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Spotlight on Southeast Cook

People gather around a waterbody to bird watch, fish and walk

Adding new Forest Preserves to a community can bring improved health for residents, a place to enjoy the educational, recreational and scenic benefits of natural lands; a home for native flora and fauna; mitigation against the effects of climate change; and economic development opportunities. Last month, the Forest Preserves Board of Commissioners recognized two awards for our Southeast Cook County Land Acquisition Plan, an ambitious blueprint to expand these benefits in the Southeast.

Last year, the Friends of the Chicago River recognized the plan with its Green Ribbon Award, which recognizes projects that demonstrate a high level of river-sensitive design and consideration, and the American Planning Association – Illinois Chapter gave its 2020 Healthy and Active Community Award.

Led by The Conservation Fund and with the Metropolitan Planning Council, Antero Group, Rudd Resources and Forest Preserves staff, the plan was published in May 2019. It shows how the Forest Preserves can unlock the region’s unique position as a location for new preserves in Cook County because of relatively lower land costs, a higher percentage of undeveloped land, and local communities of color with fewer options for outdoor recreation.

The process to create the plan included deep-dive community engagement, sophisticated GIS-based modeling, and incorporating equity and social vulnerability criteria when determining the needs and best options.

The result is a plan that identifies almost 5,500 acres that meet five key criteria to become forest preserves. Much of this property is currently farmland that can be protected against development and planted with native prairie, wetland or tree species. The plan suggests assembling parcels in a way that allows for future trail and wildlife connections along Deer Creek and major drainages, with opportunities to add places to hike, fish, picnic and enjoy the natural beauty.

With a gap between the ambitious scope of the plan and limited resources for land acquisition, the Forest Preserves does not currently have sufficient funding to fully implement the plan. A first step is a Land and Water Conservation Fund Grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which will enable us to acquire approximately 200 acres in the area. The Forest Preserves will continue to seek opportunities to bring more open, natural spaces to the communities in Southeast Cook County.