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


Research for the Next Century Conservation Plan encompasses the following major topic areas, providing a comprehensive basis for the Plan’s visionary goals and strategies. You can read more about each topic area by clicking on a link below. Annotated bibliographies are also available for each topic if you would like to learn more or check out our sources.

Existing Conditions

The Forest Preserves were designed to guarantee that thriving native wilderness areas would be available to every future generation of Cook County residents. In 1913, this simply meant protecting Preserves land from human encroachments—the housing developments and industrial parks spreading rapidly from Chicago’s center. As our knowledge about ecosystems has grown, however, so has the scope of the Forest Preserves’ responsibility for conserving and protecting the region’s natural heritage.

Invasive species and climate change threaten large portions of the Forest Preserves’ holdings. A 2001 land audit found that the Preserves’ natural lands were generally in poor condition, and a follow-up study in 2007-08 could report few improvements. At the same time, the need to protect new areas has become more urgent. In 2000, a Forest Preserves Opportunity Map identified more than 40,000 acres of “Opportunity Areas” of special ecological importance. Today, 21,000 acres still remain unprotected. The Next Century Conservation Plan offers an opportunity to renew and re-energize the Forest Preserves’ conservation mission.


Map and overview of Forest Preserves holdings
Summary of land acquisitions, 1916-2001
Existing characteristics and conditions
Land audit, 2001 (The Habitat Project)
Land audit update, 2007-08 (The Habitat Project)

Ecology and Wildlife

The Chicago region is remarkably biodiverse. Nearly 50 different types of natural communities have made their homes here, and almost half of these are uncommon or even endangered globally. Our region’s environmental richness benefits native wildlife and enhances residents’ quality of life, providing cleaner water, cleaner air and breathtaking natural beauty.

With nearly 69,000 acres of protected land—over a third of all the protected land in the region—the Forest Preserves plays a central role in protecting and preserving biodiversity. Studies of the Preserves’ holdings, however, have raised concerns about ongoing deterioration in its natural areas. A majority of its natural communities are currently of poor quality.

The Next Century Conservation Plan offers an opportunity to renew the Preserves’ core conservation mission. A clear vision for land management and expanded restoration activity will re-energize the Preserves’ efforts to “restore, restock, protect and preserve” the region’s natural communities.

Learn More

Biodiversity Recovery Plan (Chicago Wilderness, Chicago Region Biodiversity Council, Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission and Northeastern Indiana Regional Coordinating Council
Conservation Design Resource Manual (Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission and Chicago Wilderness)
Chicago Nature & Wildlife Plan: A Strategy to Enhance Natural Habitats within the City of Chicago (City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development and Mayor Daley’s Nature and Wildlife Committee)
Chicago Nature & Wildlife Plan Update: A Strategy to Enhance Urban Ecosystems, 2011-2016  (The Chicago Mayor’s Nature & Wildlife Advisory Committee)

Land Use

From its outset, the Forest Preserve were designed to be a lasting natural heritage, not just a set of parks. One of its Founders, Jens Jensen, put it in strong words:

To treat these spaces like city parks is a desecration of their wild beauty, and a nullification of the law under which they were set aside, a law which endeavored to give the people of Cook County forever access to and possession of wild nature, with all the refreshment and delight which only wild nature can give.

But balancing the demands of “access” and “possession” can be difficult. In 1926, a Citizens’ Advisory Committee developed a strategy for keeping this balance stable: 80 percent of the Preserves’ lands would be kept in as natural a condition as possible, and 20 percent would be developed for recreational use. This remains the overarching land use policy for the Forest Preserves today.

Groundbreaking as the “80/20 policy” was in its time, it leaves many questions unanswered today and for the future. How should land management involve local people and wildlife? Where does the restoration of previously developed lands fit in? In what ways can the Forest Preserves’ own operations contribute to good land management? What role can research play? The Next Century Conservation Plan draws on land use models from around the world to inform a renewed vision of land management for the Forest Preserves.


Forest Preserve Land Use Plans

Forest Preserve District of Cook County Land Acquisition Master Plan (2012)
Forest Preserve District of Cook County Recreation Master Plan (2012)
Forest Preserve District of Cook County Camping Master Plan (2013)

Health and Wellness

A growing body of research shows that interactions with nature can improve our physical and psychological health and our social wellbeing, especially in urban settings. Over the coming century, the Forest Preserves can provide important resources for improving the health of Cook County residents.

The Next Century Conservation Plan investigates three health-related questions in the context of the Forest Preserves:

  • Is the correlation between access to nature and better health strong enough to justify substantial improvements to on- and off-site Forest Preserves access (for example, more and better public transit routes, ADA-accessible paths)?
  • What strategies could the Forest Preserves use to extend nature-based health benefits to more people (for example, optimizing accessibility, maintenance, and safety to offer inviting spaces for recreational activities and social meetings)?
  • In what ways can the Forest Preserves support preventive health care approaches that utilize nature as part of their programs?

The Plan addresses these questions based on a robust review of existing research, and on roundtable discussions and interviews with subject matter experts.

Learn More

Annotated Bibliography

Health and Wellness Round Table participants


Climate Change

The Preserves’ founders had remarkable foresight about the climate impact of land preservation, especially in light of the global warming challenges we face today. As early as 1921, leaders noted that “favorable modification of climate”[1] is a benefit wilderness areas offer us. As the Preserve enters their second century, they will play an even more critical part in keeping our region resilient in the face of climate change.

The role of the Next Century Conservation Plan is to survey the impact that warmer temperatures are likely to have on local ecosystems, ranging from seed dispersal to wildlife migration corridors, and to propose long-term responses to these new challenges.


Climate Action Plan for Nature (Chicago Wilderness)
Chicago Climate Action Plan (Chicago Climate Task Force and the City of Chicago)
Chicago Climate Action Plan microsite
Climate Resiliency in Chicago: An Overview of Chicago’s Adaptation Efforts (Global Philanthropy Partnership and the City of Chicago)

[1] The Forest Preserves of Cook County Illinois, 1921, p. 29 (from Sub-series 4: Box IV-30; Folder IV-292, UIC Special Collections).

Economic Competitiveness

The economic value of nature has been recognized in the Chicago region for over a century. In his 1909 Plan of Chicago, Daniel Burnham observed that green spaces are essential to the city’s success:

[T]he need for breathing spaces and recreation grounds is being forced upon the attention of practical men, who are learning to appreciate the fact that a city, in order to be a good labor-market, must provide for the health and pleasure of the great body of workers.

Over the past decade, research has confirmed and quantified the economic benefits that Burnham noted long ago. Through ecotourism and land restoration activities, natural areas produce jobs and grow local businesses. By cleaning the air and providing places for relaxation and exercise, they improve our health. Green spaces benefit their communities by protecting water supplies, preventing flooding and soil erosion, and limiting the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2005, one study calculated the direct economic impact of Illinois parklands at $1.64 billion annually.

As the Next Century Conservation Plan considers how to increase the Preserves’ contribution through targeted investment, new development opportunities, and collaboration with surrounding communities, insights from this research offer new ways to think about the economic potential of our protected lands.


Annotated bibliography of research sources
National Treasures as Economic Engines: The Economic Impact of Visitor Spending in California’s National Parks (National Parks Conservation Association)
How to Succeed in Business – and Nature (Chicago Wilderness Magazine)

Education and Volunteer Programs

People, and especially children, are spending less time in nature. This widening disconnection is becoming a matter of national concern—when the federal America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) initiative conducted its listening sessions in 2010, Americans across the country made it clear that they want to interact more closely with the world outdoors. Education is key to meeting this need. In the coming century, the Forest Preserves have the opportunity and the responsibility to showcase protected areas as the outdoor classroom of Cook County, inspiring people of all ages by connecting them to nature.

The Next Century Conservation Plan has a wide range of projects and programs to draw on for innovative ideas and best practices—from workforce development programs for at-risk youth, such as the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, to public-school partnerships like New York’s Learning Leaders project, to university research collaborations like the Clemson Experimental Forest in Wisconsin. Using this information, the Preserves can become a richer resource for educators, a more active partner in outdoor programming, and stronger link to nature for Cook County residents.


Nature Education Programs

College First (Chicago Botanic Garden)
Conservation Leadership Program for Youth (Chicago Zoological Society)
Leave No Child Inside (Chicago Wilderness)
BOLD Chicago Institute (Calumet Stewardship Initiative)
Mighty Acorns (The Nature Conservancy and The Field Museum, Cook County]
Nature Preschool (Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, WI)
BirdSleuth K-12 (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, NY)
Hands on the Land (Partners in Resource Education)
Junior Forest Ranger and Junior Snow Ranger (United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service)

Volunteer Programs

Chicago Conservation Corps (Friends of the Forest Preserve and The Student Conservation Organization, Cook County)
The Volunteer Stewardship Network (The Nature Conservancy and Illinois Nature Preserve Commission)
Los Angeles Conservation Corps (Los Angeles, CA)
Earth Conservation Corps (Washington, DC)

Partnerships with Public Schools

Learning Leaders (NY)
For the Birds! (Audubon, NY)

Partnerships with Higher Education

McHenry County Conservation District Field Station (Northeastern Illinois University)
Clemson Experimental Forest (Clemson University, SC)
National Estuarine Research Reserve System (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Selected Nature Education Resources

Ranger Rick’s Apps for Kids (National Wildlife Federation)
Top 10 Apps for Taking Technology Outdoors (National Environmental Education Foundation)

Equity and Access

The Forest Preserves were founded to make nature available to all Cook County residents, but its leaders recognized early on that accessing the Preserves would be more difficult for some than for others. They made it their responsibility to reduce these inequalities, establishing policies that made wilderness easier to reach from low-income areas and providing inclusive programming targeted toward some of the County’s under-represented populations. Still, economic and cultural barriers continue to prevent some residents from connecting with nature in the Preserves.

Connection with nature is the key experience that creates new environmental stewards and advocates in each generation. To protect its future, the Forest Preserves needs a visitor base that accurately reflects the region’s demographics, so it can nurture the love of nature in every Cook County community. The Next Century Conservation Plan investigates innovative, practical measures for ensuring that diverse groups have access to and feel comfortable visiting the Preserves, rightly viewing it as “our land.”

Learn More


Serving Culturally Diverse Visitors to Forest in California:  A Resource Guide (USDA Forest Service)

Local Programs

STEM Summer Camp (El Valor and USDA Forest Service)
Leaders in Training (Eden Place Nature Center)
P.E.R.R.O (Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization)
Outdoor Afro
Little Village Environmental Justice Organization
Faith in Place
Chicago Conservation Corps (Friends of the Forest Preserve and The Student Conservation Organization, Cook County)
Urban Connections (USDA Forest Service, Eastern Region)
Wild Indigo Nature Explorations (Audubon Society, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and Eden Place Nature Center)



Other Programs

FamCamp  (California State Parks Foundation and California Department of Parks and Recreation)
Transit to Trails (The City Project, CA)
Los Angeles Conservation Corps (Los Angeles, CA)
Mosaic (Campaign for National Parks, UK)

Changing Demographics

The Chicago region’s population is richly diverse, and many demographic changes are underway. While the region as a whole has continued to grow in past decades, population numbers have remained constant in Cook County. At the same time, however, a growing population of young, ethnically diverse singles and families, attracted to urban living, are choosing to settle in Cook County rather than surrounding suburban counties. Cook County has more racial diversity among its residents than either the Chicago metropolitan region or the State as a whole.

The preserves belong to the public, each and every one of us. In the next century of the preserves, we need to ensure that everyone in Cook County feels welcome at the preserves and has the opportunity to enjoy and benefit from this great inheritance.


Reshaping Metropolitan America: Development Trends and Opportunities to 2030 (Island Press)
Mapping the Nation’s Latino Population (Pew Hispanic Center)

Financial Sustainability

In many ways, the Forest Preserves are well-grounded financially. Compared to other conservation districts in the region the Forest Preserves operates with low spending and a relatively light debt burden. The Preserves have invested in very successful public-private partnerships with the Chicago Botanic Garden and Brookfield Zoo, and has reduced expenses by contracting with private management to operate the various golf courses. New Forest Preserves leadership is improving the accountability and transparency of its operations and transactions, and increasing overall efficiency. What remains to be addressed is growth.

In order to restore existing holdings, protect new lands, and expand public engagement, the Preserves will need to find new ways to acquire and manage its funding. The Next Century Conservation Plan analyzes the Preserves’ current practices, surveys innovative ideas from across the nation, and recommends methods for financing responsible growth over the next one hundred years.


Budgets and Audits

Forest Preserves of Cook County Budget & Audit Archive

Programs and Reports

“Keen Interest in Parks at the National Mitigation Banking Conference” (NRPA Now)
Pineywoods Mitigation Bank (Pineywoods East Texas Investment Partners, LLC)
Riverside County Regional Park and Open-Space District benchmarking analysis (Riverside, CA)
Financing the Future: The Critical Role of Parks in Urban and Metropolitan Infrastructure (Urban Institute)
NCCP APPENDIX 1: Goal 4 – Financial Analysis With Comparison To Other Forest Preserves (NCCP)

Are we missing anything?

Do you know sources our research team should consult, or people you think we should interview? Please contact us.