Forest Preserves, a hundred years from today

June 12, 2013

One hundred years after a small volunteer group set aside open spaces for the nation’s first Forest Preserve, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County is redoubling its efforts to promote preservation and recreation across more than 100 square miles.

The District’s centennial anniversary campaign officially began Wednesday with a minor name change (though still legally The Forest Preserve District of Cook County, the redesigned logo carries the admittedly less clunky Forest Preserves of Cook County) and a reiteration of the Forest Preserves’ vision for conservation, habitat restoration and trails.

New master plans in each of those areas — as well as camping, recreation and land acquisition — will keep the Preserves on track for the next century, its authors said. The urban sprawl foreseen by the organization’s founders has come to pass, and threatened to encroach on lands that make up roughly 11 percent of Cook County, while invasive species mount an existential risk to biologically unique northeast Illinois. Governance, too, has faltered in the past. But the February dismissal of Shakman litigation, which dealt with political patronage in hiring, was widely regarded as a vote of confidence in new management.

Toni Preckwinkle, whose forthright criticism of controversial city programs and professionalization of county government have earned her praise from within and outside the Forest Preserves, admitted she didn’t realize her position included President of the District until after she had already begun her campaign for Cook County Board President. Her only encounters with the Forest Preserves before that, she said, were events that her predecessor Todd Stroger sometimes held in Sand Ridge at 159th and Torrance.

Emboldened by initial success in increasing visits to the Forest Preserves, Preckwinkle said Wednesday improving public access to those 69,000 acres remains a priority as she gears up for reelection. General Superintendent of the Forest Preserves Arnold Randall agreed.

“We want people to be as fiercely protective of the Forest Preserves as they are about the lakefront,” he said.

As a massive network of nature preserves abutting one of the nation’s largest cities, the Forest Preserves navigate a complex relationship between ecology and the built environment.

To help strike that balance between use and preservation, Randall and Preckwinkle said improving access to and knowledge of the Preserves through environmental education, transportation and other means would remain a priority, especially for the many Chicagoans who live their whole lives in the city without any idea of the Preserves.

“We want everyone to experience the wonders of nature,” Randall said, “right here in our county.”

Chris Bentley writes about the environment. Follow him on Twitter at @Cementley.

Contribute your ideas for the Forest Preserves' Next Century Conservation Plan here, and watch a video from the Forest Preserves: