By Benjamin Cox, President, Friends of the Forest Preserves
Buy the land, keep it from being developed, mission accomplished. Or so we thought.
Now we know that our forest preserves need our help in order to be healthy. People brought plants and animals to the region from all over the planet for a variety of reasons. What we have learned in the last few decades is that some plants stay put, like many of the plants in our yards, while others are aggressive and invade our natural areas, shading out our native plants.
Native plants provide food and breeding hosts for insects, which other plants rely on for pollination and animals rely on for food. Without the plants, the food chain starts breaking down and the system becomes out of balance.
Add to that the stresses placed on the scattered islands of nature that make up the nearly 70,000 acres of forest preserves in Cook County (put together as one piece it would cover about half of the City of Chicago). These islands have lots of edges allowing entry of invasive species and dirty storm water causing erosion. A lack of predators, such as wolves, that once roamed the region results in an abundance of plant-eaters like deer (not to mention hunting stopped in Cook County in recent years). A lack of fire, which naturally occurred in the region for the first 8,000 to 10,000 years or so after the glaciers left, allows brush to dominate, further pushing the system out of balance.
The mission of the Forest Preserves of Cook County is to preserve natural lands together with their plants and animals for education, pleasure, and recreation. If all we have in the 11 percent of the county (and this is a pretty large county) is vast areas of brush, then the forest preserves might as well be something else. We have to have healthy nature to achieve the mission of nature for people to enjoy.
So we cut brush and thin trees (fire did this naturally before), herbicide weeds, and reintroduce fire through prescribed burning (many of our plants and trees actually need fire to thrive). We know this works. We have examples throughout the county where the work has helped native plants and animals to return and thrive. And, as a side benefit, these places are more open, feel safer, and offer beautiful views with flowers, trees, and wildlife.
But, we’ve only scratched the surface with a few thousand acres of the preserves in good health. The Next Century Conservation Plan together with the Natural and Cultural Resources Master Plan call for 30,000 acres of the preserves to be of top quality in 25 years.
The good news is that this is a very achievable goal.
But we know that the Forest Preserves of Cook County can’t do it alone. With a staff of 500 and funding constraints that won’t be sufficiently expanding anytime soon, they need help.
To succeed, we must coordinate all of our assets. Volunteers, Forest Preserves staff, partner non-profit organizations, hired contractors, and conservation corps members together with private and other government funders all bring expertise and resources. Improved communication, tracking, and smart mapping are key to helping us work from the same plan, with agreed upon goals and means and methods to measure success, in a coordinated and efficient way.
As discussed at the December 2015 Next Century Conservation Plan workshop at the Chicago Botanic Garden, several partner organizations are working with Forest Preserves staff to carefully coordinate resources in three pilot regions: Calumet, Spring Creek, and Palos. The plan is to learn from these pilot programs and replicate the approach across the Forest Preserves.
We have to be able to demonstrate that we are the winning team. Because everyone wants to be part of the winning team.
And, once we can demonstrate that, many others will want to contribute to achieving our 25-year, 30,000-acre goal to preserve the Preserves for a second century for people to enjoy.