NLI Board of Trustees and Affiliations

“Perhaps nobody before us had seen the need or been able to set aside natural areas. And those that follow will no longer have the chance. They will only be able to care for what we leave them.”  ~ George B. Fell


Paul Baits
Electrical Engineer Manager, Sundstrand /UTAS (retired)

Paul's Bio

Paul is a lifelong resident of Rockford. Although the home he has always lived in is inside Rockford’s city limits, it is located on a four acre lot that includes a two acre prairie. Quietly sitting in that prairie, gazing at the birds and sky, and just thinking was a summer joy. As a youth, Paul’s family was friends with Owen Gromme (renowned wildlife painter from Baraboo, WI). Mr. Gromme and his daughter helped the entire family learn to rehabilitate orphaned and injured birds. Family vacations were, typically, road trips to national parks. Paul’s parents and siblings are long-time supporters of many environmental organizations, particularly the Nature Conservancy, which later motivated family members to become committed supporters of the Natural Land Institute. When retirement from the engineering career and the end of another significant volunteer commitment ended, the transition to NLI was a natural fit. He serves on all of NLI’s committees: Executive, Land Conservation, Finance, Personnel, Resource Development, Education, Marketing & Membership, as well as the Working Lands Sub Committee and DEI Task Force. Paul knows that it is imperative that we protect unblemished natural areas and the creatures that depend on those areas for their survival.


Judy Barnard
Owner, Marketworks

Judy's Bio

Judy’s love of nature began at an early age through trips to northern Wisconsin, since her Grandfather and Mom loved to fish. While they spent their days on the lake, she and her sister spent it in the woods – exploring every nook and cranny. In sixth grade, her class spent a few days at Camp Lorado Taft exploring the land around Blackhawk Statue. Old roots run deep.

She has been fortunate to hold four uniquely different jobs in her work life, retiring as Deputy County Administrator in 2004. Highlights of her county work included coordinating the county’s Balanced Growth Initiative and the Green Communities Environmental Vision. Once retired, she consulted for two years with the county Economic Development office and then went on to create Marketworks, a small business specializing in print marketing, photography and event planning.

In 2016 she was elected to a second term as a Forest Preserves of Winnebago County Commissioner, and she also serves as an Associate Director of the Winnebago County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Judy previously served on the NLI board and is a past President. In addition to being the Vice President Judy is currently the Chair of the Resource Development Committee, and also serves on the Executive, Finance and Board Development Committees. Judy coordinates NLI’s silent auctions, and chairs the biennial Party on the Prairie fundraiser. Judy feels that the work of NLI is extremely important to the sustainability of the region.


Mark Luthin
Environmental Science Educator (Retired)

Mark's Bio

My love of nature goes back to my childhood. We were constantly outside and often we explored nearby natural areas and parks looking for turtles, snakes, cool insects, etc. As a Boy Scout, we camped and hiked frequently. My Eagle Scout project involved working on the early stages of a prairie restoration at Highland College in Freeport. Keith Blackmore, former NLI Board member, was one of my teachers at HCC, and inspired me to become a teacher. I taught a variety of subjects, but primarily Biology and Environmental Science for 32 years in the Belvidere school district (Belvidere HS and Belvidere North). During my last 23 years, I taught a class called Advanced Topics, created by a coworker and I, that exposed students to a variety of ecosystems via field trips and projects by taking students to natural areas.  Coming from a family of birders, conservationists, and prairie stewards, involvement in NLI seems preordained. I was a “sometimes” member of NIL’s Science Advisory committee when my schedule permitted. After I retired, I found myself needing to get out of the house. Kim Johnsen convinced me to help with some educational, programming, and stewardship activities that NLI sponsors, and to join the Education Committee. I am proud to be part of the NLI team that creates, protects, and restores our natural areas.


Ashley Sarver
Partner and Senior Urban Planner, Studio GWA

Ashley's Bio

Ashley is a Partner and Senior Urban Planner with Studio GWA where she works to revitalize downtowns, redevelop historic buildings, and build community. She grew up in a small town near Rockford so is familiar with both rural and urban contexts for the built and natural environment.

Her community involvement includes Transform Rockford, I Bike Rockford, IGNITE Young Professionals, and is on the board for Jeremiah Development.

In her free time you could expect Ashley to be biking or hiking with her husband, Jason, and dog, Kevin.

Ashley serves as the Chair of NLI’s Marketing & Membership Committee and is on the Executive Committee.


Nancy Holm

Owner/President Benefits Administrative Services (Retired)

Nancy's Bio

Nancy Holm holds a B.S. in Accountancy from Northern Illinois University, as well as a CPA certification. Significant recent work experience includes 10 years as Owner/President of Benefits Administrative Services (BAS), which provided Claims Processing and Benefit Administration Services for medical, dental, disability, FSA, COBRA; and provided eligibility and billing consolidations. BAS’s Profile: 30 client companies, 36 employees, $2 million revenue.

Prior work experience includes progressive management responsibility and accountability incorporate benefits administration and compensation. Nancy also worked in public accounting (CPA at Big 6 firm) with lead audit responsibility.

Nancy enjoys planting and working in her acre yard, filled with flowers, perennials, bushes, trees, and raised vegetable/herb gardens. Her yard was one of 8 featured in the Council of Rockford Gardeners 2019 Garden Walk.

As Treasurer of Natural Land Institute, Nancy is also Chair of the Finance Committee.


Robert Clark
Professor of Mathematics, Rock Valley College (retired)

Rob's Bio

Rob grew up in northeast Ohio in close proximity to several of the 18 preserves in the 23,000-acre Cleveland Metroparks System. Some of his earliest memories involve playing with friends in forests and creeks. His father introduced him to camping and nature photography, which remain passions to this day. When he moved to northern Illinois in the 90s for a teaching position at Rock Valley College, he was introduced to the Natural Land Institute.

The spring of 2002 was Rob’s first formal connection to NLI when he signed on to help establish a bluebird nest box trail at Nygren Wetland Preserve. To this day he still helps maintain and monitor that trail. Over the years, Rob has also participated in various volunteer work days, restoration projects, prescribed burns, planting and seed harvesting projects. His wife Cassie and daughter Emma have occasionally joined him in some of those activities. The natural world is very important to the entire family.

Rob feels that volunteering with NLI for two decades has kept him close to nature. He doesn’t hesitate to tell people that helping protect natural areas in northern Illinois gives him an immense sense of pride. He is honored to take that service to the next level and serve as a member of NLI’s board of trustees.


John R. Cook, III
Landscape Architect and Designer, John R. Cook Associates (Retired)

John's Bio

John is a landscape architect who has worked with the private and public sectors for decades and brings a scope of knowledge and understanding about how a natural environment can be enjoyable and encourage healing of the mind and body.

John is the Chair of NLI’s Land Conservation Committee and serves on the Executive and Resource Development Committees, as well as the Working Lands Sub Committee.


Mark Cormier
Physician (retired Urologist)

Mark's Bio
I want to say from the outset what a pleasure it is to be surrounded by so many committed individuals in the NLI organization. I am a retired physician. (Urologist), and some of you may have known my longtime practice colleague, Dan Swift. Currently, I am learning from, and serving on the land conservation committee.
50 years ago my father brought me to an Audubon Society meeting when I was a young teenager. This was the catalyst for what became an enduring interest in the natural world. The mission of the NLI is entirely consistent with what I believe to be the most important concept in conservation: habitat is everything. I have maintained a bluebird trail for 50 years in Jo Daviess county as a small contribution toward that end, and am looking forward to the larger scope of the NLI purpose.   


Ray Ferguson
Attorney, Ray A. Ferguson & Associates

Ray's Bio

Ray was born and raised on a farm and played out in the open when he was a child. He realized the most beautiful land for animals especially, was that which was being destroyed by development or used for recreation.

He has always felt a desire to keep land as a safe place for animals and this has motivated him to support and be actively involved in an organization like Natural Land Institute that protects natural land to provide wildlife habitat.

Ray likes the mission of NLI to preserve and protect natural areas so animals will have places they need to live. He is a past NLI President and has provided advice related to legal matters over the years. Currently, Ray serves on the Land Conservation Committee and Working Lands Sub-Committee.


Russ Johansson
President, Specialty Screw Corporation (retired) (retired)

Russ' Bio

I was born and raised in Oakland County, Michigan.  Graduated with a BS degree from Michigan State University in 1976.  Upon given the opportunity from my father to start a formal Quality Control and Engineering Department at Specialty Screw Corporation, I moved to Rockford, Illinois in 1980 to begin a career in the fastener industry, and eventually, becoming president and majority owner of the family business in 1995.

I have been an active member in the Rotary Club of Rockford since 1987, a former board of trustee and treasurer at the Natural Land Institute for nine years, and a current board member of the Rockford Park District Foundation.  Having lived in Michigan for over twenty five years gave me a true sense of the outdoors and the essence of land preservation and recreation.  I’m a big supporter of conservation of God’s given natural resources and hold to the motto the three R’s; “Re-use, Reduce and Recycle”, and “Think Globally, Act Locally.”  In my spare time I golf, tennis, swim, bike and snow ski.

It should be noted that even though I was born and raised in Michigan, I have roots in Northern Illinois where both my parents were raised on dairy farms; my father in Genoa and my mother in Hampshire.  There, as a child I would visit during the holidays and an occasional summer vacation with my cousins to truly experience working on a dairy farm.

My wife, Gin, and I have been married for 38 years with three children, all in the family business and three granddaughters.

Russ serves on NLI’s Finance Committee.


Howard Knodle
High School Biology Teacher (retired)

Howard's Bio

Howard has had lifelong experiences in our natural environment. He spent his childhood car camping with his family and then more immersed experiences through boy scouts. Howard spent many vacations and holiday weekends at a cabin in northern Wisconsin fishing, swimming and exploring nature with his family. His love of the outdoors led to a pursuit of a forestry and soil science bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. Howard worked for 3 summers with the US Forest Service in Colorado and Wyoming and spent time hiking and backpacking in wilderness areas.

One thing led to another and Howard pursued teaching high school biology and environmental science. Howard takes great pride in co-developing an advanced environmental science course that included two 4-day field trips that gave students hands-on experiences learning about wetlands, forestry, soils, wildlife and literature. 

Howard retired in 2020 after 31 years of teaching and currently keeps busy participating in stewardship opportunities with NLI and BCCD. He enjoys gardening, canoeing, kayaking, biking, hiking, and exploring our National Parks with his wife.

Howard serves on the Resource Development Committee and the Community Outreach & Engagement Committee.


Lisa Normoyle
Art Teacher, Keith School

Lisa's Bio
I am excited to join the NLI board!  I recently retired from RPS #205 after teaching Art in a variety of elementary and middle schools for many years.  I am looking forward to embarking on a new career at Keith School as an art educator in the lower school.

My interest in nature started as a resident camper at a Girl Scout camp.  I went on to work and direct summer camps for the Rockford Park District.  I enjoy teaching others about the wonder of nature and am a life time Girl Scout member. I was the board chair for Girl Scouts of Northern Illinois for many years, served on the Discovery Center Board, and am currently involved with Tinker Swiss Cottage and Museum.

I recently completed the Master Naturalist Program and am working on acquiring my hours as an intern.

I enjoy biking, walking, birding, reading, playing guitar, and knitting.

In addition to serving on the NLI board I am on the Community Outreach & Engagement Committee.


Jenn Nowicki

Jenn's Bio
Jenn Nowicki developed an early interest in the outdoors that blossomed in college. She often climbed a willow tree where she could gain perspective and appreciate nature in the Chicago suburb where she grew up. At the College of DuPage (COD), she built on those experiences in over fifty field-study courses such as Edible Trees, Boundary Waters Winter Camping, and Dunes Ecology. She interned in an aviary and a prairie restoration. After leaving COD, Jenn finished a Bachelor of Science at UW-Stevens Point in biology/natural resources. Later, she earned a Masters of Education in Outdoor Education from Northern Illinois University.
Influential jobs surrounding college included Field Studies Manager supporting adventure courses, milking cows at a dairy farm and assistant to the farmer and baker on an organic farm in Michigan. These experiences guided her as the Outdoor Recreation Supervisor for Oakdale Nature Preserve Park in Freeport for 10 years. At Oakdale, she directed the outdoor education program, life long learning classes, special events and restoration of 130 acres.

Outdoor pursuits continue to be important. She sits on the board of a Stephenson County land trust, the Jane Addamsland Park Foundation as well as NLI. She gets away in a canoe, hammock or bike as often as she can with her husband Alan and children, Anna, Emma, and Charlie.

Jenn serves on the NLI Land Conservation Committee and DEI Task Force.



Laura Speer
Marketing and Fundraising Professional

Laura's Bio
Laura Speer joined the NLI board of directors in 2023. Laura has over a decade of professional fundraising and marketing experience, serving community non-profits like YWCA Northwestern Illinois, Goldie B. Floberg Center, and  Anderson Gardens.
Laura’s passion for the environment and conservation is rooted in a love of outdoor sports and activities. She spent her youth training and showing horses in and around the Colorado Rockies, developing an appreciation for the connection to the elements and nature through trust and partnership with horses. When not at the Gardens, you may run into Laura around the Northern Illinois region hiking one of the many forest preserves, cycling on the Stone Bridge Trail, asking to pet your dog, or listening to live music on a patio or at Tuesday Evening in the Gardens.


Nancy Williamson
Regional Watershed Coordinator, Illinois Department of Natural Resources (retired)

Nancy's Bio

Nancy Williamson retired June 2018 after serving 19 years with Illinois Department of Natural Resources as a Regional Watershed Coordinator and was “Green Cities” Campaign Manager for the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan, and Conservation 2000 grant administrator for twelve years, working with private sector Ecosystem Partnerships in Northern Illinois.  She served for seven years as co-chair of the Chicago Wilderness Green Infrastructure Team, and founded the Sustainable Watershed Action Team, which worked with private grant funding to advance green infrastructure planning, watershed planning, and resource-sensitive development with multiple local jurisdictions across northern Illinois.

Nancy served for five years on the board and as President of the McHenry County Conservation District, and 15 years on the McHenry County Conservation Foundation and on two referendum committees, ultimately bringing $141.5 million in open space funding to McHenry County, IL.

Nancy was a recipient of the 2010 United States Department of Interior “Partners in Conservation” Award for her work with Chicago Wilderness Green Infrastructure and received the award again in 2012 for her role in helping establish Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. She currently serves as Board treasurer for Friends of Hackmatack NWR. She is an accomplished graphic artist/illustrator and helps many not-for-profits with free or cost effective graphic design, including interpretive signage at NLI’s Nygren Wetland Preserve.

Nancy is Chair of NLI’s Personnel Committee and serves on the Executive and Land Conservation Committees, as well as the DEI Task Force.

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