Champaign County has some of the most beautiful green spaces in Illinois, thanks in large part to the Champaign County Forest Preserves District.
This past September, the CCFPD Board approved the hire of its newest Executive Director, Lorrie Pearson. Recently, I chatted with Pearson to talk about her first few months in her new role, who quotes lyrics from “The Only Road” by Elbow to describe how she feels about her new job:
And I've never been so sure
That I was right where I should be
In my whole life.
Pearson has long loved working with people and serving the community through organizational leadership and development. Before being hired as the Executive Director of the CCFPD, Pearson was the Community Development Services Director for the city of Urbana. She has a long history of working for government and government-adjacent organizations, where she’s led planning, zoning, and economic development projects. Her new job is a perfect fit because she can combine the expertise she’s developed throughout her career with her love for nature. As Pearson simply states, “Everything just feels right.”
She's lived in Champaign County for a good part of her life beginning with grad school in the late 90s at the University of Illinois. After moving to the East Coast and back, then moving out of the area again and returning once more, she jokes that there’s a giant magnet under Champaign County that pulls people back after they move away. “This is where we belong,” she says of her and her partner.
What does Pearson like to do when she’s not overseeing the seven different forest preserves, two museums, and the many educational and volunteering opportunities within? Her many varied interests center nature, creativity, and meaningful connection with people. “I find energy in being active outdoors, especially hiking, boating, and biking,” she explains. She also enjoys improvisational theater and plays, and listening to music, especially classical, rock, and blues. And in a quiet moment, you can find her sitting quietly, looking out the window at nature, contemplating philosophical questions.
Two months into this leadership position, Pearson has spent much of her time learning about the people who work for and who visit the preserves, the processes that serve those people, and the forest preserves themselves. She describes her experiences so far as positive. “It looked like a great place to work, and it’s even better than I thought it’d be.” Pearson’s invested time into introducing and re-introducing county residents to all the forest preserves have to offer through a social media series called Exploring with Lorrie. She provides people with snapshots of the preserves, encouraging everyone to come out and find joy in connecting with nature.
Pearson is really looking forward to a comprehensive planning process to understand what county residents want from the forest preserves. She really wants people to get involved and share what they would like to see when they visit the diverse expanses of forest preserves.
What is something that’s surprised Pearson? “I was surprised at the level of love and appreciation [county residents] have for the preserves. The social media views and the notes of appreciation are heartwarming.”
Serving the forest preserve district as Executive Director comes with many challenges. In difficult moments, Pearson falls back on two quotes and life experiences. In the first, she recalls the time she drove her car into a ditch as a new driver. A stranger stopped and pulled her car out of the snowy ditch, telling her, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way, sweetheart.” She repeats this quote when she’s struggling and needs to remind herself to ask for help. Her second inspirational quote comes from her father, who said, “It will work out in the end.” From this, Pearson learned to redefine success and redefine when the end is. This mindset has helped her reframe success and failure, recognizing that personal growth can impact how we think about our own success in navigating problems.
I asked Pearson to describe her ideal hangout or date at the forest preserves. “I have to give you four, one for each season.”
- Take a springtime walk through Hidden Acres and marvel at the blooming bluebells.
- In the summertime, she recommends wandering the trails and the prairie at the Sangamon River Forest Preserve.The goal of this preserve is to restore the 160-acre plot of land to its presettlement state. Check out this space to see some of the oldest ash and oak trees in the state of Illinois!
- For a fall experience outdoors, pack your favorite picnic meal and spend time with your favorite person at Homer Lake. And on a clear night, you can gaze at the stars at the Middle Fork Forest Preserve, which is an International Dark Sky Certified Park.
- And if you’re looking for a fun family night out or a romantic evening with your favorite person, look no further than the Mabery Gelvin Botanic Garden at Lake of the Woods. This year is the first for Night Lights in the Garden, where guests can enjoy the botanic gardens beautifully bedecked with lights. Bring your family or your date to the Botanic Garden any Friday or Saturday, now through January 8th, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Pearson wants to encourage everyone to come out and enjoy the forest preserves. From scenic river views, to peaceful prairie walks, to cozy stargazing outings, there is so much for everyone to enjoy. Folks should also provide feedback. “We want to provide services that people want to see,” explains Pearson, and under her leadership, there’s no question the Champaign County Forest Preserve District will continue being one of Champaign County’s greatest natural treasures.