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Dr. George B. Rabb Force of Nature Awards

Barbara Waller Force of Nature winner 2019

What do we mean when we call someone a “force of nature”? The term evokes a person in tune with their life mission, unstoppable, drawing on inner strength and conviction, with the power to reshape a landscape.

The Dr. George B. Rabb Force of Nature Awards recognize residents of the Chicago Wilderness region whose novel approaches, big ideas, extraordinary collaborations, and bold leadership set an inspiring example for others. In some important way, they’ve moved the ball forward in natural areas or wildlife conservation, education, or advocacy. They’ve created something new and needed, breathed life into a critical project, or just plain refused to give up over decades of often unrecognized work.

Across the region, a vital and growing community of people is working together to protect, heal, and expand our last natural landscapes, seeking ways to reintegrate nature into our everyday lives and practices. Professionals and volunteers, they’ve devoted themselves to plant identification, children’s education, habitat restoration, regional planning, bird monitoring, and much more, doing whatever they can, from wherever they are, to contribute to a green, thriving region that benefits both people and wildlife.

Chicago Wilderness seeks to recognize what these remarkable people have done and shared. Yet as the awardees themselves would acknowledge, the greatest reward is the improvement in the landscape, a growing state of knowledge, the return of species, or a new connection between a person and a wild place.

Attend the 2019 Award Ceremony and Partner Appreciation Event
Thursday, Nov 14, 3:30-6:30pm

Join colleagues at the beautiful Chicago Botanic Gardens to network, celebrate, and learn about the amazing work that is taking place in the Chicago Wilderness region.

Register now!

Force of Nature Class of 2019

“These winners have distinguished themselves through creativity and sheer determination,” said Elizabeth Kessler, Executive Director of the McHenry County Conservation District and Chair for Chicago Wilderness. “Their work touches everything from the birds over our heads to the wildflowers at our feet. They’ve contributed to a deeper understanding of our plant and wildlife communities, engaged overlooked groups to share in the benefits of nature, and improved our ability to plan with nature in mind.”

Founder of Homes4Monarchs

Peter Gordan
As a high school freshman in Palos Hills, Peter started Homes4Monarchs, a nonprofit organization that has distributed more than 20,000 packets of native milkweed seeds at no charge to help reestablish habitat for monarch butterflies and other pollinators. With a website, promotional video, and peer networking, Peter has enlisted many of his classmates to join in the volunteer work. He regularly tables at conservation events, often wearing monarch wings. In January 2019, Peter organized a Conservation Expo at his school that was attended by more than 1,000 people. Along the way, he learned Spanish to reach a wider range of people with his conservation messages.


Volunteer Bird Monitor

Dave Miller, photo by Gpowers
In 2005, Dave readily committed to ten years of monitoring grassland birds for the McHenry County Conservation District. His data from more than 600 bird surveys (and counting) has informed and widely influenced restoration practices on habitat for grassland and wetland bird species. He is also an attentive and inspiring volunteer teacher to the hundreds of people who go on bird walks with him every year.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources

John Rogner, photo by DBanta
John’s longstanding commitment to collaboration to advance conservation in our region is well-known. In leadership positions at the US Fish & Wildlife Service and Illinois Department of Natural Resources, he was a driving force in the creation of the Chicago Wilderness alliance and chaired its Executive Council through years of growth and signature achievements. John played key roles in major efforts such as the establishment of the Hackmatack and Kankakee National Wildlife Refuges and the Millennium Reserve. He is widely respected and beloved for his vision, wisdom, kindness, sense of humor, approachability, and ability to bring people and organizations together.

Chicago Botanic Garden

Dave Sollenberger, photo Chgo Botanic Garden
David has been a quiet but influential leader and champion of science-based prairie restoration for close to 40 years. As an ecologist with the Chicago Botanic Garden, he guided the establishment of the 15-acre Dixon Prairie and created the reference lists of critical plant species used in prairie restoration across 14 states. He went on to manage the Garden’s Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank, overseeing the collection, sorting, and storage of more than 1,700 species and building the seed bank into a model imitated around the world. He is a well-loved teacher and accomplished botanical illustrator to boot.

Volunteer Steward

Valerie SpaleStarting in the 1960s, Valerie set out to preserve and promote natural areas at a time when very few people were doing this work. She was instrumental in saving one of the best and largest remnant tallgrass prairies in Illinois, Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester. The site had already been platted and divided for development when she and other volunteers began raising money to buy individual lots. As the longtime director of the Save the Prairie Society, she played a central role in getting Wolf Road Prairie designated as a State Nature Preserve. Valerie passed away in December 2018 but is still an inspiration to many who knew her.



Cardno Nursery, photo by Cardno
Based in Walkerton, Indiana, Cardno is providing a critical service on the business side of conservation by developing an extensive native plant collection for use in restoration projects around the region. The company has supplied millions of plants and thousands of acres’ worth of seed to Chicago-region restoration projects including Midewin Tallgrass Prairie, Wolf Lake, and Chicago Park District native plantings. The company is also using innovative bioengineering techniques to ensure successful plant growth in a variety of habitats. Cardno has donated material to nonprofit conservation and land management agencies across Chicago Wilderness.

Barbara Waller

Barbara Waller, photo by NAaberg
This small, community-based environmental education program in Waukegan, Illinois, has an outsized impact on its participants. Begun as a children’s poverty initiative in 2008 by First Baptist Church Pastor Keith Cerk and program director Barbara Waller (aka “Ms. Coyote”), the program provides high-quality educational experiences and access to natural areas for kids from underserved communities. The STEAM-based curriculum gets children up to ninth grade outdoors and features an eight-week summer daycamp as well as field trips. The first summer, 10 children attended camp – that number has grown to 93 in 2018. Cool Learning Experience addresses real environmental problems in young people’s communities and encourages them to develop and help implement solutions. 

Forest Preserves of Cook County, Audubon Great Lakes, Friends of the Forest Preserves, Greencorps Chicago, and the Student Conservation Association

Conservation Corps at Spears Woods
Founded in 2005, this innovative program hires people from diverse backgrounds and introduces them to the region’s natural areas through pa
id conservation work. Exploring, attending classes, and working in prairies, woodlands, and wetlands at multiple locales, trainees experience the breadth of the forest preserves and gain transferable skills, certifications, and an introduction to careers in conservation. A strong multi-organization partnership and diverse funding sources make the program sustainable and broaden its impacts.

Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha

Flora of the Chicago Region
This massive and comprehensive book documents the varied native plant communities across our region, one species at a time. It reenvisions the classic Plants of the Chicago Region, including a far broader treatment of ecological interactions (particularly insects) and adding intricate illustrations by Mary Marguerite Lowther, as well as eye-popping photos. Exhaustively researched —the authors devoted more than 100,000 hours to field research, compilation, and writing — it will no doubt be an invaluable resource to stewards for decades to come, particularly as climate change potentially alters the conditions under which these natural communities have evolved.

ON TO 2050
Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP)

On to 2050, photo CMAP
CMAP started a giant, vital conversation about the future of our region by engaging more than 100,000 residents and experts during the creation of their latest comprehensive plan. The extensive Environment section, overall emphasis on equity in development and decision-making, and focus on the importance of resilience in natural, built, and human systems provide a compelling and inclusive vision.


Want to Nominate Someone?

The Dr. George B. Rabb Force of Nature awards are presented every two years to individuals, organizations, partnerships, and projects whose novel approaches, big ideas, extraordinary collaborations, and bold leadership in regional conservation inspire the rest of us. The Force of Nature Awards Committee votes on winners and presents awards at the Chicago Wilderness Partner Appreciation Event. Please check this page in late 2020 for nomination information for the 2021 awards.

George Rabb, Conservation Force of Nature

George B. Rabb, Chicago Zoological Society photoThese awards are named in honor of the late Dr. George B. Rabb, longtime director of the Chicago Zoological Society and Brookfield Zoo, a tireless leader in international conservation, and a central force in the establishment of Chicago Wilderness.



2017 Awardees