Behind a forest preserve debate

On the surface, the Cook County Forest Preserve District seems like the perfect place to zipline. Or climb up a rope course. Or sled down a hill. After all, it has 68,000 acres of (mostly) natural forests, fields and rivers from which to embark on such adventures.

But isn’t the very nature of “natural” land to be, well, natural?

How would an art exhibit or an outdoor concert -- two other ideas that the forest preserve district plans to introduce this fall to the public in a series of meetings -- how does that fit seamlessly with the notion of natural land?

That’s why some forest preserve advocates are greeting such recreational proposals with an arched eyebrow and a sense of skepticism. The forest preserve district’s ideas, which also include dog-friendly parks, banquet facilities at the golf courses and geocaching, a high-tech treasure hunting game,  mirror a little too closely to what local park districts offer, forest preserve advocates say.

And more importantly, the activities themselves could compromise what the forest preserve’s mission entails: To “protect and preserve” natural land, they say.

New Forest Preserve District General Superintendent Arnold Randall says he understands the advocates’ concerns and said his staff will find the perfect balance between recreation and conservation with education. After all, it’s not as if the entire forest preserve is wilderness. For example, there’s the pavilion at the district headquarters in River Forest, which could be a perfect venue for a small outdoor concert, Randall points out.

The forest preserve must figure out new and exciting ways to attract new visitors, while staying true to its mission, Randall said.

For nearly 100 years, the Cook County Forest Preserve has sought to protect its boundaries from opportune developers, park districts and governments who see vacant forest preserve land as an easy grab for expansion or development. But the latest debate now doesn’t involve outside interests, and now advocates may be up against the forest preserve administration itself.

-- Erika Slife

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