designated Illinois nature preserves are private and public lands that have rare plants, animals, or other unique natural features. Ranging in size from one acre to more than 2,000 acres, nature preserves protect tall grass prairies, oak groves, sandstone bluffs, wetlands, bogs and other threatened natural areas. These lands are the last remnants of the Illinois wilderness, which provides homes for endangered species like the prairie white-fringed orchid, the Prairie Chicken and Illinois Chorus Frog.
Without this protection, many of these exceptional areas would be lost forever. 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.
Areas within six Winnebago County forest preserves have been designated for this highest level of legal protection due to the valuable high quality plants and animals they harbor. These areas are managed by FPWC and monitored by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.
While these nature preserve areas are managed differently than the rest of the preserves, the public is still permitted to enter and enjoy these areas within forest preserves. Nature preserves within the forest preserves are open to the public for hiking and nature observation. Because of the ecologically sensitive habitat, nature preserves are minimally developed and are not used for recreation. Nothing can be taken from a preserve without prior permission; there are penalties for altering or damaging these protected areas. Nature Preserves are marked with posted signs.
Not only does Winnebago County boast several prime nature preserves, but it is also the birthplace of the Illinois Nature Preserve concept. George Fell, a resident of Rockford and founder of the Natural Land Institute, wrote the original legislation that created the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission in 1963. The Natural Land Institute, with Fell as Executive Director, coordinated the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission staff through 1982.
Nature Preserves in the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County:
Woodlands, sand prairie, savanna; a Dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve (in part), home to several endangered, threatened and special concern species. Most of the sand prairie near the Banding Station was previously plowed but has recovered through restoration and management, now harboring many unique plants and insects. A trail from the Banding Station provides easy public access.
Mature oak-hickory woodland; a Dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve, with an unexcelled spring wildflower display. Public parking is provided on the north side of the preserve, off Campbell Road. No trails are provided.
Mature woodland; a Dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve. Harbors a mature forest of oak, hickory, walnut, and white ash. The preserve contains a good display of wildflowers and can be accessed by existing roadways. No trails are provided.
Woodlands and oxbow swamps; a Dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve, displays an example of outstanding Pecatonica bottomland spring wildflowers with carpets of Virginia bluebells and many other wildflowers. Contains mature black maples which are “sugared” in spring, and unique birds such as the swamp-loving Prothonotary Warbler. A self-guided interpretive trail and an observation deck overlooking the oxbow provide easy access through this area.
Woodland and dolomite cliffs, a Dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve which harbors many unique species commonly found north of here. Beaver have dammed the creek in several spots and their tree removal work is in evidence. A self-guided interpretive trail provides access through this unique area.
Sugar River Alder
Floodplain forest, sedge meadow, upland forests and savanna and dry dolomite prairie; a Dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve. Home to many state threatened and endangered species. Local naturalists have observed the state endangered species. Local naturalists have observed the state endangered Cooper’s Hawk as well as Sandhill Cranes during breeding season. Access to the site is made by a short drive through Wisconsin. A self-guided interpretive trail provides access through this unique area.