There’s not much left of the prairies and oak savannas that used to cover Illinois. Now the state has found a way to help environmental organizations protect those precious natural areas.
The Natural Areas Stewardship Act will allow the state to move money from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to nonprofit conservation groups. Kerry Leigh is executive director of the Natural Land Institute, based in Rockford. She said the IDNR no longer is able to send people to work in the state’s nature preserves. “In the past,” she said, “the DNR would have helped manage those nature preserves. They don’t have the manpower any more. They’re very strapped. They are a skeleton of what they used to be.”
The state’s 41 conservation land trusts will be able to apply for grants to help pay for control of invasive plants that threaten to destroy these protected native environments. The worst offenders include honeysuckle, buckthorn, and garlic mustard. Reedy grasses called phragmites are choking wetlands.
Leigh says climate change is one of the factors worsening the damage by these invasive plants, and they’re degrading the value of these protected areas. Some of the ecosystems could be permanently damaged if the invasives continue to run wild. “If we can get it early enough,” she said, “hit it hard enough, things can come back.”
“Hitting” the invasives can take a number of forms, including prescribed burns, careful herbicide application, and manual removal. Leigh says those can be accomplished through the hard work of nature preserve staff and volunteers, and -- with the addition of state money -- contractors.
The legislation doesn’t create any new taxes. It just allows the IDNR to distribute existing funds raised for environmental protection through the Real Estate Transfer Tax. The act was approved by Illinois lawmakers and still needs the governor’s signature.
The Illinois Environmental Council, The Nature Conservancy, Openlands, and the Prairie State Conservation Coalition are among the groups that have pursued this legislation over the past few years. The Natural Land Institute has five preserves enrolled in the Illinois Nature Preserve System, which makes them eligible for the IDNR grants.