Lee Johnson receives George and Barbara Fell Award

Lee Johnson of Shirland, Ill., is this year’s recipient of the George and Barbara Fell Award presented by the Natural Land Institute (NLI) to honor individuals who demonstrate outstanding dedication to land conservation in northern Illinois. Jack Cook, board president, announced the award at the annual membership dinner of the NLI held on March 28 at Cliffbreakers in Rockford.

Johnson was director of the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford from 1985 until he retired in 1998. He oversaw the expansion of programming and the construction of the Solem addition to the museum. Johnson worked closely with the NLI’s founder, George Fell, and started the Natural History Association as a way to create friends of the Burpee Museum of Natural History and to raise funds to support the museum.

Northern Illinois residents know Lee Johnson best for his unmatched knowledge of birds: “Lee’s North American Life List is 774, placing him among the top bird watchers in the United States,” said Cook. “Many of us have learned from him the excitement of the return of dickcissels to the restored prairies at the Nygren Wetland Preserve and the significance of bluebirds coming back in large numbers to our area. We also know Lee as the master bander at the Sand Bluff Bird Observatory. He established the organization in 1967 and helped band more than 300,000 migratory birds at the facility. He taught hundreds of people who visit the observatory about the wonders of birds and the importance of saving their habitat.”

Johnson also has extensive knowledge of plants, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, butterflies and geology, gained over a lifetime of studying all aspects of the natural world. He knows where most of the natural areas of our region are located and where the plants and animals are. He also knows where they were in the past.

In the 1950s, Johnson started presenting nature programs for groups and organizations. As his presentations grew to the hundreds, he warned with increasing frequency that natural lands were in danger and were being destroyed. As the years passed, he saw his prediction coming true. Habitat for birds, amphibians, reptiles and butterflies was disappearing.

To help stop the loss of wildlife habitat, Johnson helped George Fell lobby for legislation to protect natural areas. They testified before committees to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves system in 1963 and successfully persuaded state officials to protect the old state fish hatchery, which later became the Four Lakes Forest Preserve.

In 1979, Johnson started the Sinnissippi Open Space Committee, a group of grassroots volunteers committed to saving land along the Sugar River, one of the most isolated rivers in Illinois. In the 1960s, he purchased two parcels along the river to protect sand prairies and oak savannas that provide valuable habitat for blue-spotted salamanders, other amphibians, reptiles and unusual plants. He later sold these parcels, now known as Colored Sands Forest Preserve, to the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District.

To ensure that land along the Sugar River and elsewhere was cared for properly, Johnson placed an article in the newspaper in 1984 and asked people to help. They formed the Prairie People group, which, for several years, cut brush, conducted controlled burns and provided stewardship on natural lands.

Most recently, Johnson was instrumental in acquiring the Nygren Wetland Preserve. Carl Nygren asked Johnson to be the executor of his will, and when Nygren died in 1996, he left all of his assets to the NLI. In 1999, the bequest was combined with state, federal and private grants to acquire 720 acres at the confluence of the Rock and Pecatonica rivers that became the Nygren Wetland Preserve.

Johnson served on the NLI board of trustees for 31 years. He continues to volunteer by serving on the Science Advisory Committee for the Nygren Wetland Preserve and on the program and membership committees. He is a member of local, state and national bird and conservation organizations including the North Central Illinois Ornithological Society, Rockford Natural History Association, Sinnissippi Audubon Society, Sugar-Pecatonica Rivers Ecosystem Partnership and Rock River Valley Girl Scouts. He has received the National Friends of Parks and Recreation Award and the Seth B. Atwood Award in Conservation.

From the May 24-30, 2006, issue

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