Forest Preserves of Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle today formally accepted the “Next Century Conservation Plan” for the preserves. The plan was created by a blue-ribbon commission of local leaders appointed by Preckwinkle in 2013 as part of the Forest Preserves’ centennial anniversary celebration.
The Next Century Conservation Plan aims to make Cook County a national leader in urban conservation. It sets goals and priorities to be implemented over the next 25 years, and calls on the Forest Preserves to develop annual operational plans, set measurable targets and refresh the plan every five years. There are four key priorities identified in the Next Century Conservation Plan: restoring native landscapes; making the preserves more inviting, accessible and engaging for all; demonstrating and expanding the economic benefits of the preserves; and ensuring future leaders sustain the focus on conservation and accountability.
“The Forest Preserves are one of the most important assets of Cook County and ensuring that they thrive as a source of beauty, inspiration, economic vitality and health is critical to the success of our region,” Preckwinkle said. “I am grateful to the Next Century Commission for presenting a plan that is ambitious and visionary, while also providing specific objectives and timelines. I look forward to working with the Board of Commissioners and the General Superintendent to ensure that this Next Century Conservation Plan becomes our blueprint for the future of the Forest Preserves of Cook County.”
“One hundred years ago visionary leaders had the foresight to protect the Forest Preserves for Cook County residents,” said international conservation advocate Wendy Paulson, one of the Commission’s four co-chairs.
“Volunteers and Forest Preserves staff have done extraordinary things in small parts of the preserves over the years,” Paulson said. “They have transformed impenetrable overgrown dark forests into sun-filled savannas where oak trees are surrounded by a carpet of wildflowers. And they have created grasslands where native birds can thrive. But more must be done. Like the founders of the Forest Preserves 100 years ago, we need to make a bold new commitment: to expand our use of the best practices in restoration science to ensure that Cook County’s natural lands thrive for centuries to come.”
Currently experts estimate that about 3,000 of the approximately 69,000 acres of the preserves are in good ecological health, which means they have a good mix of native plants, and appropriate soil conditions to furnish habitat for native species. The Next Century Plan calls on the Forest Preserves to commit to restoring 30,000 acres over the next ten years.
“This extraordinary legacy is at risk from the pressures of urban growth, climate change, and decades of inaction,” said co-chair John McCarter, President Emeritus of the Field Museum. “But it is not too late to make a firm commitment to restore the ecological health of the preserves – and in the process increase property values, limit flooding and create new economic opportunities in our region.”
Commission Co-Chair Arthur R. Velasquez noted that restoration is good for people and communities.
“Restoration creates more welcoming areas where people can see across open landscapes. At the same time, it helps the soil absorb thousands of additional gallons of water as the changing climate brings more severe weather events,” Velasquez said. “Well managed open spaces also increase adjacent property values. Communities can benefit by working with the County to plan for businesses that support visitor experiences such as restaurants, cafes and bike shops.”
Commission Co-Chair Dr. Eric E. Whitaker added:
“The preserves have an important role to play in public health by providing space for outdoor exercise, clean air and relief from the stress of urban life. And they are a unique asset of this region, offering a great way to market the Chicago area to tourists and helping attract the kinds of employees that businesses want.”
The plan will be presented to the Forest Preserves Board of Commissioners at the February 18, 2014 meeting.
Preckwinkle also announced several plan recommendations that the Forest Preserves will immediately implement:
Through a grant from the ChiCal Rivers Fund, the Forest Preserves, together with the Friends of the Forest Preserves, Audubon Chicago Region and Friends of the Chicago River, will create a new Centennial network of 6,000 volunteers dedicated to restoring habitat in the Chicago and Calumet region. By reducing invasive vegetation, increasing native plant cover, and improving streambank stability, this work will reduce erosion, and improve habitat and water quality along the Chicago and Calumet Rivers.
The Plan recommends building a permanent Conservation Corps to provide workforce training to youth and unemployed individuals throughout the County while expanding the Preserves capacity for ecological restoration. Preckwinkle has asked the Chicago Jobs Council to lead a design team to help the Forest Preserves identify the right partners and strategy to make a Conservation Corps a permanent part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County.
The Preserves will work over the next 25 years to protect up to 21,000 acres of additional open space identified by Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and Chicago Wilderness that is unprotected and provide critical habitat, buffers, or connections for trails. Protecting new lands will have significant future benefits including increased property values, reduced flooding, and new recreation opportunities. To acquire enough additional acreage, the Forest Preserves will seek permission from the state legislature to expand its statutory limit from 75,000 acres to 90,000 acres. The Forest Preserves is approximately 69,000 acres.
Preckwinkle has asked the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways to look at access to the Preserves as it begins its comprehensive long-range transportation plan to ensure that the Forest Preserves are more accessible via public transportation, biking, and walking. Currently, only 7% of Cook County’s people have good public transit access to the Preserves.