Announcing NLI’s Legacy Tree Program

Nominate a tree with this fillable FORM.

Natural Land Institute (NLI) is pleased to announce the introduction of a new initiative to inspire the northern Illinois region to leave a legacy of trees for the enrichment of people, plants and animals called, “NLI’s Legacy Tree Program”. NLI envisions the region where trees are recognized and valued for their contribution to a healthy environment on both natural lands and in the human developed landscapes.

Because Rockford is noted as being the “Forest City”, NLI’s Legacy Tree Program seeks to foster the continued recognition of the Forest City in a region where extensive parks and protected open space are a valued asset to the quality of life for all. The Program will also recognize trees in the northern Illinois region extending out to NLI’s 12 county service area: Boone, Bureau, Carroll, northern DeKalb, Henry, Jo Daviess, Lee, Ogle, Rock Island, Stephenson, Whiteside, and Winnebago Counties.

NLI’s Legacy Tree Program will recognize trees of significant size and cultural heritage to engage the community with the importance of trees and promote a diversity of trees for their considerable impact to human health, a healthy environment, real estate value, and climate mitigation. Highlighting locally native trees helps capture the “spirit of the place” so that each place celebrates its uniqueness and doesn’t end up with an “anywhere USA” urban forest.

Components of the Program include:

  • Recognition of Trees
  • Tree Registry
  • Distributing tree saplings grown from legacy trees
  • Publish a book about the region’s legacy trees


The Program will start by recognizing one tree a month that may be considered a legacy, champion, witness or heritage tree because of its significant size, distinctive appearance, history, or value to the community’s cultural identity and people.

How to Nominate a Tree

Anyone can nominate a tree located in any of the 12 county service area of NLI (Boone, Bureau, Carroll, northern DeKalb, Henry, Jo Daviess, Lee, Ogle, Rock Island, Stephenson, Whiteside, and Winnebago).

A Legacy Tree Nomination Form is available here: fill out this FORM. Recognition will be made through a monthly news release, the NLI website and enewsletter, and on Facebook, Instagram, X, and LinkedIn.


The second part of NLI’s Legacy Tree Program is creating and managing a database of the region’s legacy trees that will be housed on the NLI website (coming soon). This will include the largest tree of every species and known variety in each of NLI’s service area counties as well as community trees with significant cultural importance. The Registry will address the understated value of native and functionally native trees in supporting healthy fauna in the current state of insect and bird population declines.


Seeds will be collected from select Legacy Trees and grown to be distributed to community members as a way to encourage residents to grow heritage trees in their own yard. The tree saplings may be sold for a minimum cost or given away. This will be a future phase of the Program.


Down the road, in a future phase of NLI’s Legacy Tree Program, the non-profit land conservation organization plans to publish a book that highlights the region’s legacy trees.

NLI’s Legacy Tree Program | January 2024

Inaugural Tree: Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa)

The inaugural tree of NLI’s Legacy Tree Program was nominated by John Richards and measured on January 12, 2024. It is a Bur Oak many locals are familiar with as an area icon just southeast of the intersection of Alpine and Spring Creek Roads in Rockford.

The tree was Winnebago County “Outstanding Tree of the Year” in 1986 dedicated by the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service. It is known to be a rare “witness tree” which means it was here when the original land survey of Winnebago County was completed between 1836-1840. Surveyors walked the boundary of every square mile in the county and took notes on the soils, vegetation, streams, and other features of the landscape. Two to Four trees near the corner of each square mile and two trees at the half-mile point (quarter section) were described by what species, their trunk diameter and distance from the corner or quarter section corner of each section. This tree would have been south of the east-west half mile point between Sections 8 & 17.

This oak has seen many changes including construction and expansion of Alpine Road as northeast Rockford changed from rural to urban. Tree Care Enterprises has worked to maintain this iconic tree and you can see that work here:

Its current size is 50-feet tall with an average crown spread of 80-feet and a trunk circumference of 204-inches. That’s almost 5-1/2 feet wide (at “breast height” which is a forester’s term for 4-1/2 feet above ground).

Bur Oak was by far the most common tree in Winnebago County as documented by the original land survey. It is a keystone species meaning that it supports a wide array of fauna – it’s host to more species of insects than any other tree species – a building block to our intricate food web. Its mast or acorns are utilized by more species of animals than any other tree. It was indicative of the prairie edge, open savanna and woodlands that originally blanketed much of northern Illinois. Large bur oaks are currently in decline from many stressors including soil compaction due to human activities and a climate change enhanced native disease: bur oak blight (b.o.b.). Many woodlands where it grows were originally open and now, they are choked with invasive shrubs and too many aggressive trees competing with the oaks and shading the ground so that no young bur oaks are found.

Consider planting a bur oak and carry on the legacy of our spirit of our place and provide more for nature than any other tree you could plant.  Three trees have been planted at NLI’s headquarters in downtown Rockford (320 S. Third St.); the oldest no more than 45 years old is already of significant size.

About the Natural Land Institute:
The Natural Land Institute, an accredited land trust, is a 501(c)3, non-for-profit land conservation organization based in Rockford, Illinois and has protected 18,000 acres of natural land in I llinois since 1958. NLI’s mission is to create an enduring legacy of natural land in northern Illinois for people, plants and animals. For more information and to donate: or call 815/964-6666.

2024 Tree of the Month











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