Cook County's forest preserves represent more than just picnics and politics, leaders say.
To draw members of the public back to the woods, the agency has embarked on a three-year improvement campaign as the district celebrates 100 years.
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Priorities include opening up camping sites to families, better signs at entrances and directions to trails, an overhaul of conservation practices and a new emphasis on educating visitors about natural features on-site.
For many, the district is only known for the massive family picnics and the lineups for permits every year, said Arnold Randall, superintendent of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
"There are things going on beyond the picnic grove that are pretty cool and interesting," Randall said. "We want to get people out on the trails or bird watching, you can rent a canoe or kayak ... you don't get to do those things in a city park."
Critics of the district say previous Cook County administrations were more politically than environmentally oriented, leading to a lack of vision.
Randall, a former head of planning for the city of Chicago, was appointed to his job by incoming Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle in 2010.
"I think the forest preserve had been very inward-looking and under the radar," he said. "People didn't know what we did."
Randall said Preckwinkle wants to reach the public with a combination of attractions that will please both tree-huggers and city slickers.
As an example, he points to Deer Grove Forest Preserve in Palatine, the first property the district acquired back in 1916.
Within Deer Grove are rare and threatened species such as the sandhill crane, redheaded woodpecker, bobolink and a rare geranium known as the northern cranesbill. It's also home to numerous ecosystems: prairie, oak savanna and wetlands.
Plans to make over the site include a council ring and interpretive signs that give visitors a sense of the hidden gems in the landscape.
"The challenge for people who don't spend a lot of time in nature is -- what are you looking at?" Randall said. "Everyone knows trees and grass, but not everyone knows what the prairie looks like or a savanna or a wetland. There's a lot to learn and part of the experience for people is learning what's here and why it's valuable."
Some things won't change, and that includes reliance on volunteers to aid with restoration and preservation, Randall said. He hopes a renewed investment in the district will be repaid with a renewed interest in the preserves.
The district also intends to continue acquiring land. It has about 69,000 acres and $25 million in funds to buy additional property. Priorities include parcels of land adjacent to current properties or that connect preserves, Randall said.
Another major initiative is to open up camping at eight locations.
For 10 years, the vintage wooden cabins at Deer Grove's Camp Reinberg have sat empty. Within the next two years, the district will tear the buildings down and replace them with cabins that can accommodate Boy Scouts, families, teens and the general public. And as part of the effort to make people as comfortable as possible in the preserves, showers and washrooms will be included.
Similar remodels or new campsites are going up in Northbrook, Tinley Park, Willow Springs, South Holland, River Forest and at the Skokie Lagoons.
Previously, camping was limited to the Boy Scouts or other organized camp groups.
"It seemed very shortsighted," Randall said. "You shouldn't have to drive to Michigan or Wisconsin (to camp). It's a great opportunity to introduce families and young people to nature in a way that helps them value it for the rest of their lives."