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

Leading the Forest Preserves into the Next Century

By Laurel Ross, Conservation and Policy Council member and Volunteer Steward, and Jane Balaban, Co-Chair FPCC Nature Committee and Volunteer Steward

It has been a year and a half since President Preckwinkle created the Forest Preserves’ Conservation and Policy Council to advise the President, the Board of Commissioners and the General Superintendent as they implement the ambitious vision of the Next Century Conservation Plan (NCCP). Perhaps it is time for a brief report on our progress.

At the end of 2014, ten outstanding community leaders, including a college president, leaders in business, engineering, the not-for-profit sector, and outdoor recreation, attorneys with a variety of specialties, and a landscape architect, were appointed to the Council. We were asked to help strengthen the Forest Preserves by “increasing continuity from one administration to the next and ensuring that we remain true to our conservation mission, regardless of who is at the helm.”

A concerted effort has been made on the part of the council and supporting staff to arrange meetings, field trips and briefings in such a way that this monumental task could be best understood and accomplished. Staff presentations at various meetings have explained the nuts and bolts of land acquisition and of restoring health to natural areas. Presentations such as the one at our March meeting help clarify and to some extent quantify the gap between current resources and what is needed going forward to achieve the Plan’s goal of 30,000 acres of high quality natural areas in 25 years.

We have visited numerous sites in all parts of the county including the Poplar Creek Preserve (volunteer-led tour), Dan Ryan Woods (tour co-led by partners), the FPCC Research Facility (hosted by staff), and the Portwine Road project (planned by the Forest Preserves and implemented mostly by contractors). Council members have come to know Forest Preserves staff leadership and have met with a number of volunteer leaders. We have stretched our minds and hearts to grasp the daunting, but magnificent and compelling goals of the Next Century Conservation Plan.

We are learning that the goals of the plan clearly cannot be achieved using only existing resources, and that this presents at least two major challenges. First, we must find a way to build broad-based public support for increasing the budget of the Forest Preserves through a wide variety of mechanisms (to be identified). Second, we must continue to build on the finest public involvement program anywhere, the County’s volunteer stewardship program. The significance of volunteers in the success of the plan is clear. We need both “worker bees”, the casual participants who spend a few days a year helping out with stewardship tasks, AND we need to identify and support the strong leaders who can make a major commitment of time, and who want to work alongside staff, taking on important roles such as steward, monitor, and burn leader.

The plan tells us we must continue to protect land and that, once protected, we must restore and manage that land. How can we do that? The unvarnished truth is that this will require much more funding than we know how to secure. It will be the important work of all the constituents of the Forest Preserves to find creative ways to solve this puzzle. Other counties in our region are doing that; we have learned from them that there is no one template for success.

All voices are welcome in this chorus of progress. Your ideas are needed in our quest to accomplish this difficult but vital task.