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Volunteer Newsletter: Next Century Needs Volunteers

In 2014, Forest Preserves of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle created the Conservation and Policy Council and charged it with advising the President, Board of Commissioners and General Superintendent as they implement the ambitious vision of the Next Century Conservation Plan (NCCP).

Ten distinguished community leaders, including a college president, a landscape architect, attorneys and leaders in business, engineering, outdoor recreation and non-profits, answered the call to help strengthen the Forest Preserves by “increasing continuity from one administration to the next and ensuring that we remain true to our conservation mission, regardless of who is at the helm.”

Since then, council members have attended field trips and briefings to deepen their understanding of the history and importance of the Forest Preserves. They have listened to presentations on land acquisition and restoring health to natural areas. They have visited sites across the county including Poplar Creek (a volunteer-led tour), Dan Ryan Woods, the Forest Preserves’ new wildlife research facility and the dramatic Portwine Road restoration project. They have worked closely with staff leadership and met with volunteer leaders, stretching their minds and hearts to grasp the daunting yet compelling goals of the Next Century Conservation Plan.

The plan dictates that the land not only continue to be protected, but also that it be restored and managed. Through the NCCP process, council members and Forest Preserves staff have identified a gap between current resources and what is needed to achieve the plan’s goal of 30,000 acres of high-quality natural areas in 25 years. The unvarnished truth is that this will require much more funding than we currently know how to secure.

How can we accomplish this vital work? We must find a way to build broad-based public support for increasing the budget of the Forest Preserves through a wide variety of mechanisms, many yet to be identified. And we must continue to build on the finest public involvement program anywhere, the Forest Preserves’ volunteer stewardship program. The significance of volunteers to the plan’s success is clear. We need both “worker bees,” the more casual participants who spend a few days a year helping out with stewardship tasks, and we need to identify and support the strong leaders who can make a major commitment of time, who want to work alongside staff, taking on important roles such as steward, monitor and burn leader.

These are challenges that council members wrestle with as they strive to identify strategies for success. But all voices are welcome in this chorus of progress. Your involvement is needed in our quest to accomplish this difficult but vital task.

Learn more about the NCCP.

By Laurel Ross and Jane Balaban.

Laurel Ross is an inaugural Conservation and Policy Council member and volunteer steward at Somme Prairie Nature Preserve. Jane Balaban is co-chair of the NCCP Nature Committee and volunteer steward at Harms Woods.