I recently learned a little something about mycelia. Pronounced my-SEE-lee-ah, they’re the fine, stringy networks of fungus found in the soil all over Cook County and elsewhere. They’re also vital partners to trees and other plants. Mycelia act like extensions of a tree’s roots, increasing its ability to absorb water and nutrients and expanding its reach under the soil to important resources. The tree, in turn, feeds mycelia with sugars it generates from sunlight.
This cooperative union of root and fungus bears similarities to how the Forest Preserves of Cook County is increasingly working as an agency. Our partnerships are critical to our ability to manage and restore our lands and connect people to that land. We operate beyond our resources and leverage every tax dollar by collaborating with partners on many fronts. In turn, we empower many organizations whose missions coincide with ours.
Everywhere we look on the forest preserve landscape, we find partners vital to our success. Our partners in conservation include the thousands of site stewards and volunteers, who work with their own two hands to restore habitat every weekend. They include large government agencies such as the US Army Corps of Engineers, who in some places literally reshape the land to bring back lost wetlands, and corporate partners from REI to CSX. They include groups with tight focus, such as Chicago Area Mountain Bikers, who promote responsible mountain biking and help restore trailside habitat. And they include generalists such as Audubon and Friends of the Forest Preserves, who study, advocate and organize, helping us refine our policy, practice and reach in many areas. Key partners Openlands and Metropolis Strategies have already been integral to our work in creating our Next Century Conservation Plan.
The Forest Preserves relies on partners in education and outreach, too. Community organizers such as Fishin’ Buddies, Wild Indigo, Audubon, Eden Place, Student Conservation Association, Calumet Stewardship Initiative, and the American Indian Center know their communities better than anyone else, helping us stage events and reach audiences who should be engaging with the preserves. Two new camping events coming this fall will be made possible through a partnership with the Chicago Park District.
We have partners in science, researchers from academic institutions and government agencies who gather important data from our lands and help us learn more about them, as well as use raw data we’ve collected to learn about ecology and public health. We partner with schools and teachers, who bring students to the preserves to learn from these living classrooms. We are even collaborating on the philosophical level with the Center for Humans and Nature.
To continue the analogy, two prominent “mycelia” include the Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Botanic Garden, world-renowned non-profit institutions located on Forest Preserve land that add rich dimension and scope to the Forest Preserves’ offerings.
Partnerships also come in the form of grants, from sources such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The nonprofit Forest Preserve Foundation was started in 2006 specifically to pursue new dollars that will enable the Forest Preserves to do even more ambitious things.
And then there are alliances such as Chicago Wilderness and the Metropolitan Greenspace Alliance, that multiply the networks of single organizations and share them to mutual benefit across political boundaries.
The problem of opening a discussion on partners is that one can never sufficiently acknowledge them all. Many of our partners don’t fit into just one category, and some are individuals or small groups who use the preserves to create wonderful experiences for residents. The Forest Preserves works with at least 114 regular official partners, but many more don’t appear on that roster. Nonetheless, we thank them all. As with the symbiotic mycelia and tree roots, at some point one may ask whether we, who share so many goals and work together daily to make the preserves better, are many organisms or one.
Toni Preckwinkle, President
Forest Preserves of Cook County