At the turn of the twentieth century, civic and political leaders dreamed of establishing a system of open land to serve as a natural retreat for Chicagoans. To begin realizing that vision, Chicago’s City Council hired architect Dwight Perkins to compile a report for an enlarged park system in 1903. Perkins in turn asked Landscape Architect Jens Jensen to recommend land to include in what they called an “outer belt park.” They published their report in 1904.
During archival research, I became interested in how and why Jensen and Perkins’ inclusive vision for an outer belt park composed of wetlands, prairies and forests became, by 1916, a Forest Preserve District with the stated purpose of acquiring and protecting natural forests, seemingly exclusively. That evolution was even more puzzling to me because Perkins and Jensen both had strong ties to Chicago’s Prairie School of Architecture made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright. While Jensen described all of Cook County’s landscapes in the 1904 report, he made clear the prairie’s ubiquity, writing: “The predominating character of the landscape around Chicago is that of prairie” (83).
Between 1904 and 1913, the Illinois State Legislature passed three different Forest Preserve Acts in an attempt to create an outer belt park for Chicago. Illinois’ governor did not sign the Act of 1905 into law and the Illinois Supreme Court found the Act of 1909 unconstitutional. The Cook County Board of Commissioners finally organized the District in 1915, based on the Act of 1913. By examining legal doctrine and administrative documents, I learned that the men organizing to create an outer belt park for Chicago narrowed their efforts to forest protection as a legal and political strategy to achieve their greater goal.
Although the Act of 1905 ultimately failed, it left an imprint on subsequent legislation by introducing the term “forest preserve” to describe the proposed district. The Act of 1905’s drafters likely named the bill for forest preservation to avoid charges of double taxation (Hayes 1949: 10). Chicago already had a number of park commissions, each one responsible for a different region in the city. Based on contextual research regarding contemporary landscape architecture in Chicago and on the East Coast, I believe that the drafters invoked forests in the legislation’s title to appeal to popular conceptions of nature in America at the turn of the twentieth century. The Act of 1909’s drafters kept the forest idea in name, but not in purpose. Although called “An act to provide for the creation and management of forest preserve districts,” the Act of 1909 had the broad aim of preserving local species and “scenic beauties” (Laws of the State of Illinois 1909: Section 13). In December 1911, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down the law on equal protection grounds in People v. Rinaker.
In non-binding language, the Rinaker court also criticized the drafters for composing an enabling statute for a special purpose district named to preserve forests, but that embraced other subjects and failed to articulate forest protection as the law’s central purpose. As the baffled court pointed out, one could even interpret the legislation as authorizing the board to protect prairies. They stated, “a reading of the statute leaves it open to grave doubt whether it does not authorize organizing a district in the prairie, without any forest whatever in it” (People ex rel. Koch v. Rinaker et al, 252 Ill. 275 ).
In response to the Rinaker court, the Act of 1913’s drafters made clear that the Forest Preserve District’s purpose was to acquire and to protect “natural forests.” While the Act of 1909 gave the District board the authority to “hold lands for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora and fauna and scenic beauties of the State,” the Act of 1913 stated the board could “hold lands containing one or more natural forests or parts thereof, or lands capable of being forested, for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora and fauna and scenic beauties within such district [emphasis mine]…and to…preserve…the natural forests and such lands together with their flora and fauna, as nearly as may be, in their natural state and condition” (Laws of the State of Illinois 1913: Section 5). The Illinois State Legislature passed the bill, and the governor signed it into law in June 1913.
While the language of the Act left room for the protection of habitats such as prairies, some of the District’s founders worried about the effect of the enabling statute’s focus on forests. In 1931, Frank I. Moulton (an attorney who played an instrumental in creating the Cook County forest preserves) wrote an account of the District’s establishment for the Chicago Historical Society. According to Moulton, the District had transformed the prairies it did acquire into “golf courses and playgrounds” (1931). He expressed despair about the fate of prairies that did not receive nearly as much protection as forests in the Act of 1913: “There is danger of the original purpose for which forest preserves were established being lost sight of and that the great variety of flowers that were common to prairies of Illinois will have disappeared” (Moulton 1931).
Indeed, a bias for forests continued to express itself in land management practices into the middle of the 20th century, with District reforestation programs planting trees across the county, including in areas now recognized as ecologically better suited for open habitat types. Today, Forest Preserve staff members and volunteer stewards strive to recover the District’s “original purpose” by acquiring and restoring Cook County’s full range of ecosystems, including prairies, savannas, wetlands—and forests. Still, the Forest Preserves of Cook County continue to bear the legacy of a forest bias, if only in name.
The Centennial History Series takes an in-depth look at various chapters throughout the Forest Preserves’ 100 years. Natalie Bump Vena is a JD/PhD candidate in Northwestern University’s School of Law and Department of Anthropology. She is also the Gaius Charles Bolin Fellow in Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Williams College in Williamstown, MA. Natalie is writing her dissertation about the history of natural resources policy in the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. She grew up on Chicago’s South Side and visited the Palos forest preserves most weekends with her family.