George Fell is probably not the first name that comes to mind when considering the history of land conservation in the United States. This is, of course, if any name comes to mind. Or if there is even a thought for US land conservation efforts in the first place.
And yet, conservationists and the general public alike—and in Illinois especially—owe George Fell more than they know, as author Arthur Melville Pearson illuminated in a Seminary Co-op discussion of his new book, Force of Nature: George Fell, Founder of the Natural Areas Movement. Speaking with University of Chicago Assistant Professor of Environmental Ethics Sarah Fredericks, Pearson revealed the complicated character of a tenacious and uncompromising environmentalist who formed The Nature Conservancy, helped pass the prominent Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act, and rebuilt his era’s preservationist philosophy. Ultimately, Fell’s legacy lends perspective and inspiration to the modern conservation movement.
In the economic heydays following World War II, past success and booming industry posed US conservationists with a new challenge. Having already protected the most awe-inspiring American landscapes—Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon, to name just a few—they now had to focus on less scenic lands. Expansions in agriculture, logging, and development were rapidly consuming prairies and woodlands, particularly in the Midwest. Compared to the West’s raw grandeur, these lands were benign, and proved difficult to save.
A Rockford, Illinois native, Fell lamented as he witnessed industry destroy his home state’s natural forests and prairies for farmland and subdivisions. By the time Fell began fighting for these lands in the fifties, less than one tenth of one percent of Illinois remained truly natural, or wholly untouched by human activity.
Pearson had a helpful demonstration to visualize just how little pristine land remained. Picture a standard 8.5-by-11 sheet of paper. Now imagine this lowercase “o” in the center. Fill in half of it. The shaded area represents Illinois’s completely natural habitats in the fifties. Except this half “o” has to be split into hundreds of pieces and spread across the entire page. These were the lands Fell was after.
The average American may not have cared to protect these few remaining parcels of pristine land. After all, how much could these last acres matter? Fell, of course, knew better. Despite their small size, Illinois’s last pristine lands were incredibly biodiverse. About one third of the state’s bird species and nearly one half of its mammalian species were represented in these parcels. Coming from a scientific background, Fell understood how that biodiversity was essential to the health of Illinois’s larger ecosystems. If agricultural expansion were to put the bird and mammal populations living in the state’s last pristine lands under significant stress, it could have rippling, negative effects on flora and fauna statewide that depend on these species for food or predator management.
In fighting for these parcels, Pearson explained how Fell created a proactive conservation movement. While he accepted the standard, opportunistic approach to conservation—whereby preservationists protected lands the public and private sectors largely ignored—Fell never settled for just the discards of industry. From an ecologist’s view, he wanted the best lands Illinois had left. This typically entailed identifying ecosystems, finding the species that most strongly supported them, and protecting the areas in which those species lived at highest concentrations.
Another way that Fell helped steer Midwest land conservation away from reactionary measures and towards a proactive agenda was by embracing restoration. A new concept at the time, restoration involves taking sub-pristine areas, such as farms or abandoned factories, and dismantling the old infrastructure. In due time, the lands return to a natural state that can support full and healthy ecosystems. Many conservationists in Fell’s time did not fully understand restoration’s implications or how they could implement it. For example, they almost never intentionally burned landscapes, even though the occasional fire helps a prairie by removing all the dead and dry debris, leaving room for new grasses to grow. With his ecological knowledge, Fell slowly convinced his colleagues that burning, and restoration as a whole, could greatly expand the number of parcels they could protect.
Pearson knew, however, that George Fell does not exist in a historical vacuum. His ideology provides a point of reference for the modern American conservation movement to both assess their development and fall back upon.
For example, Fell’s contributions to American land conservation could guide preservationist responses to the country’s ever-expanding urban sprawl. When asked about how Fell’s ideas could be translated to modern cities, Pearson emphasized how Fell’s perspective on human-versus-nature dynamics was actually quite different than modern thinking. In Fell’s time, humanity and the natural world were distinct entities, hence the need to preserve and protect nature from humans. Today, that line is blurred. In developed areas, reconciliation, which encourages biodiversity in human-dominated ecosystems, is the defining practice. Pearson appreciated—even loved—this ideological evolution, but thought Fell would have some valuable reservations.
Namely, no matter how much nature we develop in cities, how many gardens we plant, or how many parks we create, we should never forget that this nature is constructed. Fell would encourage us to do all we can to create stable urban ecosystems, so long as we also still fight to preserve and protect the lands least compromised by humans. That is where the greatest biodiversities and healthiest ecosystems lie.
If there is one other thread lacking from Fell’s ideology that modern conservationists have adopted, it would be the incorporation of social consciousness. Land preservation, if not conducted properly, can have negative repercussions on local communities. Founding the great national parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite displaced many Native American populations. Today, restricting timber cutting and wildlife hunting can create disproportionate economic struggles for immigrants and traveling laborers. This acknowledgement does not necessarily, however, conflict with Fell’s ideology. Fell strove to incorporate many new ideas into the conservation movement, keeping it as current and effective as possible. Modern land preservationists are right to listen as well as act. Realizing that conservation has a human impact does not mean conservationists should preserve less land; it just means they have to be a little more thoughtful about which lands they preserve. Indeed, the Nature Conservancy continues to purchase hundreds of thousands of acres while keeping these social concerns in mind.
If Fell’s career leaves us with one message, it is his steadfast dedication to nature. Even while actively changing conservationist ideology, he never let new methods of preserving nature distract from his ultimate goal: to conserve as much nature as possible.
The image featured with this article is in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law. The original is credited to Pixabay user wolfofaspen and can be found here.
Chase Gardner is a fourth-year Environmental and Urban Studies major and Statistics minor. On campus, Chase helps research climate change's impacts on agriculture and runs for the varsity Cross Country and Track teams. In free moments, he enjoys reading, walking, crosswords, and playing the guitar.