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Happy Earth Day: Fifty Years Ago and Still Looking Forward

Celebrating Earth Day 50

This week, the Forest Preserves of Cook County is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day! Serving as a reminder for people to be good stewards of our planet since 1970, Earth Day’s milestone anniversary got us thinking back to where the Forest Preserves was 50 years ago—and what we’ve done to meet our environmental mission in the decades since.

In 1970, the Forest Preserves was managing about 60,000 acres of land (it’s nearly 70,000 acres today, and our Next Century Conservation Plan sets a goal of acquiring an additional 20,000). By the first Earth Day, numerous dedicated volunteers were already working hard to improve Cook County’s natural habitats. Over the years, the conservation world has steadily learned more and more about how to best manage the land.

What was once an activity performed by a few dedicated scientists and a handful of volunteers has grown into a field of learning, with universities offering courses and even degrees in ecological land management. Today, the Forest Preserves has scientifically informed land management plans, and dedicates more time and attention to returning our natural lands to health than ever before. Volunteer stewardship continues as a major component of that work—and it’s expanded too, with new programs where people can partner with us on everything from watching our trails to acting as community scientists.

Strategic restoration efforts at the Forest Preserves have resulted in the dedication of 15 Illinois Nature Preserves since 1970, bringing our total to 25—the most of any local land management agency in Illinois. We’ve changed how we manage waterways, too, removing a series of dams along the Des Plaines River and the North Branch of the Chicago River that no longer served their original purpose but were having a negative impact on the rivers and surrounding habitat.

But acreage isn’t the only way we’ve expanded; we’ve also added myriad ways for the public to get out and enjoy nature. Since the 1970s, the Forest Preserves has dramatically increased the miles of trails available to the public, building 150 miles of paved trail. We’ve relaunched public camping in the Forest Preserves, opening five campgrounds throughout Cook County, and opened other amenities like new boat launches, as well.

The Forest Preserves has deepened our commitment to engaging the public around local nature, sustainability and more. Our six nature education centers are now part of a Department of Conservation and Experiential Programming and offer hundreds of fun and educational programming and events—many of which are free or low cost—to people of all ages every year. We offer programs out in the preserves, too.

The spirit of Earth Day is for all of us to become engaged advocates for nature. At the Forest Preserves, today that means we strive to be leaders in implementing sustainable practices. In 2005, we adopted our Green Building Ordinance, and now operate two LEED-Gold Certified nature centers, a LEED-Silver Certified pavilion at Swallow Cliff-North, and a LEED-Platinum indoor facility at Rolling Knolls.

Recently we adopted a Sustainability Master Plan, with guidance from external partners and a committee of internal staff representing every department. We’re using less energy, collecting more recyclables, and encouraging sustainable practices from our staff, permits customers, vendors and more.

We hope you will join us this week in celebrating and honoring Earth Day 50. All week long, our nature centers and programming teams will be sharing posts and videos as well as hosting Facebook Lives featuring ways you can integrate sustainability at home and in your communities. They’ll highlight some of the native species that depend on our healthy, thriving habitats. Our hope is that you’ll end the week feeling inspired to appreciate—and even join us in—protecting and restoring our natural lands.