Deb Carey stands next to the 2018 George and Barbara Fell Award. Photo: Jill Kennay

Award Recognizes Outstanding Leadership and Accomplishments in Land Conservation

The Natural Land Institute is pleased to announce that Debra Carey is the recipient of the 2018 George and BarbaraFell Award.  Deb is the Executive Director of the Dixon Park District. She is also a naturalist, educator and administrator, as well as a tireless advocate for the preservation and restoration of natural land in Lee County and the lower Rock River watershed. She spearheaded the preservation of Amboy Marsh, Gremel Wildlife Sanctuary, Ryan Wetland and Sand Prairie, and Lowell Forest Nature Preserve, and helps to manage local natural areas through the Lee County Natural Area Guardians, a subcommittee of the Lee County Soil & Water Conservation District. Debra has served on-and-off as chair of the Lee County NAGs, and was the first President of the Birdsong Chapter of Illinois Audubon Society, and steward of both Amboy Marsh and Gremel Wildlife Sanctuary.

Deb began working to preserve Amboy Marsh in 1986 when the area of natural sand ponds, sedge meadow and sand savanna was recognized by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission as important habitat for the state endangered Blandings Turtle, and other rare reptiles.  She carried out surveys of the turtle populations on the site, and pushed the IDNR, the Illinois Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and the Natural Land Institute to acquire the marsh and to restore the habitat.  In December 2012 the Illinois Audubon Society acquired 273 acres of the marsh, expanding the preserve by 30 acres in 2013.

Deb started the Birdsong Chapter of IAS to serve as the local preserve steward for Amboy Marsh, and recruited volunteers to undertake a massive restoration effort of the sand prairies that provide nesting sites for the turtles, and other species.  She served as the first President of the Chapter, and coordinates the restoration, education and stewardship efforts on the preserve.

Jerry Paulson, who nominated Deb, watches as she responds to receiving the award. Photo: Jill Kennay

Deb also initiated efforts to purchase 41.5 acres of the Ryan Wetland and Sand Prairie Natural Area, which became an Illinois Land & Water Reserve in 2006.  She secured a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to purchase the land through the Lee County S&WCD and began restoring the sand prairies with the help of volunteers from the Lee County Natural Area Guardians.  The wetlands provide habitat for Blandings Turtles and the sand prairies support small populations of Ornate Box Turtles and Regal Fritillary butterflies.

As director of the Dixon Park District Deb pushed for the dedication of 50 acres of Lowell Park as the Lowell Forest Nature Preserve.  Lowell Park was recognized in 1966 by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission as an important natural area of statewide significance, but efforts to preserve the site waned until the mid-1990s when Deb contacted the INPC staff and renewed interest in dedication of the area as a nature preserve.  In 2002 the park was added to the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory and the INPC approved dedication of 50 acres of the park as a nature preserve at its meeting in January, 2008.

Deb also worked with the Whiteside County Soil and Water Conservation District to acquire 10 acres of native prairie on Mound Hill, a small gravel hill on the Lee-Whiteside county line, that became the David O. and Helen M. Wiegel Memorial Tall Grass Prairie.  The preserve is owned by the Lee County S&WCD and is managed jointly by the Lee Co. and Whiteside Co. Natural Area Guardians.

In 2016 Deb played a key role in the effort to acquire 395 acres of the former Green Wing Environmental Laboratory from Augustana College by the Illinois Audubon Society.  The natural marsh, sand savanna and woodland is located along the Green River in what was once the magnificent complex of wetlands known as the Inlet and Winnebago Swamps.  It is located within two miles of the Amboy Marsh property.  Deb is in charge of coordinating the volunteers who are working to restore the marshes, prairies and woodlands on what is now called the Gremel Wildlife Sanctuary.

Debra Carey embodies the persistent care and work that is often needed to protect a natural area. Her skills as a manager of volunteers, an educator, grant writer, and advocate are what are needed to get the job done, even if it takes many years. She sees a need and does whatever it takes, and enlists whoever she can to get it done.

The award is named for George and Barbara Fell who founded the Natural Land Institute in 1958 and devoted their lives to the protection of natural areas in Illinois. They were committed to protecting Illinois’ natural heritage so rare and endangered plant and animal species would be here for future generations.