Birth of a trail: Different agencies team up to choose site, survey and come up with plan for new biking trail

Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series titled Birth of a Trail. Part 1 ran March 28. In part three, CAMBr volunteers build the trail.

In 2015, the Chicago Area Mountain Bikers initially approached the Forest Preserves of Cook County about a new trail. Both had different ideas about its location. Until then, the only Northern county-approved trail was a half-mile path completed in 2006 in Deer Grove East, near Palatine, the FPCC's first purchase (500 acres) in 1916.

A July 2006 Daily Herald article credited trail steward Wayne Mikes, Mikes Bike Shop owner in Palatine, with coordinating 70 volunteers working over 200 hours, including two Boy Scout troops.

"One of the biggest challenges is getting through obstacles with the Cook County Forest Preserve because they have to preserve the land in its natural state, as well as figure out how much recreation should be allowed," Mikes stated at the time, having spent two years finding common ground.

"There has to be a balance between what the forest preserve can allow on one hand and, on the other, to provide general activities for recreation," said Chris Merenowicz, FPCC deputy director of Resource Management when that trail was built.

Recently interviewed, Merenowicz, who retired as director in 2014, explained Deer Grove West wasn't an option when considering Paul Douglas. "It has a higher quality of natural environment with more ecologically sensitive areas."

A CAMBr volunteer crew at the Paul Douglas Preserve ready for a four-hour morning work session. Courtesy of Mike Angus

Settling on Paul Douglas

Current Resource Management Director John McCabe concurs.

"It's one of our top ecologically sensitive sites, threatened by illegal trails all over the west side. It never once crossed our mind to expand trails there," said McCabe. "Our hope with installing this system at Paul Douglas was to pull riders out of Deer Grove and allow us to shut down illegal riding there."

Named in 1966 after three-term Illinois U.S. Sen. Paul Douglas, that Northwest Cook County preserve consists of multiple parcels, some farmsteads, acquired mostly from 1947-1973.

"It's not necessarily a high quality ecological site. From a bird's-eye view, it's a big giant spot, some 1,800 acres," McCabe said. "You'd think it's flat out there. But after reviewing it, CAMBr recognized its varied topography."

CAMBr's Paul Douglas proposal was presented to FPCC's Trails and Recreation Committee, which reviews major projects before groundbreaking. The committee approved the proposal in 2016 and submitted it to General Superintendent Arnold Randall for sign off.

What happened next and why CAMBr did not move forward are uncertain. It was still very involved in Palos trail improvements, an extensive system with over 25 miles of single track and more than 20 miles of multitrack trails.

In 2018, the story resumes. Mike Godfrey, CAMBr North Trail coordinator, recalls scouting Paul Douglas with other CAMBr members.

"Paul Douglas was a great fit for us. It's a large, contiguous piece of property, one of Cook County's more underutilized preserves," said Godfrey.

For North suburban riders, it provides a central location given Zion's Beulah Park, Raceway Woods near Carpentersville and Palos Forest Preserve in southern Cook County. According to Executive Director Mike Angus, CAMBr's vision at one time was "a mountain biking trail within 30 minutes of any resident in the region."

An Illinois State Archaeological Survey archaeologist records a shovel test probe as part of a land survey. Courtesy of Paula Bryant/Illinois State Archaeological Survey

Ecology and stewardship

"Some time in 2020, Mike Angus knocked on my door," McCabe said.

As before, Trails and Recreation Committee considered the project, greenlighting it again and forwarding recommendations to general superintendent Randall.

By March 2021, CAMBr made an official trail design proposal. Actual workdays, however, didn't start until July 2021. FPCC's ecological and archaeological requirements needed to be satisfied, reflecting its stewardship of the nation's oldest and largest forest preserve system.

At the trail's opening in 2022, Randall applauded CAMBr's 20-plus years of service at Palos, acknowledging, "We work closely with CAMBr to find the best route that balances the riding experience with protecting against erosion and minimizing the impact on the local ecology and wildlife."

Randall's remarks hinted at the review-and-revise process of collaborative trail work. Having designed it originally, CAMBr's Angus "flagged" the trail in 2021, tying colored ribbon to vegetation to mark the eventual path.

"We'd then contact Elliot Medina, who'd walk it and review it," said Godfrey. "If any changes were needed, we'd modify the design again and he'd review it again."

Medina is FPCC's Paul Douglas project manager, experienced with the area from working site restoration. Medina walked the flagged trail inspecting for sensitive vegetation and any other issues. Identifying needed modifications, he'd recommend moving flags and work out any compromises.

As trail building progressed, similar iterative collaboration followed.

"They'd work a day or two and FPCC would check on their work. It was a very cooperative relationship," McCabe said.

Pink ribbons attached to vegetation mark the "flagged" route of the trail that workers are clearing. Courtesy of Brian Louis

Surveyed by archaeologists

At the 2022 ribbon-cutting, Cook County Board and Forest Preserves of Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle recited the county's Land Acknowledgment statement supporting the county's deep commitment to the nearly 70,000 acres it manages, land occupied by humans for 12,000 years.

"We are on the lands of the Council of Three Fires - the Ojibwa, Ottawa and Potawatomi - as well as the Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sauk and Meskwaki peoples. As a land management agency, we acknowledge that we have played a role in shaping the histories of local Native Americans by acquiring this land. We also recognize, share and celebrate their immemorial ties to this land."

Hearing that commitment, I sensed another fundamental principle. It went beyond land stewards cooperating with bikers, beyond resources vs. recreation. A profound, almost sacred, trust seemed to be at work.

Enter the archaeologists. With at least 600 archaeological sites present in the state inventory, the FPCC engaged the Illinois State Archaeological Survey to help fulfill that commitment.

An arm of the Prairie Research Institute, ISAS works in advance of projects necessitating ground disturbance. It provides planning flexibility to accommodate redesign and to avoid impacting cultural/archaeological resources.

ISAS met FPCC staff at Paul Douglas in early 2021 to identify visually the general trail contours.

"This allowed us to plan our fieldwork and identify areas of high probability or known resources via background research before conducting the survey," said Paula Bryant, ISAS staff archaeologist.

After the FPCC and CAMBr agreed on final trail alignment, ISAS began its survey, requesting permits from both the FPCC and the State Historic Preservation Office. These permits regulate survey and field work within public lands.

ISAS conducted background research: Historic records, topographic maps, GIS records, etc. They also checked area soils, any prior archaeological work, historical plats and aerial imagery. Bryant and Clare Tolmie, ISAS Northern Illinois Field Station coordinator in Elgin, walked the trail's 13 miles.

After this visual inspection stage came a shovel test survey: 18-inch wide holes dug down into sterile soil at a specified distance from the trail. Sifted through quarter-inch mesh screening, soil was examined for any artifacts, then returned to the hole.

"We had a crew of three to four people each time we went out," Bryant said. "Overall, 10 staff were on the project at various times over 2021 and 2022."

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