Trails, Tales and Triumphs

Lake County Forest Preserves Celebrates Top 12 Stories of the Year

Throughout the year, the Lake County Forest Preserves provide pockets of nature for visitors to enjoy while offering avenues for education and environmental stewardship. Thinking globally and acting locally are essential.

“Looking back at 2023, we take pride in our many achievements,” Executive Director Alex Ty Kovach said.

The second largest forest preserve in Illinois, the district protects more than 31,100 acres of natural land, 209 miles of trails and dozens of cultural, historic and recreational facilities.

“We are committed to science-based, data-driven land management. Our goal is to ensure every acre is healthy and functioning and able to provide essential ecosystem services, such as clean air and clean water,” Kovach said.

Spanning from the rescue of a hawk used for education programming to a hit summer concert series, we reflect upon 12 memorable stories from last year.

1. The new Education Center at Ryerson Woods near Riverwoods is almost complete. The $7 million facility is phase one of a two-phase project to increase educational outreach. Grants and donations paid for about half of project costs. It’s designed to achieve net-zero energy, meaning it’s expected to produce enough renewable energy to power itself. The first phase includes: two classrooms; a screened porch serving as a third classroom when weather permits; a half-mile, fully accessible education loop trail; minor realignment of the existing road to add bus parking spaces; and educational signage and exhibits focusing on the sustainability strategies incorporated in the new building.

The Lake County Forest Preserves acquired a 72-acre parcel of land as an addition to Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve. It features a mile of Lake Michigan shoreline. Courtesy of the Lake County Forest Preserves

2. In August, the forest preserves acquired a 72-acre parcel of land as an addition to Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve near Lake Forest. Openlands, a Chicago-based regional conservation organization and land trust, transferred the land. The property, which had been closed to the public for safety reasons for several years, reopened Aug. 31. It features one mile of Lake Michigan shoreline, three beautifully restored ravines and bluff tops, accessible trails, overlooks and art installations.

3. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District received funding to restore native habitats and improve ecosystem services in the Upper Des Plaines River Watershed. The Lake County Forest Preserves is a partner in this project that will take place at Raven Glen Forest Preserve near Antioch. Sen. Dick Durbin announced that $11 million in earmark funding will address ecosystem restoration and mitigate flooding along 67 miles of the river in Lake and Cook counties.

4. After a five-day search effort, a red-tailed hawk used for education programming was found near its home at Ryerson Conservation Area near Riverwoods. The Forest Preserves has a permit to care for the animal, but he escaped from his home after it was vandalized. A volunteer spotted the federally protected raptor on a tree stump. Environmental educators surrounded the animal, and he was recovered. Fortunately, he suffered no lasting effects.

5. Bess Bower Dunn Museum in Libertyville celebrated its five-year anniversary last spring by offering free admission with the donation of a nonperishable food item or toiletry. Between March 25 and April 2, visitor numbers soared to nearly 2,000, a 20% increase over the previous year’s spring break. More than 2,200 pounds of food and toiletry items were donated to the Libertyville Township Food Pantry.

6. A bilingual environmental educator was hired as a strategy toward an objective to reach a broader audience. Requests from local schools and community members for programs delivered in Spanish emphasized the need for such offerings. A goal is to connect with the Spanish-speaking community, encouraging participation in programs and inviting them to explore and enjoy the forest preserves.

St. Francis Woods in Independence Grove Forest Preserve near Libertyville has been honored with distinguished national acclaim. Courtesy of Paco Luengo

7. St. Francis Woods, located within Independence Grove Forest Preserve near Libertyville, gained prestigious national recognition. The 80-acre parcel was the first northern Illinois forest inducted into the Old-Growth Forest Network. The network is a nonprofit organization working to connect people with nature by creating a national network of protected, publicly-accessible forests and a network of people to protect them.

In addition to controlling buckthorn, Lake County Forest Preserves staff has had success educating the public about the harmful species and inspiring landowners to remove it. Flags are available to homeowners who have removed the species. Courtesy of Amy Call

8. The Forest Preserves continues its battle against common buckthorn, a nonnative, invasive plant that harms plants and wildlife. Removing this pesky shrub is a key objective in the 100-year Vision for Lake County. Buckthorn is a large shrub or small tree that grows up to 22 feet tall, often in dense thickets. It spreads rapidly, crowding native species, causing soil erosion and reducing water quality. In addition to controlling the species in the forest preserves, staff has had success educating the public about the harmful species and inspiring landowners to remove it.

9. Multiple distinguished awards were secured. They include:

• Best Green Practices award from the Illinois Association of Park Districts.

• Crain’s Chicago Business named Executive Director Alex Ty Kovach a Notable Leader in Sustainability and Pati Vitt, director of natural resources, one of the Notable Women in STEM.

• The communications and design division earned two national awards through APEX, the Annual Awards for Publication Excellence Competition.

• Mike Tully, retired chief operations officer, received the Lifetime Professional Award from the National Association of County Park and Recreation Officials.

10. The Forest Preserves celebrated 20 years of its popular summer concert series, Concerts in the Plaza. Every Tuesday, thousands gather in Millennia Plaza, overlooking a 129-acre lake at Independence Grove, to enjoy a wide range of music, from bluegrass to country to jazz. The series is wildly popular with visitors, who bring picnic baskets, blankets and chairs.

Volunteers were trained to help staff conduct prescribed burns, the most efficient method to maintain and restore natural ecosystems. Courtesy of the Lake County Forest Preserves

11. Last spring, 55 volunteers were trained to conduct prescribed burns, significantly expanding the forest preserves’ use of this important land management tool. Prescribed burns are not only cost-effective but also the most efficient method to maintain and restore natural ecosystems. Volunteers proved valuable help during the fall burn season, especially because these crews were able to burn smaller high-quality - yet difficult to reach - remnant habitats. Between our staff and volunteers, more than 1,100 acres were burned in October and November.

12. The Preservation Foundation serves as the charitable partner to the Lake County Forest Preserves, enhancing its capacity to fulfill its mission across all fronts. The foundation transferred a record $4.5 million to the forest preserves this year. The money was used for an array of projects, including the Blanding’s turtle recovery program, the net-zero Education Center at Ryerson Woods, as well as caring for trails, preserves and diverse habitats.

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.