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Green Since 1915—And Going Greener

inside the exhibit area of Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center's visitors center
The exhibit area of the visitors center at Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center.

The Forest Preserves of Cook County has always had sustainability at the core of its mission, but for our centennial we’re taking a fresh look.

When the Forest Preserve District of Cook County held its first meeting of commissioners in February 1915, it was at the vanguard of the nationwide movement to protect natural land, the same progressive wave that saw the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and the founding of the National Park Service in 1916.

Over the next 100 years, the Forest Preserves acquired a vast system of holdings—more than 69,000 acres—preserving oak woodlands, fens, savannas, prairies, a canyon and all manner of other natural wonders within easy reach of the bustling metropolis of Chicago.

These preserves sustain habitat for countless species of plants, animals and other organisms. Covering 11 percent of the county footprint, they also provide critical “ecosystem services,” everything from preventing flood damage, filtering storm water and cooling the air to capturing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen.

So when the Forest Preserves recently took a fresh look at our green practices, reestablishing our Green Team, we felt we had a pretty good head start.

“Being green is really our core mission—it’s what we’re all about,” said Forest Preserves President Toni Preckwinkle. “As we celebrate our centennial, we’re taking a step back to get the long view of the preserves. We want to practice stewardship in as broad a sense as possible. Being green is not just about the work we do, but how we do that work.”

“We’ve implemented many green initiatives,” said Forest Preserves Superintendent Arnold Randall, “but with more than 500 staff members, hundreds of buildings, a large fleet of vehicles and millions of visitors every year, we still have many opportunities to improve our operations.” The Forest Preserves manages a land area about half the size of the city of Chicago, spread across about 60 miles. Maintaining all that land requires a lot of equipment—and a lot of energy.

The agency maintains a fleet of 500 vehicles, including garbage trucks to collect trash, police cruisers to keep the preserves safe and snowplows to keep parking lots open through the winter. To mow the lawns in picnic groves and along roadsides, the agency owns 60 large riding mowers, 43 push mowers and 180 line trimmers, all in heavy use from April through October.

Among our recent green initiatives, the Forest Preserves has converted 32 new gasoline-fueled 72-inch large riding lawn mowers to propane power. The factory conversion to propane has significantly lowered the environmental impact of grove maintenance. Twenty-five police vehicles will be converted to propane this year, and the Forest Preserves is halfway through construction on 11 propane fueling stations across the county.

The Forest Preserves’ 594 buildings, many several decades old, represent another greening opportunity. We have been working to assess all of our buildings, many of which were inherited during land acquisitions, and have removed many that no longer serve a purpose. Such demolitions have reclaimed land for nature and reduced the energy needed to heat and maintain these buildings.

In 2010, to better accommodate visitors, the Forest Preserves constructed two new interpretive centers at the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center in Willow Springs and at the Sagawau Environmental Learning Center in Lemont. Both buildings are LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certified, for features including passive solar and geothermal heating, on-site waste treatment and low-flow water fixtures.

To keep all our buildings clean, the Forest Preserves’ central warehouse recently made the switch to bulk green cleaning supplies. Not only has the change reduced the use of harmful compounds to clean facilities, it is also saving the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Even the way nature is restored can be improved. A sedge meadow restoration currently underway in the Forest Preserves’ Dam #1 Woods requires the removal of trees and brush over 259 acres. For the first time, most of the wood removed for restoration will be used to produce lumber and firewood. (It is typically either burned or chipped onsite.) This will save approximately $235,000 over the course of the project and allow the wood to have a higher final use.

The Forest Preserves’ Green Team is investigating a long list of additional opportunities, including improving recycling of its own electronic and office waste, repurposing wooden pallets for compost bins, making its new campgrounds sustainable, adding electric vehicles and charging stations, converting facilities to LED lighting and educating Forest Preserves employees and visitors in environmentally friendly habits. The Prairie Research Institute recently conducted a “Zero Waste Study” of more than 800 pounds of picnickers’ garbage. The waste was collected from multiple forest preserve locations to identify opportunities to improve recycling and composting practices.

Ultimately, though, the Forest Preserves will “go green” most effectively by succeeding in our core mission and achieving the goals set forth in our recent Next Century Conservation Plan, commissioned by President Preckwinkle. “Because of our role as a conservation and landholding agency, we’re in a unique position to contribute to the overall health of our planet,” said Superintendent Randall. “Without a doubt, restoring our land and growing our holdings is where we’re going to have the most impact.”

Over the last half-century, large portions of the forest preserves have become overrun by invasive plant species. Recent administrations have increasingly recognized the need to actively restore them. The Next Century Conservation Plan calls for restoring the Forest Preserves’ extensive natural landscapes, beginning with bringing 30,000 acres back to health in the next 25 years. The plan also calls for increasing protected lands from 69,000 to 90,000 acres with continued acquisition. By achieving these ambitious goals, the Forest Preserves of Cook County will not only increase the acreage of prairies, woods and wetlands for wildlife habitat and people’s enjoyment, we will also increase the portion of the county that can deliver vital ecosystem services to the five million residents of Cook County.

Leaders have identified the need to better quantify the benefits that these natural lands provide. Over the next five years, the Forest Preserves is seeking to partner with public and private agencies to study the value of ecosystem services, as well as to quantify the difference between services provided by a healthy natural area versus one degraded by invasive species and altered natural processes.

“The Forest Preserves of Cook County is a leader in urban conservation,” said Superintendent Randall. “In our second century, we will do even more to play our role, here in our small corner of the world, to contribute to a thriving planet.”