Make no small plans: Charting the future of Cook County’s green legacy

We are facing some massive issues when it comes to the environment.

If you think it’s important to save endangered plants and animals, mitigate the impact of climate change, and leave a legacy of natural places for future generations, I have some advice based on what we have learned at the Forest Preserves of Cook County: make an audacious plan and don’t stop trying to meet its goals.

Ten years ago this spring, the Forest Preserves rolled out the Next Century Conservation Plan (NCCP) which serves a blueprint on how to better restore, expand, and invite everyone to the natural world of the preserves.

The catalyst was the centennial celebration of the Forest Preserves, a preserve system that exists only because of visionaries who saw that metropolitan Chicago was growing at a pace that - if left unchecked - would decimate the surrounding prairies, wetlands, savannas, and woodlands that existed here for millennia.

The solution was the creation of the Forest Preserves of Cook County as a government entity “to acquire, restore and manage lands for the purpose of protecting and preserving public open space with its natural wonders…for the education, pleasure and recreation of the public now and in the future.” A hundred years later, that mission remains, but we recognized that with today’s challenges, we needed to revive that turn-of-the-century spirit of innovation and energy.

Under the leadership of General Superintendent Arnold Randall, a group of civic leaders convened to create the NCCP, which outlines initiatives over 25 years to position Cook County as a national leader in urban conservation. In the decade since, the NCCP has been the Forest Preserves’ north star, coordinated by Interim General Superintendent Eileen Figel.

Since 2014, the Forest Preserves has exponentially increased the amount of land being restored, including rare habitats that offer plant and animal diversity on par with rainforests of the world. We created a new programming department that offers more than a thousand events annually to connect people to nature. We have made inclusion and racial equity a priority to expand the demographics of who enjoys the benefits of being out in nature.

Through all this work, we have rebuilt the Forest Preserves as an agency to be more effective, ambitious, and transparent. We have not met every NCCP milestone on this long journey.

The goal for acquisition of new land has been hard to reach, for example. But this high bar has pushed us to find new resources.

We have sought support from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, utilized federal American Rescue Plan Act funds and explored creative conservation partnership models on property not owned by the Forest Preserves.

All these new and expanded initiatives have paid a huge dividend by showing partners, supporters, and the public that the Forest Preserves is on the right track and capable of big change. That new perception of the Forest Preserves was an integral factor in the passage in 2022 of a tax-levy referendum by an overwhelming majority of voters.

We are already putting these resources towards our priorities, including the key components of the Next Century Conservation Plan.

We are doing more ecological restoration, expanding programming and reaching out to the diversity of Cook County.

Daniel Burnham exhorted us to “make no small plans.” (Burnham, by the way, was a backer of the nascent idea of an emerald necklace of forest preserves around Cook County). As we have discovered at the Forest Preserves, a big plan is a crucial step.

But it is just the first one.

Keeping on the trail as it dips and turns, and maybe gets a bit rocky: that is how you find your way to real change.

Democrat Toni Preckwinkle is president of the Cook County Board.

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