Along for the ride: Trail volunteers keep forest preserves safe

If boosting your fitness, altruism or connection with nature is your 2024 resolution, you’re in luck. Trail volunteers biking in Cook, DuPage, Kane and McHenry counties, can nail all three.

Forest preserve volunteers — hikers, bikers and equestrians — have helped maintain natural areas as part of larger district programs. While savoring their own trail experiences, they report issues like downed branches, graffiti and even poaching. Program names differ: Bike Patrol (DuPage), Trail Watch (Cook), SWEEP (McHenry) and Kane Forest Notify, a Kane County phone app. Per Volunteer Coordinator Robb Cleave, mounted rangers, snowmobile patrol and Adopt-A-Trail volunteers all use the app. Capturing GPS coordinates, it automatically routes reports/photos to appropriate preserve staff. For emergencies, users dial 911 for district police.

Signs like this one help trail users report issues to the appropriate authorities in the McHenry County Conservation District. Courtesy of McHenry County Conservation District

‘Eyes and ears

Prairie Trail Safety Watch, begun in 1999 in McHenry County Conservation District, became Safety Watch Education & Environmental Program in 2014 to reflect volunteering at all venues, not just the 26-mile Prairie Trail. From April-October, 55 bikers/hikers serve as MCCD’s “eyes and ears,” assisting users with information, bike repair and minor first aid.

“They also relay information about suspicious behavior or property damage to district officers,” said Officer Charlie Montgomery. “Real benefit is that it helps ensure all visitors to the district’s trail system have a safe and enjoyable experience.”

Individuals spend 10 hours minimum at times/locations they choose. Wendy Kummerer, director of Marketing & Education, noted most SWEEP volunteers bike/hike weekly, with 50% on the Prairie Trail. Training includes first aid, CPR and radio protocol.

DuPage County Forest Preserve’s Bike Patrol program, formalized in 2002, includes 100 active volunteers, with 25 regularly bike-monitoring from April-October. Besides 8-hour monthly commitments, volunteers assist at special events like Danada Equestrian Center’s Fall Festival.

They also enjoy flexibility in where/when they cover 166 trail miles in 60 preserves, said Volunteer Services Supervisor Mary Andrusyk, adding, “Because volunteers’ responsibilities include engaging with preserve visitors, they’re required to ride in pairs or trios.”

Laurel Salvador, biking weekly with husband Omer, has monitored DuPage trails since 2002. A Wheaton Bicyclist and Pedestrian Commission member, she appreciates numerous trail options nearby: Herrick Lake, Danada, Blackwell, and others.

Salvador enjoys “helping make the forest preserves safer” while cycling, an activity she’d be doing anyway, though on trail duty, she rides more slowly. “We help people who are lost or bikers with mechanical issues. At parking lots, we check for broken glass or people looking into car windows.” If smash-and-grab robbery is suspected, she calls dispatch.

She carries first aid supplies, but, while CPR-certified, has never handled any physical injuries: “Not even a Band-Aid, though I’ve had to use one on myself.”

“Trail watch volunteers,” she continued, “are already working for the forest preserve police and under their authority. We are trained to keep all interactions with the public positive, yet explain the rules, e.g., regarding off-leash dogs.”

Cook County Trail Watch volunteers and district law enforcement work together to keep the trails safe for forest preserve visitors. Courtesy of Forest Preserves of Cook County

In Cook County’s 70,000-acre Forest Preserves, Volunteer Program Coordinator Joanna Huyck tallies more than 500 Trail Watch volunteers. About 200 logged 7,300 visits across five zones in 2023.

“Around for over 10 years, January 2014 was a program reboot as we launched our online volunteer system,” Huyck said. This February, GivePulse becomes the new volunteer platform, with upcoming Trail Watch trainings listed for April 14 (Western Springs) and May 5 (Palatine).

Keeping trails safe

Among various individuals, community service seemed the prevailing theme. Joining Trail Watch in 2017, Palatine resident Sheila Roos has biked weekly, mostly the Deer Grove and Paul Douglas trails, reporting trail potholes and branches down, plus more hazardous issues like speeding bikers.

“Just helping the community” is what Roos enjoys most, “like ensuring trails are clear after a storm. You help keep the trails safe, enjoy doing it and it doesn’t cost you anything except logging your time. I love nature and biking, and that the forest preserves are available. I see wildlife all the time at Deer Grove — skunk, raccoons, bunnies and deer, of course.”

Retired biology teacher and Westchester resident Bill Neal joined Trail Watch seven to eight years ago and echoed Roos’ sentiments. He regularly walks Bemis Woods, Brezina Woods and Salt Creek trails, skipping maybe only 20 days per year, occasionally biking.

Recalling national park visits in his youth, he said, “You only see that park once and just at that time of year. Forest preserve trails are like having a national park in your own backyard.”

Neal has stopped two-three cars on the trail, helped the lost, identified poison ivy for the curious, and aided an injured biker. He has phoned in instances of visitors with bags poaching plants, and a homeless person seemingly spooking trail users.

Kane County trail volunteers, including these Mounted Rangers, report issues using the Kane Forest Notify phone app. Courtesy of Forest Preserve District of Kane County

Glenview equestrian Annalee Fjellberg, 10-year Trail Watcher, frequents the Des Plaines River Trail North. She likes “helping keep the forest preserve nice for everyone, though ‘nice’ isn’t exactly the right word.” On her horse, her Trail Watch vest frequently invites questions about the program.

Fjellberg’s actions expand her meaning of ‘nice:’ helping lost people, reporting downed branches, and reporting a threatening mentally disturbed person.

Spotting visitors poaching flowers and mushrooms, she noted, “It’s an emergency if they’re bringing big bags. Sometimes people pretend they don’t understand English. When I mention the $200 fine, most people understand that.”

Super Swap Sunday

Imagine a “Super Bowl” of biking. Chicago Winter Bike Swap returns Feb. 11 at Kane County Fairgrounds from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. with 32,000 square feet of vendors, advocacy groups, clubs and cyclists looking for bargains.

• Join the ride. Contact Ralph Banasiak at

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