In my 2015 proposed budget for the Forest Preserves of Cook County, which is currently available for review and public comment, I recommend the allocation of $6 million toward landscape restoration and related projects. This is by far the largest single line item in the budget, and it’s the second consecutive year we’ve allocated this amount to habitat restoration.
The magnitude of this investment underscores the importance of this effort to the future of the forest preserves. It is essential that we act quickly and decisively to address the threat of invasive species and to bring back natural processes in our preserves. We must protect and, in many places, restore the native plant and animal communities that make Cook County unlike any other place on earth.
But some people have asked me for a clearer picture of where this $6 million goes. How much does it accomplish?
First, this allocation is in addition to funding that supports 60 full-time employees, existing management programs and supplies. Our staff accomplishes a great deal every year, creating management plans, monitoring critical sites, directing restoration work (including that of 72 volunteer site stewards), maintaining more than 300 miles of trail and otherwise staying on top of more than 55,000 acres of natural land across the forest preserves.
This additional $6 million investment supports a strategy we’ve employed with increasing success over the past several years–bringing in outside reinforcements to increase our capacity for major restoration projects. In some cases, this work has been deferred for years or even decades, to the detriment of rare habitat.
More than 30 percent of this $6 million, about $1.8 million, will allow the Forest Preserves to hire contractors to perform on-the-ground restoration on a large scale, particularly invasive tree and brush removal. Soon we’ll be reconnecting isolated patches of prairie at Somme Nature Preserve and continuing the restoration of hillside seeps at Palos Fen Nature Preserve, which provide critical clean water to the fen below.
About 20 percent of the 2015 funds will allow us to better address critical ongoing management objectives, such as prescribed burning, wildlife management and shoreline restoration. For example, we’re now able to bring on six additional fire crews during prescribed burn season. These funds will also enable us to match grants from federal, state and private sources, potentially unlocking millions in additional dollars.
Another 20 percent, or $1.2 million, will go toward important ongoing tree maintenance, which includes the removal of potentially hazardous trees along public areas, such as roads, trails, picnic groves, parking lots and public-private boundaries. Last year we removed 12,000 potentially hazardous trees, many of which were ashes compromised by the emerald ash borer.
And we’re dedicating 16 percent, about $900,000, toward our proven conservation internship programs, which accomplish significant landscape restoration while training the next generation of conservation leaders from across Cook County.
The upcoming Natural and Cultural Resources Master Plan, a collaboration with the Prairie Research Institute of the University of Illinois, will serve as a new framework to guide our restoration priorities and decisions in the coming year. Look for more information about this plan in an upcoming issue of the Forest Way.
Even after all of these investments, the results of habitat restoration work often aren’t immediately obvious. Large projects can initially resemble clear-cuts and can be jarring to those who aren’t familiar with restoration. But over the next few years, we encourage you to spend time in these natural areas and enjoy the rebounding landscapes, complete with the birds, butterflies and wildflowers that soon return and thrive there.
Toni Preckwinkle, President
Forest Preserves of Cook County