Arthur Melville Pearson, author of Force of Nature
When we think of land conservation, dramatic images of Monument Valley, Yellowstone, or other majestic Western locales come to mind. But what about the forests and prairies a bit closer to home? George Fell, a failed civil servant turned land preservation advocate, was a leader in what became the natural areas movement to protect these areas in Illinois and across the nation. At our April 20th Urban Think & Drink, author Arthur Melville Pearson discussed his recently published biography of Fell, Force of Nature: George Fell, Founder of the Natural Areas Movement. Pearson was joined by urban observer and architectural photographer Lee Bey to discuss Illinois’ natural lands conservation movement history and Fell’s legacy.
At the beginning of the 20th century, many natural areas were in the process of being transformed to support the nation’s burgeoning industrialized economy. Following World War II, industrialization and the building boom exponentially increased. It is perhaps because of this history that many Chicagoans often fail to recognize the presence of forest preserves and state parks so close to home—yet MPC Vice President Josh Ellis reflected, “it’s a metro ride away, it’s a bike ride away, for some of us it’s a walk away.” George Fell, who grew up in rural Illinois with his father, an amateur botanist, recognized that even during his pre-War childhood, the natural areas that existed were fast disappearing. This was not only due to the construction of interstate highways or the expansion of suburbs, but agriculture as well. Pearson noted that during Fell’s childhood, about 75% of land in Illinois was being used for agricultural purposes, primarily for corn and soy beans.
This stark reality inspired Fell to—as Pearson put it—“revolutionize conservation.” Fell lobbied the state of Illinois for several years to develop a natural area preservation system, but he found a frustrating lack of funding and political will. Instead of seeing this as a roadblock, Fell and his wife moved to D.C. to advocate for a national lands preservation system; after eight years, in 1951, the Nature Conservancy was born. Fell’s deepest impact was in shaping the infrastructure of the Nature Conservancy—establishing a chapter based system, membership base, and fundraising system—to ensure the longevity and increasing impact of the organization. Fell was also a driving force in creating the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, the first such commission in the U.S. that served as a template for others. His methods to preserve lands were sometimes unconventional. For example, when the state was unwilling to protect the land that is now White Pines State Park, Fell personally bought the land to ensure it was protected from development before successfully convincing the state to take it over.
Today, Illinois has more than 400 nature preserves, the highest concentration of which are in the Chicagoland region. The Nature Conservancy is the largest conservation organization in the world. Generations have felt the innumerable impacts of Fell’s work to preserve and protect these lands. The question then, is where do we go from here? George Fell is a compelling historical figure as a dedicated conservationist and political advocate. Pearson hopes his book—which maps not only the conservation movement, but the gritty and sometimes unsympathetic details of Fell’s personal life as well—will help to inspire the next generation of conservationists. He emphasized that despite his lack of political connections, Fell was able to protect more land than any other individual in the U.S. because of his tenacity and unrelenting dedication.
Pearson observed that one barrier for contemporary conservationists is a lack of a convincing argument for expanded land preservation. In Fell’s time, land preservation was urgent in the face of agriculture and industrialization. What will today’s winning argument be, he asked? Increased access to recreational opportunities, or perhaps climate change mitigation? With our diverse audience—a mixture of students and professionals from government and non-profit sectors—Pearson and MPC’s Josh Ellis noted that intergenerational and cross-sectional relationships are essential to fight for land preservation and future conservation. These beautiful natural lands still exist and thrive because of the dedication of past advocates like George Fell. As Lee Bey observed, “It’s hard to imagine the state without [these lands], and yet we almost had to.”
MPC frequently hosts events to stimulate conversation on how to make our region more sustainable and equitable for everyone. Join us at our next Urban Think & Drink, The Death Gap, in which author Dr. David Ansell will discuss the impacts of racial and economic discrimination on health outcomes and life expectancy. Learn more about the event and register here.