New biography portrays life of land conservation hero

The story of one of the nation’s leading land conservationists is told in A Legacy of Natural Lands: George B. Fell and the Natural Land Institute. The biography accounts the influence of George Fell of Rockford, Ill., on conservation organizations throughout Illinois and across the country, and portrays his role in the natural areas preservation movement that began in the late 1940s.

The author of the biography is Arthur Melville Pearson of Chicago. Pearson writes that whether nationally, statewide or around his hometown of Rockford, George Fell (1916-1994) focused his entire life’s efforts on preserving natural areas to be held in as permanent a way as he could devise. He describes the values, determination and passions that drove George Fell to create a legacy of natural lands that will last for generations to come.

On the national stage, we have George Fell to thank for what has become America’s largest conservation organization, The Nature Conservancy, according to Pearson. Richard H. Pough, one of the first presidents of The Nature Conservancy, and himself a driving force in the early years of that organization, 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.” In 2004, The Nature Conservancy had grown to become the 10th largest, not-for-profit organization in the country with a membership of nearly 1 million.

In the Midwest, where Fell’s accomplishments are most evident, Pearson writes that anyone who has hiked the towering sandstone bluffs at Castle Rock State Park near Oregon, Ill., paddled the Louisiana-style swamps of the Cache River at the southern tip of the state or gaped breathlessly at the brilliant wildflower display at Markham Prairie south of Chicago, has George Fell to thank for these oases 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.

The protection of habitat for native plants and animals was George Fell’s vision throughout his life. As a boy, he lived on the pastoral grounds of the Wilgus Sanitarium, three miles from downtown Rockford, Ill., 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 most important 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 Rockford area and the Rock River Valley. It was to this area that he would return, after he completed his studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Michigan, and after he established The Nature Conservancy in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s.

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 again went right to work. Under his guidance, the Natural Land 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 more than 160 tracts of land with about 12,000 acres of the best prairies, forests and wetlands in Illinois and has grown to become Illinois’ leading regional land conservancy.

A Legacy of Natural Lands: George B. Fell and the Natural Land Institute is available for $15 from the Natural Land Institute, 320 S. Third St., Rockford, Ill. 61104. The 60-page publication includes the biography of George B. Fell and a history of accomplishments of the Natural Land Institute. Price includes shipping and handling. For information, call 815-964-6666 or email Information also available online at the Natural Land Institute’s Web site at

From the June 29-July 5, 2005, issue

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