You can help shape the future of Lake County's largest forest preserve
Beginning with the first land acquisition in 1968, the Lakewood Forest Preserve near Wauconda has evolved into the largest preserve in a system that prides itself on good planning.
Although the 2,835-acre site east of Wauconda has some stunning features and uncommon recreational opportunities, its growth was willy nilly.
"It evolved over time without a master plan," said Randy Seebach, director of planning and land preservation for the Lake County Forest Preserve District. "It really became a model for inefficiency."
After decades of talk, forest preserve officials are looking to retool Lakewood and will be asking the public to help determine the best course of action.
Over the past two years, a team of eight staff members from six departments have gathered data, run tests and studied how the public uses Lakewood's various amenities.
They've identified potential recreation, education and conservation improvements and developed and refined designs involving the sprawling forest preserve in southwestern Lake County.
The results are two master plan concepts to be unveiled Sept. 23, during an open house at the Fremont Township center.
The public will be able to review and offer input on the plan before revisions are made and a preferred option -- expected to combine elements of each -- chosen.
"We can mix and match," district Executive Director Ty Kovach said.
Each option has myriad details to change or enhance existing facilities, consolidate uses in a smaller footprint and take other actions to improve public access, enhance the natural and developed landscapes and reduce short- and long-term operating costs.
Common goals in each plan include reducing the amount of pavement and mowed areas; eliminating redundant trails; removing three of the four existing shelters and replacing them in some fashion; and restoring another 1,000 acres (in addition to the 1,258 acres already restored or in progress of restoration) of savanna and woodlands.
"It's just amazing how much information and aspects to this planning had to be considered," said forest district Commissioner Jessica Vealitzek, whose district includes Lakewood. "They have really studied every corner of the preserve."
That's a lot of territory. Lakewood originated after the then-fledgling forest preserve district bought a 1,020-acre "gentleman's farm" and associated buildings, six of which still stand.
Both plans call for all those buildings to be removed, except the iconic former dairy barn, which dates to the 1920s and has a high level of historical and visual interest. Both plans also envision building a three-season shelter overlooking nearby Taylor Lake in a style reminiscent of the old farm buildings.
Lakewood grew to its current size through 51 subsequent transactions and came to be bisected by two busy roads, Route 176 and Fairfield Road, as well as the Millennium and Fort Hill regional bike trails.
To get a sense of its size, consider that Lakewood has 10 separate entrances that are opened, closed and patrolled daily by ranger police, officials say.
There are more than 15 acres of roads and parking lots, most built in the 1970s; nearly 34 miles of trails, including 21 specifically for equestrian use; more than 7 miles of snowmobile access and 41 acres of mowed turf.
Generally, Plan B "tightens everything up a bit," Seebach said, with greater reductions proposed for the number of access points, miles of trails and amount of mowed turf, for example.
"I'm excited to see what the public has to say," Vealitzek said.