Archives of Rockford’s land conservation hero available to the public

The personal papers of Rockford’s George B. Fell (1916-1994), one of the country’s leading conservationists and founder of the Natural Land Institute (N.L.I.), are now safely archived and available to the public at the University of Illinois Library in Urbana-Champaign. Fell’s papers include documents relating to the history of the Natural Land Institute and The Nature Conservancy, as well as biographical items, correspondence, publications and manuscripts documenting his work as one of the nation’s most important conservationists.

The protection of habitat for native plants and animals was Fell’s vision throughout his life. As a boy, he lived on the pastoral grounds of the Wilgus Sanitarium, 3 miles from downtown Rockford on the bank of the Rock River. His father, Dr. Egbert W. Fell, worked at the sanitarium as a psychiatrist, and would become one of the region’s major collectors of botanical specimens. George often accompanied his father on his expeditions and was able to gain an intimate knowledge of native plants in the Rock River Valley.

To provide protection for the native plants and animals in northern Illinois that he knew so well, George Fell established the Natural Land Institute, one of the first land conservation organizations in Illinois, in 1958. He was driven by his realization that we are living “at a time of man’s final conquest over the wilderness” and went right to work. Under his guidance, the institute played a key role in locating the existing natural areas throughout the state and identifying their owners, and then implemented a blueprint for preservation action. Since its founding, the Natural Land Institute has preserved many of the best prairies, forests and wetlands in Illinois.

In the Midwest, where Fell’s accomplishments are most evident, anyone who marvels at the towering sandstone bluffs at Castle Rock State Park near Oregon, Ill., paddles the Louisiana-style swamps of the Cache River at the southern tip of the state or admires the brilliant wildflower display at Markham Prairie south of Chicago, has George Fell to thank for these state treasures and more than 300 other Illinois Nature Preserves. Fell created the Illinois Nature Preserves System in 1963, establishing the most comprehensive laws for protecting valuable and rare natural lands in any state. The Illinois Nature Preserves System has earned international recognition and was a model for creation of 14 other state nature preserve programs. It was recognized at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janerio as an effective way to provide long-term protection to high-quality natural areas and habitat for endangered and threatened species.

On the national stage, Fell helped start what has become America’s largest conservation organization, The Nature Conservancy. Richard H. Pough, one of the first presidents of The Nature Conservancy, and himself a driving force in the early years of that organization in the 1950s, acknowledged that if George Fell hadn’t left Rockford for Washington, D.C., “The Nature Conservancy never would have been founded.” John Sawhill, president of the Nature Conservancy in 1994, eulogized Fell by writing, “Every organization has its heroes, the legendary figures who helped shape and breathe life into the institution. [George Fell was] one of the true heroes in the history of The Nature Conservancy.” The Nature Conservancy has grown to become one of the largest, not-for-profit organizations in the country with a membership of nearly 1 million.

Thanks to a grant from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the papers of George B. Fell can be found at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Archives: Holdings Database at

For information call the Natural Land Institute at (815) 964-6666 or e-mail Information is also available online at the Natural Land Institute’s web site at

From the Jan. 10-16, 2007, issue

One thought on “Archives of Rockford’s land conservation hero available to the public

  • Aug 19, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Having spent many weeks as a child at George Fell’s house,I can tell you the man was totally obsessed with Illinois prairie conservation.We spent parts of each summer going to Wilderness Camp in Rockford,and then a week at Uncle George and Aunt Barbara’s.We would answer the phones at times ,but it was always about Illinois Prarie conservation .Reading this again renews many childhood memories .Thank you!

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