It takes a great team to keep Lake County Forest Preserves clean, safe for visitors

It takes a great team to keep Lake County Forest Preserves clean, safe for visitors

Countywide attitude and interest surveys continue to show what people like most about the Lake County Forest Preserves is the level of attention to cleanliness, maintenance and upkeep.

John Nelson, director of operations and infrastructure at the Lake County Forest Preserves, enjoys paddling the northern half of the Des Plaines River. He says it's a relaxing way to feel like you have escaped civilization while not leaving Lake County. Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves

As the second largest forest preserve district in Illinois, the reason for the positive reputation is simple.

"It's rooted in the daily and vigorous behind-the-scenes maintenance and operations work most preserve visitors never see or think about," said John Nelson, director of operations and infrastructure at the Lake County Forest Preserves.

"We've been in the business of caring for and providing access to forest preserves in Lake County for more than six decades," Executive Director Alex Ty Kovach said. "The staff does a remarkable job and takes tremendous pride in what they do."

I asked Nelson a few questions about his role as director of operations and infrastructure and what his staff handles on a daily basis.

Q: How big of an area does the department handle?

A: We protect and manage 64 sites, 209 miles of trails and more than 31,000 acres of land.

Q: What is the role of the operations and infrastructure department?

A: We are the "public works" department of the forest preserves. We care for the facilities and grounds that the public uses when enjoying the preserves, including the trails, bridges, playgrounds and roads. We also work closely with natural resources staff to restore and manage "off-trail" natural areas as well.

Q: How many people are in the department?

A: There are 55 employees in the department: 32 staff members are focused on grounds maintenance and 17 are concerned with building maintenance and operations. We have four mechanics, one executive assistant and myself. We also have 23 seasonal employees, many of whom return year after year.

The operations team focuses on keeping the preserves safe, clean and open. Grooming trails for cross-country skiing is one focus. Courtesy of Chip Williams

Q: Give a few examples of what the team handles.

A: We focus on keeping the preserves safe, clean and open. Staff inspect, maintain, and repair facilities; traverse the trails to look for hazards; and repair or address unsafe conditions.

Much of the team's work goes into making sure the facilities are clean; servicing bathrooms and collecting trash. After storms, trails may be closed due to flooding or fallen trees or branches from high winds.

Staff hustles to clear and repair the trails so that we can reopen them safely and as soon as possible.

Q: The forest preserves have always been popular, but COVID-19 took usage to a new level. Explain what the team experienced during the pandemic.

A: During the uncertain early months when many other places closed, we experienced a huge upswing in visits. May 2020 had more visits than any other month for which we have visitation data.

Overall, we estimate that the number of visits in 2020 was 70% higher than the year before. At the same time, due to the economic uncertainty and loss of earned revenue from picnic shelter and other permit sales, we did not bring on many seasonal employees.

As a result, we had fewer staff working diligently to maintain the preserves for more visitors than ever.

Q: And where are the usage levels at now?

A: Based on available data from traffic counters at select preserves, visits to the preserves are still 40% higher than average pre-COVID levels observed from 2016 to 2019. It is terrific that the greater number of preserve visitors has continued.

An operations and infrastructure crew repairs a section of the Millennium Trail at Singing Hills Forest Preserve in Wauconda. Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves

Q: What is one fact about the department that most people would not know?

A: One of our biggest challenges is tending to the forest preserves while staying out of people's way to enjoy them. Maintaining and repairing trails typically requires big, noisy equipment and temporary closures to ensure safety of staff and the public.

Every day, year-round, we plan our projects to be as efficient as possible in order to minimize interruptions to the public's enjoyment of our facilities and trails.

Q: You have said, "people are our super power." What does that mean?

A: It means three things: first, that the people who work in the forest preserves are truly amazing for what they accomplish day in and day out. Our work requires "boots on the ground." It cannot be automated, and requires daily commitment and dedication.

Second, it means that the people using the preserves are our motivation. Forest preserve staff take tremendous pride in seeing folks out enjoying the preserves. People have a choice in how they spend their free time, and it is an exceptionally high compliment that so many choose to spend time in the forest preserves. The smile on a visitor's face can "supercharge" an employee's performance.

Lastly, as a governmental, we are a creation of the people. When Lake County residents recognize, enjoy, and appreciate the benefits the forest preserves bring to their lives and their well-being, they will use their collective power to continue to sustain the forest preserves.

We have long enjoyed the trust and support of Lake County residents, and we do not take that for granted.

• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. She writes a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Contact her with ideas or questions at Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.

John Nelson

Growing up in Oak Park, John Nelson spent much of his childhood outdoors. He was active in Scouting, which often took place in forest preserves.

Nelson, who earned degrees in civil engineering and ecology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was drawn to the Lake County Forest Preserves to apply his knowledge and experience to improve the environment in his local community. He held various roles at the Forest Preserves before taking over as director of the operations and infrastructure department in 2014.

"I feel the greatest sense of satisfaction from my job is knowing that I am contributing to making our community a better place to live and play. 'Think global, act local.'"

Earlier in his career, while working at a civil engineering firm, Nelson worked on an array of projects, including on an international gas pipeline from Canada to the U.S. and two other interstate pipelines.

Describing himself as curious, Nelson enjoys spending time with his children, ages 15, 12 and 8, and his wife, his college sweetheart. His family often spends time at the forest preserves.

"My kids enjoy the playground at Heron Creek in Lake Zurich and the sled hill at Lakewood in Wauconda," he said.

Nelson said he does not have a favorite preserve, but spends the most time at Cuba Marsh in Deer Park because it's closest to his Barrington home.

"Sunrise at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest is a relaxing way to start the day, and paddling the northern half of the Des Plaines River is a relaxing way to feel like you have escaped civilization without leaving the county.

"Each preserve has its own unique appeal."

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