Protecting & Enjoying Nature with NLI

The Natural Land Institute (NLI) has protected, managed and restored more than 17,000 acres of undeveloped land in Illinois since 1958.

It also helps people to discover the wonders of nature so they’ll learn to love the outdoors, understand the importance of healthy ecosystems and advocate for land preservation, says Kim Johnsen, NLI director of marketing and membership.

“During the early phases of the COVID-19 crisis that required people to shelter in place, so many people discovered the outdoors was always open to enjoy and learn from,” she says. “They experienced the healing qualities of fresh air, exercise and the beauty of nature.”

Several of the programs normally offered by NLI each year now include online videos that will continue to be a part of the website even after the pandemic ends, she says.

“It’s interesting how the pandemic has made everyone look at things differently.”

For example, Family Nature Adventures replaced the annual Family Nature Days, normally held at Nygren Wetland Preserve, and provides a way for families to engage with nature through a series of 13 free, guided activities with topics ranging from water to archaeology, pollinators to mammals, and soil to seeds. Kids can watch an educational video and do an outdoor activity.

“This is a really great program for parents or grandparents to do with the kids. It’s a fun way to learn about nature at any age,” she says.

Kids complete six of the activities and fill out the final participation form to earn a Junior Naturalist badge. The videos, produced by NLI and other organization partners, are geared to families with children ages 2 to 14, but anyone can participate and activities can be done in any location and at one’s own pace.

Johnsen says the videos have been viewed by hundreds of people.

“We’re just trying to make it easy for people to explore the outdoors and discover all the living things around them, so they fall in love with nature and want to protect land,” she says.

The 2020 Wildflower Walkabout Series was also presented online this year and all videos can be viewed on the NLI website. The weekly walks, from April through June, featured blooming flowers and plants at various woodland and prairie preserves in Winnebago, Boone and Ogle counties. Although the walks were not held on location this year, it’s hoped the videos will encourage people to visit the preserves on their own time, while practicing social distancing, Johnsen says.

NLI is also celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 721-acre Nygren Wetland Preserve, its largest preserve with public access. The preserve can be entered at the Wildlife Overlook at 3714 W. Rockton Road in Rockton, which is also the trail head for the Dianne Nora Nature Trail, which is in the Prairie State Hike app. The parking lot, overlook and trail are open daily from sunrise to sunset for hiking, snowshoeing and skiing. No bicycles or unauthorized vehicles are permitted on the trail and the Nygren Wetland is a pet-free preserve. Nygren Wetland anniversary t-shirts can be purchased online at under the “about” tab.

The NLI was organized as a private, not-for-profit charitable corporation by the late George B. Fell, who helped Illinois to become the first U.S. state to create a system of nature preserves through legislation.

Fell also co-founded The Nature Conservancy, one of the largest conservation organizations in the world, with a presence today in 72 countries and all 50 U.S. states. He and his wife of 46 years, Barbara, were longtime Rockford residents.

NLI does not get government funding and is supported mainly through memberships, donations and bequests.

It has about 700 members, is the first Illinois land trust, and today focuses on land preservation in 12 counties in Northern Illinois.

NLI’s Conservation@Home program educates and recognizes homeowners who care about water conservation and land protection. Individual homeowners can contribute to the health of bird, insect and wildlife populations by planting native wildflowers, trees and shrubs; by removing exotic plant species; and by collecting rain water.

The small NLI staff and hundreds of volunteers work in the preserves to collect and plant seeds, control invasive species and support growth of native plants. Volunteer land stewardship days have not been scheduled since mid-March this year due to the pandemic.

NLI owns 26 preserves throughout Illinois and works to safeguard forests, prairies and wetland for native plants and animals, protects rivers and streams for fish and other aquatic life, and educates people about their responsibilities, while providing opportunities to enjoy nature. ❚