In the 20th Century, we preserved the land. In the 21st, let’s restore it.

Implementing the Next Century Conservation Plan: Reflecting on Our Progress

By Eileen Figel
Deputy General Superintendent
Forest Preserves of Cook County

Developed by conservation advocates throughout the Chicago region, the Next Century Conservation Plan (NCCP) calls for a massive commitment to scale up restoration efforts, acquire and protect more land, and make the Forest Preserves more inviting and accessible.  The ambitious plan is designed to be implemented over the next 25 years.  Success will require new and creative approaches to ensure limited resources invested by FPCC, advocates, volunteers, and other partners are spent in the most efficient and effective manner possible.  We must also measure our progress, be frank about what is and isn’t working, and be willing to adjust course as needed.

To that end, seventy partners and staff who participated in the first year of implementation gathered at the Chicago Botanic Garden in December to discuss what had gone well during year one and what hadn’t, and to suggest changes for 2016.  Several issues were raised, including:

  • How can we improve communication and collaboration to leverage partner investment of time, talent, and financial resources?
  • Intentional efforts to create a collaborative structure, such as having partners co-chair each NCCP committee, are helpful, but more work is needed to expand participation and eliminate silos. How can we “end the separation” of People and Nature, and ensure these committees are working together? Can we change the structure to eliminate meetings with “a handful of people talking at a lot others?”
  • How do we build a strong community of support? How can we better connect picnickers, pool users, and under-served communities to the preserves?  How do we tap the networks of the Brookfield Zoo, the Chicago Botanic Garden and other partners to reach like-minded people?
  • How do we raise the resources needed to implement this ambitious plan during a period of fiscal constraints impacting the State, County and the Forest Preserves?

I truly welcome the frank input we received at the workshop and throughout the past year.  We are committed to working with our partners to address these questions and other key challenges.   I also think it is important to acknowledge that major changes are already underway, and we should celebrate some very important recent accomplishments including the convening of the Conservation and Policy Council, the completion of the 5-year NCCP Strategic Plan, and the reorganization of the Forest Preserves’ budget and performance management system to align with NCCP goals.  We know these successes are the direct result of a broad team effort.  We thank each of you for your part and look forward to continuing to evolve and grow as we work together to implement the plan.

Tackling Major Challenges

Workshop participants identified seven major challenges we will face in the next few years.  For each challenge, specific actions or course corrections were recommended as indicated.

Challenge 1: Leverage Restoration Resources

Friends of the Forest Preserves Executive Director Benjamin Cox outlined the importance of documenting and coordinating how resources are being deployed in each region, similar to the recent effort to map resource deployment within the Calumet region.

“We need to think hard about who is doing what where and how we can leverage resources and fill in gaps,” explains Cox.  Cox hopes, for example, this will provide opportunities for partners to write grants to fill specific gaps.

Next Step:  Complete resource mapping for three pilot sites.

Challenge 2: Expand Partnerships

There is a great opportunity to engage under-served communities by collaborating with community leaders and organizations.  Joe Swano, Volunteer Resources Coordinator, explained how Forest Preserves staff will work with existing and new partners to develop a “Nature Ambassador” program designed to engage a wide range of community leaders.

“We are talking about hundreds, maybe thousands of ambassadors,” says Swano.  “How do we reach the ambassadors to then reach new audiences?”

Next Step:  Pilot the Nature Ambassador program in one region where some of these structures are already in place.

  • Define role and categories of engagement (who)
  • What are the existing structures/resources than can be built out on/or leveraged (including partners)
  • Develop a communication structure/incentive for ambassadors and a strategy to reach new communities

Challenge 3: Connect Picnickers and Pool Users to Nature

Each year more than 1 million residents visit the preserves to picnic or swim, but often these visitors have no idea of the wide range of programs and sites available throughout the preserves.  To create deeper connections to nature, presentations about the natural wonders of forest preserves will be offered during 20 minute pool breaks.  Picnickers will receive a zone map showing trails, nature centers, and other programs and facilities within the area.

Next Steps: 

  • Create a Nature Path. Picnickers and other visitors can check-out a backpack with binoculars, field guide, and nature games to engage with their kids.
  • Put information about the different assets and activities near each grove on the back of the picnic grove maps.
  • Use ActiveNet to better communicate with permit holders two weeks before their event about what is going on in the area.

Challenge 4: Make Programs and Sites More Accessible

The FPCC is completing a transition plan to make sites and programs more accessible.  In 2016, a technical advisor will be hired to identify priority improvements and develop a work-plan, timetable, and cost estimates.

Next Steps: 

  • Hire ADA consultant to help complete and implement ADA transition plan.
  • Establish internal working group and external advisory group.
  • Train all staff.

Challenge 5: Connect Busse Woods to Surrounding Community and Businesses

How can Busse Woods provide benefit to and receive benefit from the surrounding community?  Team five explored the possibility of piloting a Friends of Busse Woods group with a broad mission including stewardship, community outreach, fundraising and corporate relations.

Next Steps: 

  • An inventory of nearby businesses was completed in 2015. This will be expanded to include other stakeholders and institutions such as faith-based organizations, schools, community groups, park districts, libraries and others.
  • Develop a one-pager listing all programs/special events.  Reach out to elected officials and identify other ways to embed the information into the community. 

Challenge 6:  Make the Case

Jim Boudreau of the Chicago Botanic Garden explains, “Not all of our acres are created equal and not all our audiences are the same.  So how do we segment the right message to the right audience for the right outcome?”  Jim suggests we take one step at a time and build on what is positive about the forest preserves.  “What we say in 2016 may not be the same as what we say in 2020.  With the right tools, we can test messaging about how people care about the environment, who does, who doesn’t, and why.”

Next Steps

  • Establish a toolkit for each region. Highlight the top ten things we want folks to know about the forest preserves. Work with the Garden, Zoo, and other partners to tap networks to extend this message to like-minded people.
  • Create a “Forest Preserve Friendly” community certification to acknowledge like-minded communities engaged in conservation, restoration, participating in FPCC activities, etc.
  • Form partnerships with hospital networks to promote aligned goals. Leverage their large pools of patients who can become potential FPCC users.

Challenge 7:  Raise Resources

Due to current fiscal constraints, there may be limited opportunities to increase public funding in the near future. In 2016, FPCC will explore options for cost efficiencies and raising revenue from new, non-tax resources.  What are the true costs of various FPCC programs?  What is the potential to decrease costs and/or raise new revenue? Where are partners providing matches and investment?  How can these projects be matched with FPCC investments to create a co-investment strategy to leverage more resources? We must also assess the need for new public resources and begin making the case.

Next Steps: 

  • Build relationships with elected officials, corporations and the philanthropic community.
  • Use a regional approach to provide matches to partners, coordinate partner projects, and align investments.