This page is dedicated to our Heritage LandKeepers, landowners who have made a commitment to protecting their land in perpetuity by putting a conservation easement on their property. Read their stories here about what inspires them to protect the conservation values of their land – the natural and scenic features – for their future generations. We hope you are as inspired as we are with their vision for the future.
Click on tabs below to read a story about each Heritage LandKeeper.
Robert and Vicki Stretton
Over a hundred years ago, a young couple, John and Christina Handel, homesteaded a beautiful and extraordinary property just north of the town of Savanna, Illinois. They chose a site to raise their family that had everything from steep sloping forests and dramatic cliffs to grassland for their fields, as well as wetland areas.
Vicki Stretton inherited a portion of the property from her father that her grandparents had homesteaded long ago. When Kerry Leigh, NLI Executive Director, visited with Vicki and her husband Robert in the fall of 2013, she showed Kerry the part of the house that was the original log cabin built by Vicki’s grandparents, with the still-sloping floor. She told Kerry stories about her and her brother, Bill Handel, playing with marbles on that floor when they were children and how those marbles would roll down the floor, and jump the boards. She also told Kerry stories of the land, and how as children they loved to roam the woods and search out wildflowers.
When Kerry visited during the fall to work on finalizing the conservation easement, she told them she wanted to get some fall color photos of their forest before she left, so Robert fetched her a walking stick made by Vicki’s dad. It was a wet, drizzly autumn day and as she walked along the edge of the woods, Kerry said, “it saved me many times on that steeply sloping land. I was grateful for the stick, and as the foggy wet air infused a magical quality into the woods I felt profoundly honored, as Vicki and Robert are, to be treading in the footsteps of their ancestors on this well-loved and cared for property.”
The largest part of the land is upland oak-hickory forest that nurtures rare and unique plants. Vicki’s love of this wild land was the driving force for her to protect it. She and Robert want to preserve this part of the old homestead not only for their family but for the wildlife and the rare plants found there. Vicki’s brother, Bill Handel, is a botanist for the Illinois Natural History Survey and has been actively helping them manage the property with controlled burns and wildlife management. Vicki and Robert chose NLI to protect their property through a conservation easement, as they had seen NLI protect other properties close by. They feel that NLI’s goals and purposes are similar to theirs. In November of 2013, the easement with the Strettons was finalized to protect, in perpetuity, 35 acres of this family’s heritage.
Vicki’s brother, Bill Handel, is a botanist for the Illinois Natural History Survey and has been actively helping them manage the property with controlled burns, invasive species control and planting nectar and native pollinator plant species. One of their major challenges is combatting the spread of black locust trees which contain several toxic components in its leaves, stems, bark and seeds. Although native to the Appalachian mountain slopes, in the Midwest, it invades thickets and old fields crowding out the native vegetation of prairies, oak savannas and upland forests, forming single species stands. It does this by root suckering and stump sprouting forming a common connecting root system, making it an especially challenging job. Keep up the good work, Vicki, Robert, and Bill!
Louis and Mark Cagnoni - Ottertail Marsh
Louis and Mark Cagnoni of Durand have shielded 131 acres of wetland along the Sugar River in Winnebago County from development. A conservation agreement with the Natural Land Institute allows them to continue owning their property, while protecting the floodplain forests, sedge meadows and wildlife forever that they treasure at Ottertail Marsh. Louis Cagnoni purchased the farm on the Sugar River in 1974. His son, Mark, moved there two years later, and from the very beginning, Mark had the idea the land should be protected. “There was a marsh behind the house where I grew up, and when I was about eight years old, I started to study plants, dragonflies and other wildlife,” Mark said. Mark was aware that marshes and wildlife along the Sugar and Pecatonica rivers were rapidly disappearing. To enhance the wetlands on the farm, he raised plants such as cord grass, tussock sedge and sweet flag to plant there. He worked on his own for years, then got some help by enrolling the tillable acres of the farm in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program. He also worked with the Sugar-Pecatonica Rivers Ecoyststem Partnership and NLI to secure a small grant to help restore native vegetation and install a water control structure in 2002. Before long, Mark saw Blandings turtles, little green herons and his much-loved river otters returning to the areas he restored with native vegetation. “I chose the name Ottertail Marsh because my interest in otters began as a child at Ottertail Lake in Canada,” he said. Mark and his father chose to use the conservation agreement to protect their property, because they will continue to own the land, and they are getting some equity from the property. They can sell it or leave it to someone in their wills, but it will never be cleared or developed. In exchange, they agree to protect it and provide stewardship of the wetlands.
Ottertail Marsh is part of a larger area of bottomland forest, marsh and wetlands along the Sugar River. It is designated as a Conservation Opportunity Area in the State Wildlife Action Plan, and as a Priority Area for Acquisition in the Boone-Winnebago Greenways Plan. The Sugar River Natural Area provides habitat for 260 species of birds and for 12 state-endangered and five state threatened species of plants and animals. Jerry Paulson, NLI executive director (2000-2013), said the Cagnonis were able to exercise their conservation rights with the help of grants from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and the Grand Victoria Foundation. NLI members also donated nearly $20,000 to complete the acquisition of the conservation easement and pay for cost of the legal agreements, appraisal and survey. NLI staff has the great privilege of helping landowners like Mark and Louis Cagnoni find ways to protect their properties. Our members and supporters, as well as the landowners, are fundamental to the process. All are among the most dedicated and conservation-minded people in our region.
The major thrusts towards long-term stewardship were initiated by Lloyd and Ruth Durward, who bought the farm from Lloyd’s mother, Elizabeth Edlund (married to Andrew Durward), in the mid-1930s. Lloyd worked with the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps to establish waterways in the tilled fields and stabilize the bank along the creek which runs the length of the property. He incorporated, what were at the time, innovative practices such as crop rotation and contour farming into his agricultural operation. He planted windbreaks to encircle the farmstead and reseeded grass to rejuvenate soil on eroding hillsides. He encouraged and enlisted other farmers in the endeavor to spread conservation practices.
In the next generation, Lloyd and Ruth’s daughter Marjorie and her husband Harold Hardin continued these efforts as well as expanded them by establishing terraces in steeper fields and maintaining dikes along the stream bank, Marjorie maintained these projects and practices for three and a half decades subsequent to her husband’s death. She also seeded and maintained plots of prairie grass, as well as maintained a spring-filled pond that she had excavated several decades earlier. During her terminal illness, in 2001 she worked with the Natural Land Institute to establish a conservation easement on the property and ensured that the property would continue to be available for farming with some conservation practices in place, along with a stipulation that approximately fifty acres devoted to prairie grass and filter strips would continue to be maintained.
Marjorie passed the farm on to her children Sarah Hardin, Ruth Doocy, and Steve Hardin, and their families (including Christina and Laura Doocy, and Paul Hardin-Specht) who have attempted to maintain her work by coordinating two major stream bank stabilization efforts, as well as initiating some new projects. With cost share and rental from the CRP program, they have overseen the establishment of 8.9 acres of stream bank buffer strip. In addition, with cost share from the federal EQUIP, they are coordinating the reforestation of about thirty-five acres of environmentally sensitive land with hardwood trees.
The 272 Durward-Hardin Farm includes prairie species such as Pale Purple Coneflower, Wild Quinine, Grey-Headed Coneflower, Big Bluestem, Side-Oats Gramma and wetland species such as Spotted Joe-Pye weed and Red-Osier Dogwood.
Silver Creek Biodiversity Preserve: Tarbox Unit
A fifty-acre tract of woodland and grassland has been preserved at the headwaters of Silver Creek in Ogle County, Illinois, in a cooperative project between the Natural Land Institute and the Northwest Illinois Audubon Society.
The property was donated to the Northwest Illinois Audubon Society (NWIAS) by Mrs. Joanne Styles, a retired school teacher from Leaf River, Illinois. The Audubon Society then donated a conservation easement to the Natural Land Institute to insure that it will remain protected forever. At Mrs. Styles request, this newly-protected natural area has been named the “Silver Creek Biodiversity Preserve: Tarbox Unit” in honor of her first husband, Hascy Tarbox, a professional wildlife artist.
The preserve is located in the rolling hills of the Rock River valley about two miles south of Leaf River. Most of the property is covered by a mature hardwood forest of oaks, hickories, elm, and walnut. Forty-six species of birds have been observed so far in these woods including the red-headed woodpecker, red-eyed vireo, wood duck, and American kestrel.
Silver Creek, a shallow, spring fed stream that flows into the Rock River cuts through the preserve. Water striders and tadpoles were seen flitting about the shallows in the late spring, and the throaty “burp” call of bull frogs was heard. Dolomite bedrock forms the creek bed and a little bluff lined with ferns and mosses lies where the creek has slowly carved the land away.
Two old agricultural fields near the center of the preserve are enrolled in the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and have been planted in warm season prairie grasses. After the CRP contract expired the NWIAS began restoring these fields to an open oak-hickory savanna.
Joanne and Hascy Tarbox purchased the property as a young married couple in the early 1940s and maintained it as a wildlife refuge ever since. Each year the last day of school was a very special day for the students in Mrs. Tarbox’s elementary school class. It meant that each student had a chance to visit the property and look for frogs, birds, and wildflowers.
The plan is for the new Silver Creek Biodiversity Preserve to be open to the public and used for field trips and environmental education sessions, continuing Mrs. Styles’ long-standing devotion to teaching young people about the natural world.
The NWIAS awarded Mrs. Styles their 2012 Land Stewardship Award at their annual banquet. The award is given annually to an individual with an outstanding commitment to the fields of land stewardship and the preservation of biodiversity. Shortly after receiving the award, one of Mrs. Styles’ former students approached her and told her how much she enjoyed visiting the woods as a child and how glad she was to see those woods protected.
Russell and Corliss Kerr
The Corliss and Russell Kerr family of Morrison worked with the Natural Land Institute protect its 379-acre farm in Whiteside County from development with a conservation agreement that was completed in December 2008. It protects the home farm purchased by Corliss Kerr’s great-grandfather in 1871.
“There were actually two goals behind this easement — protecting the agricultural acreage that has been in our family for more than a hundred years and preserving the land that my parents acquired 40 years ago and restored with natural areas,” said Jane Kerr, the third generation to treasure the farm. “My dad had grown up wandering through woodlots and wild areas, and purchasing the land was one of his dreams.”
Corliss Kerr said she and her family want the scenic vistas to remain for future generations to enjoy. “While our local area isn’t currently under intense development pressures like some urban-edge communities, that may not always be the case. We’ve always felt it’s important to maintain the natural areas and agricultural uses of this region. The conservation easement means that this property, which has been carefully stewarded for so many generations, will never be turned into stone quarries or golf courses, junkyards or housing developments, huge meat factories or ethanol mills.”
Mrs. Kerr said the family is happy that their neighbors and the community will benefit from their efforts. “We hope many of our neighbors will realize that they, too, can easily protect their farms and take advantage of the tax benefits of donating an agricultural conservation easement,” she stated.
Corliss Kerr’s father, Harvey C. Cobb, was a founding member of the Whiteside County Soil and Water Conservation District when they organized in July of 1944. He used terraces and contour farming methods, and later Russell Kerr added minimum tillage and no-tillage practices.
Forty-six acres on the Kerr farm are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program and are planted to black walnut trees and cool season grasses. Ninety-one acres are forested with black oak, red oak, black walnut and black cherry. Native plants, including little bluestem, thimbleweed, bush clover, asters and goldenrods, grow in a small prairie remnant on the edge of a woodland area.
Rick Lawrence, former project director for the Natural Land Institute, helped the Kerrs create the agreement that protects the conservation values of their land. He said, “They will continue to own the property, they can sell it or leave it to heirs, but it will never be developed. They agree to continue to use conservation farming methods and maintain the forests and prairie that they love.”
The Kerr Family History by Duane:
The area around northern Whiteside County, Illinois was a different-looking place in the late 1850’s. In about 1857, Harvey Churchill Cobb and a brother arrived, having moved from their birthplace in Coventry, VT. Harvey’s grandson, also named Harvey Churchill Cobb, remembered his grandfather telling of an observation the two brothers made looking north from what is now the Whiteside/Carroll County line along Hwy. 78 near where the old Millview Feed Store is. From their vantage point there, not a tree was visible to the north, just prairie. Now there are farm yards with shade trees and some small timber plots that lie scattered among corn and soybean fields. The Cobb family settled in northern Ustick Township later in the 1800’s.
Two forty acre parcels of land that became the Cobb home farm were originally granted by the US Government to veterans of the War of 1812. One parcel was given to Mary Ann Leroy, widow of Russell Starr, deceased Private of First Regiment, Ohio Militia. The second was given to Theodorus Miller, Private in Parker’s Company, Ohio Militia.
On March 1, 1854, both parcels were assigned to a Charles Dement in documents signed by President Franklin Pierce. Abstract of title shows that Harvey Churchill Cobb purchased the property on July 22, 1871. According to records of Corliss J. Kerr, Harvey Cobb had purchased a farm from a Mr. Eads in Union Grove Township on Oct. 18, 1859.
Samuel Cobb, son of Harvey Churchill and Charlotte Willmarth Cobb, purchased the Ustick Township farm from his parents on January 18, 1878.
Samuel Barney and Della Green Cobb had a son also named Harvey Churchill Cobb who later purchased the farm. H. C. and his wife Sylvia Baker Cobb also acquired the adjacent farm to the east on January 25, 1937. That farm, in Clyde Township, was originally received by assignment from the US Government by a Thomas Wattson on October 2, 1854. Ever since Harvey and Sylvia bought that farm, it has been referred to by the family as the “other place.”
The home farm and the other place were purchased by James Russell and Corliss Jane Kerr from Sylvia Cobb on March 1, 1977. Corliss is the daughter of Harvey and Sylvia Cobb and taught school in the area for many years. J. Russell Kerr grew up on farms in the Joslin and Erie areas. The Kerrs had farmed the Cobb farms after Harvey retired from farming. The Kerrs also purchased a farm from Lowell Kelm in 1965. That farm lies about two miles east of the Cobb farms.
Harvey Cobb was always interested in practicing conservation methods of farming. Laying out contour lines for planting, establishing two terraces to control runoff, and installing tiling for drainage of low lying fields were accomplished while he farmed. A fiftieth anniversary newsletter of the Whiteside County Soil and Water Conservation District in July, 1994 talks about meetings that were held in 1944 that led to the establishment of the district. Charter members present at the first organizational meeting included E. J. Allison, H. C. Cobb, A. L. Goodenough, Russell G. Matthew, and Glen Wade.
Sylvia Cobb, Harvey’s wife, was active in the rural community as part of the Spring Valley Presbyterian Church Willing Workers group, and as a charter member of the Whiteside County Home Bureau.
When Russell and Corliss Kerr took over farming following Harvey’s retirement, conservation practices were continued and expanded. With improvements in conservation tillage technology, Kerr utilized minimum tillage or no-till practices to enhance erosion control. At the Kelm farm (Russell & Corliss called it the Lazy K), sod waterways and contour lines were established. Kerr participated in programs such as Diverted Acres and more recently the Conservation Reserve Program on portions of the farms more prone to erosion when cropped. A portion of the CRP land at the Kelm farm has been planted to black walnut trees for future harvest. A timber management plan has been established for the natural timber on that farm and selective logging for timber improvement has occurred.
The northeast hill portion of the Kelm farm includes a unique area where native prairie grass, little bluestem, was evident. In the late 1960’s, a soil conservation service employee told Russell Kerr that so far as he knew, that may have been the largest tract of native prairie remaining in Whiteside County. Brush and trees have taken over much of that, but some clearing of the less desirable trees and brush over the past few years has helped with regeneration of some little bluestem. Planning for additional treatments in the future may help reestablish a larger area of native prairie.
When the Kerrs retired from farming, Russell sought a person to rent the farmland who would continue utilizing the conservation practices already in place. Bob Belha, now deceased, and later his son Steve Belha, and Steve’s son Tony, have farmed the properties since then.
Following Russell Kerr’s death, his wife Corliss began the process of establishing a permanent conservation easement to maintain the open space aspect and traditional farming of the properties. The conservation easement on the properties was finalized with the Natural Land Institute in December, 2008.
Russell and Corliss Kerr had two children, Jane Ann and Duane. Jane owns a historic home in Janesville, WI, worked in the trade show industry since college, and is currently employed with GES Trade Show Services in Chicago. She maintains a strong interest in the farms and in conservation practices. Duane lives in Green River, Wyoming and also has much interest in the Kerr farms and conservation practices. He received a degree in Wildlife Management from the University of Wyoming in 1973, and was employed by the State of Wyoming Game and Fish Department as a Game Warden until his retirement in 2014. When possible, he works on the timbered portions of the Kerr farms thinning undesirable brush and to encourage regrowth of native prairie plants.
On July 25, 2017, at age 95, Corliss Kerr passed away peacefully in the house on the home place, where she was born. A memorial service for Russell and Corliss was held in Morrison on August 8, 2017.
Bob and Sherry Piros
Married to Sherry and their Prairie
It was the wildflowers that saved this piece of land. The wildflowers, and being too wet to farm. A 6.89 acre patch of remnant wet prairie and sedge meadow, slowly being overtaken by reed canary grass, lay at the back of an 80 acre piece purchased to raise sheep on. Sherry Piros, who owned the property, was out walking around one day and stumbled upon something that struck her as odd: a pussy willow-like plant, growing far from any yard or landscaping. She brought her friend and colleague, Jay Friberg, out to the property with this sample, which he identified as prairie willow. They found the site full of native wildflowers: fringed gentian, marsh marigold, Michigan lily, spotted phlox, bottle gentian. Sherry remembers being told that this piece of land was special, “rare and valuable”. It had never been farmed, and a mostly intact native ecosystem still blossomed there. In 1995, Sherry and her husband worked with The Natural Land Institute to place a conservation easement on it, forever preserving and protecting the land. It was also designated an Illinois Nature Preserve in 1998.
Bob married Sherry in 1994. “People say I married Sherry for the prairie,” he jokes. Bob was originally lured away from aquatic ecology in college by Doug Wade, future founder of the Prairie Preservation Society of Ogle County. Doug got him invested in the plight of the prairie. Bob was a charter member of the PPSOC when it was founded in 1974, and has actively participated in prairie restoration and management for decades.
Together, Bob and Sherry steward their preserve, battling invasive reed canary grass, multiflora rose, and honeysuckle, removing trees like buckthorn and osage orange, and burning the land in the spring. The war will never be quite won, but more ground is gained each year. And periodically, more native species are found there. The original survey in 1995 found 102 species. 7 years later, an additional 35 species. Bob currently keeps a list of 15 more that he’s found.
This land allows Bob and Sherry to pursue a rewarding passion for the native prairie. Bob says that they “love to preserve it, and we work on it, proud to say that. Wet prairie is the most endangered of the prairies”. For Sherry, “walking around this clumpy, mucky grass has some instructive value to it”. She remembers realizing “these pretty flowers are worth something? Beyond just being a pretty flower?” Bob’s mission to survey all the natives in the prairie culminates in his photography, “I try to get a really nice picture of them right off the bat,” and, “When I’m out working or surveying, I’ve got the camera”. A few of his pictures are featured here for the viewer: fringed gentian, Culver’s root, spotted phlox, bottle gentian, prairie phlox, Michigan lily, marsh marigold. Sherry in a field of goldenrod. Bob triumphantly holding a bundle of reed canary grass seed heads. These are the things the Piros value most about their property, and their conservation easement will protect them forever.
Bill and Judith Gontko
Timber Trails Farm: The Gontko Family
Bill and Judith Gontko acquired a 52-acre piece of land in 1976. It was overworked and tired: there were erosion problems, poor surface soil due to farm animals, and invasive weeds everywhere. Over the years, the family has put in a ton of work to give the land new life. They started by removing trash from an eroding hillside and regrading and reseeding it. The erosion and poor soil near the barn was supplemented with soil excavated from a water collection basin. The basin and a pond, scrupulously maintained by the Gontkos, allow water to percolate naturally into the soil, instead of adding to the erosion issues along the Kishwaukee River. That erosion is a big problem, so Bill’s most recent big project has been building three bend weirs along the river. These structures jut out into the river at specific angles to redirect the water flow. The project was implemented with the help of DeKalb Co. Soil and Water Conservation District, and will help stop the river from eating into its banks, protecting the land and water quality.
Another ongoing task on Timber Trails Farm is maintaining a safe place to enjoy the outdoors. Dangerous dead tree branches are removed, and there are contingency plans in case of wildfire, including trails that can be used as fire breaks, and the pond that can be used as a water source. Bill carefully manages removal and prevention of invasive plants that crop up. Prescribed burns help control the noxious plants as well. The trail system is maintained for walking and horseback riding, and runs along the river for scenic views. In winter, the water collection basin freezes over into a skating rink. The pond at the bottom of the hill supports a fish population and is a good resting place for migrating waterfowl.
When the Gontkos placed their land under a conservation easement in 2008, NLI provided them with baseline documentation of their lands plants and animals, as well as their neighbor’s easements. Together, they form part of a wide swath of protected land called the Clear Water Legacy, which in turn is part of 4,500 protected acres along the Kishwaukee. The Gontkos believe the land is important to care about and protect. “The Natural Land Institute defines what land stewardship is all about,” said Bill Gontko.
The Gontkos’ love of their land has slowly created a beautiful home that enriches their life. They love it more now than the first day they saw it, and it has blossomed because of the love and care they have put into it.