The end of 2020 marked the 10-year anniversary of the Forest Preserves operating under the leadership of myself and General Superintendent Arnold Randall. When I became President of the Forest Preserves of Cook County, I knew there was immense potential for change. As we take a moment to look back, we can see the transformation of the Forest Preserves over the last decade.
In the first few years, we worked to get our house in order. The Forest Preserves revised job descriptions, reorganized departments, and created strategic plans for everything from expanding our trail systems to how to prioritize restoring the land. That culminated by writing the Next Century Conservation Plan, which continues as our blueprint for change, and creating a Conservation & Policy Council to provide expert assistance and insight to push the Forest Preserves forward.
Over the last ten years, the Forest Preserves has renewed our commitment to restoring and protecting nature. Today more than 14,000 acres are under ecological restoration, more than twice the amount in 2010. You can see the difference where invasive species have been removed—the landscape is more open, and bald eagles, river otters and rare plants have returned.
We keep looking to find ways to make the preserves a better place to visit for everyone. The Forest Preserves re-introduced camping to Cook County, opening five campgrounds that have seen more than a quarter million visitors since 2014. We’ve added more miles of trails than any time since the 1970s, built new amenities from a zip-line course to accessible kayak launches, and added more events: more than 2,500 in 2019. We’ve created new types of programs, too: Art in the Preserves, how to lead a kayaking excursion, forest bathing, and much more.
Underlying all of this is a more transparent, efficient and accountable government agency. Equity in all we do is a priority, and we continue to strive to do more, from how we hire to reaching out and providing programming to communities that have been impacted by a history of racial inequity. We’ve more than doubled both the grants and non-tax revenue the Forest Preserves brings in annually, and even with all these improvements, the Preserves’ total budget has increased less than 1 percent a year over the decade.
All this work has earned the Forest Preserves and its partners 95 awards since 2010. I’ll end by saying thank you to the people and organizations who are our partners. Another of our goals over the last ten years has been to develop and strengthen partnerships with like-minded organizations and to continue to expand our volunteer network. All the successes I’ve listed here are better and stronger because of these collaborations.
There is much more to tell, but more importantly, our work is far from through. We will continue to do our best as stewards of these incredible lands.