Cook County’s Best Kept Secret

Nearly 70,000 acres of forest preserves blanket Chicagoland. Why do many Chicagoans overlook them?

One of the largest—and oldest—forest preserve systems in the nation surrounds Chicago like an evergreen wreath.  

Hundreds of miles of foot and bike paths are nestled inside the Forest Preserves of Cook County, along with lakes and streams for fishing and boating, meandering disc golf courses, bird sanctuaries, landing strips for model airplanes, horse trails, and secluded campgrounds that make you forget you’re in the city altogether.

But the Emerald Necklace, as it’s nicknamed, hasn’t always been recognized as a county jewel. From the preserves’ founding in 1914, for the purpose of protecting the region’s natural flora and fauna, to a history of patronage during the second half of the 20th century, the forest preserves have a long and complicated background.

But according to Forest Preserves leadership and citizen-activists who support the protection of these wild lands, a new era has begun, marked by modern efforts to root out corruption, clean up and expand trails, and enhance the activities available at the preserves.

Origins of the Forest Preserves of Cook County

Some of Chicago’s most recognizable parks were established by the 1860s, but appreciation for green spaces stalled during the next 30 years. And while parks contained ballfields and playgrounds, there was little in place to focus on preserving Chicagoland’s nature in its purest form: plants, animals and land.

That changed in 1914, when Cook County residents voted to establish the Forest Preserve District. But for much of their existence, the preserves have been co-opted to serve the needs of administrators who hired politically connected candidates instead of those who were qualified, according to the Chicago Tribune.

A series of federal court orders called the Shakman Decrees finally held this culture of patronage accountable starting in the ’70s by reigning in nepotism and eliminating the distribution of spoils to unqualified beneficiaries. Undoing this system of political influence took decades; in 2010, when Arnold Randall was appointed as the preserves’ new general superintendent, he discovered there was still a lot of cleaning up to do.  “When we got here, we found an organization that wasn’t running very efficiently,” Randall said. “There was undue political influence on the work, or the lack of work, really. It needed a wholesale change.”

In 2013, under the guidance of Toni Preckwinkle (president of the Cook County Board), the Forest Preserves District won a dismissal from the decrees thanks to a court ruling that they had achieved substantial compliance with the ruling. By demonstrating that their hiring practices were now transparent, equitable and based on merit, preserve administrators had made significant strides in earning back public trust.

“If your cousin wasn’t employable, they went to work for the Forest Preserves,” said Benjamin Cox, executive director of Friends of the Forest Preserves, a nonprofit that provides accountability and advocates for the Forest Preserves system. “But that’s changed dramatically. It just isn’t tolerated anymore.”

For the health of the city

Why do the Forest Preserves matter? In short, they’re the literal and metaphorical lungs of Chicago. “An obvious ecological benefit is air quality,” Randall said. “Imagine if the were no forest. What would our air be like? How much more pronounced would our stormwater issues be?”

There are also benefits to body and mind. Amid the stress of everyday life in a big city, it’s easy to lose a sense of connection to nature: Trucks belch exhaust. Screens beckon. And green space is sparse in many places. But when you make the effort to get into nature, “you can feel the tension flowing out of you,” Randall said. “You’ve got this green necklace around the city and throughout Cook County that is invaluable in terms of quality of life and outdoor opportunities.”

The importance of the preserves has led to the creation of organizations designed to monitor and support the district, including the Forest Preserve Foundation that raises private funds to aid the preserves mission. “It’s about ecological health and our health as humans on this planet,” said Shelley Davis, foundation president. “Even if you don’t set foot in the forest preserves but live in Chicago, they’re affecting your life for the better, and that’s why it’s so important to protect them.”

Spreading awareness—and a plan for the next hundred years

With 70,000 acres of natural land surrounding the city, why don’t more Chicagoans take advantage of the preserves? Davis, who grew up on the South Side six blocks from Lake Michigan, said she would make the journey out to the Dan Ryan Woods once a year for her dad’s company cookout, but like most, she and her family rarely ventured farther than the picnic groves.

“‘What do I do when I get there?’ is a question people have if they didn’t grow up with the tradition of hiking and walking and exploring in nature,” she said. “Especially in communities of color, getting lost anywhere is not the smartest thing to be thinking about it. So it’s about empowering people to know what to do.”

To that end, the Forest Preserve Foundation is campaigning to increase inclusive visitorship in the form of grants to teach outdoor skills and stock a library of camping gear visitors can borrow.

“We want to make sure everyone has access to those campgrounds,” Davis said, explaining that the cost of equipment at retail outfitters can be prohibitive for many Chicago families. “It can be really expensive really fast, especially for a new experience you don’t know if you’ll like.”

With their legal issues in the rearview mirror, the Forest Preserves administration has turned its attention to the land, with the help of nonprofits like Openlands and Friends of the Forest Preserves as well as corporate partners (including REI).

Short term improvements are being made, Randall said: Last year, 60,000 people visited the preserves’ nature centers, RV sites and campgrounds (which were reintroduced in 2015 after a 50-year hiatus). In recent years, the Forest Preserves administration has fortified nearly 300 miles of extensive trails, making it possible for a group of hikers to accomplish a 210-mile urban thru-hike around the city. And last summer, the district rolled out a dockless bike share program.

Randall and his team also have an eye on the long-term future in the form of the Next Century Conservation Plan, which offers a four-pronged approach to preserve and restore the lands. Among the goals: acquiring an additional 21,000 acres, promoting accessibility for a diverse group of visitors, marketing the preserves as a Chicago icon and destination, and fortifying 30,000 acres to the highest possible ecological quality.

In the meantime, Randall, Davis and Cox agree that it’s key to encourage a love of nature and to let Chicagoans know what the preserves have to offer. “People always say, ‘That’s unused land! We should do something with it!’” Cox says. “In Chicago, green space always turns into a subdivision or a shopping mall. We need to elevate the status of nature in this region to the place where it’s as valuable to us as our food, music, architecture and sports teams.”

6 ways to get involved

  1. Visit one of the six nature centers around Cook County and learn about the history of the land, the arrival of settlers and even the role the preserves played in the Underground Railroad.
  2. Go on a hike with Forest Preserves staff and keep an eye out for bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, coyotes, owls and more.
  3. Put together a self-guided tour with the help of this interactive map, which features information about every parcel and its amenities.
  4. Volunteer for the Forest Preserve Foundation’s Conservation Corps, which restores the habitat, improves trails and provides job experience.
  5. Consider planning a team-building day with the Friends of the Forest Preserve.
  6. Put your money where your values are with a donation to  Forest Preserve Foundation or Friends of the Forest Preserves.

Editor’s note: Over the years, REI has supported several of the nonprofits mentioned in this story with grants, including the Forest Preserve Foundation ($80,000), Friends of the Forest Preserves ($70,000) and OpenLands ($50,000).