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County forest preserves offering great escapes

Sunday, February 06, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Lew Freedmanv

The smart people understand what they have and take advantage. Whether it is hiking, biking, fishing, snowshoeing or picnicking. The 68,000 acres of the Cook County Forest Preserve District comprise the wilderness outside Chicago's front door. "History is replete with the examples of forefathers who had the resolve and foresight to set aside land within certain areas," said Steve Bylina, the district general superintendent. "Aren't we all thankful we have this opportunity now?"

During a recent interview at district headquarters in Oak Park, Bylina, on the job for 15 months, did a little bragging. The fact that public hearings on his proposed $38 million budget (plus a $50 million capital budget) were taking place almost simultaneously was no coincidence. But that didn't mean pride in recent accomplishments was unwarranted.

This became more evident when a variety of representatives of environmental and conservation groups testified that the Forest Preserve is undergoing a renaissance. Citizens who previously had served as critics like what they see under Bylina's administration. This is particularly refreshing because the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' budget cuts have provoked dissatisfaction and left observers uneasy.

The favorable reception should play well with the Cook County Board as that group ponders the new budget for the Forest Preserve.

Bylina is seeking to boost attendance at the same time he doesn't know exactly what attendance is. Although there are no entrance fees, certain district-sponsored events lend themselves to quantification. Last year 580,000 people visited nature centers, up from past years of between 400,000 and 500,000. Also, the new Preserve Keepers Corps increased the number of volunteers helping the district from 5,300 to 7,500.

Other notable changes: Outfitting employees with emblem-bearing safety vests to make them recognizable to the public; energetically enforcing no-parking-on-grass rules; marking all 300 miles of district trails; recruiting 26 schools to adopt sections of the district; offering 625 nature programs; collecting 3,000 tons of refuse; adding 152 acres to district holdings; and issuing 6,298 picnic permits serving more than 2 million citizens.

Apparently the most popular activity in the Forest Preserve is just sitting around eating.

"We have so much to offer out there," Bylina said. "We have so much opportunity that it's a shame it's not used as it could be."

One of the district's chief missions is adapting and determining what people in the 21st Century want. What sport gets more fields?

"Rollerblading wasn't around 30 years ago," noted Chris Merenowicz, superintendent of conservation.

Merenowicz said he asked a woman what her top priority would be for the preserves and she replied kayaking.

"I walked away realizing I cannot have predictable, predetermined ideas about preferences," he said. "It's everybody's preserve."

And not a static one. Bylina said the district should take title to 100 acres of donated land in the fall, is looking at land at Lake Calumet and hopes its acquisition budget will enable it to acquire more suitable land.

Bylina, 55, took over administration of the district in August 2003. He had worked for the city of Chicago and loves the notion of wilderness experiences being a step or two from a high rise. A Chicagoan can disappear into the woods with a fishing pole in a way he can't at a Lake Michigan harbor. Or, he can paddle the north branch of the Chicago River--as Bylina has done.

Bylina also believes he is no different than many city people who long for nearby nature and wilderness they don't have to drive hours to reach.

"There is a calling for it," Bylina said. "The softening of the concrete jungle by greenery has proven beyond a doubt to be beneficial."

What Bylina is keenly sensitive to is the idea that people will not bring kids to parks if they perceive them to be poorly maintained and dirty. When he lists achievements, this desire to make sure the environment is attractive ranks highly.

Keeping bathrooms clean, mowing the lawn, picking up the trash, and removing graffiti from walls are all efforts Bylina plans to maintain. He also has a rebuke for fishermen who are supposed to be environmentalists, but leave empty Styrofoam bait containers behind. The district is urging bait shops to pass out green and yellow "Put Litter in its Place" stickers.

"The image needed to be rejuvenated," Bylina said. "It needed to be repaired."

Preserve the Preserves is Bylina's theme. It is a worthy campaign and it should appeal to visitors coming to the parks for a respite.

The smart people understand what they have and take advantage. Whether it is hiking, biking, fishing, snowshoeing or picnicking. The 68,000 acres of the Cook County Forest Preserve District comprise the wilderness outside Chicago's front door. "History is replete with the examples of forefathers who had the resolve and foresight to set aside land within certain areas," said Steve Bylina, the district general superintendent. "Aren't we all thankful we have this opportunity now?"

During a recent interview at district headquarters in Oak Park, Bylina, on the job for 15 months, did a little bragging. The fact that public hearings on his proposed $38 million budget (plus a $50 million capital budget) were taking place almost simultaneously was no coincidence. But that didn't mean pride in recent accomplishments was unwarranted.

This became more evident when a variety of representatives of environmental and conservation groups testified that the Forest Preserve is undergoing a renaissance. Citizens who previously had served as critics like what they see under Bylina's administration. This is particularly refreshing because the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' budget cuts have provoked dissatisfaction and left observers uneasy.

The favorable reception should play well with the Cook County Board as that group ponders the new budget for the Forest Preserve.

Bylina is seeking to boost attendance at the same time he doesn't know exactly what attendance is. Although there are no entrance fees, certain district-sponsored events lend themselves to quantification. Last year 580,000 people visited nature centers, up from past years of between 400,000 and 500,000. Also, the new Preserve Keepers Corps increased the number of volunteers helping the district from 5,300 to 7,500.

Other notable changes: Outfitting employees with emblem-bearing safety vests to make them recognizable to the public; energetically enforcing no-parking-on-grass rules; marking all 300 miles of district trails; recruiting 26 schools to adopt sections of the district; offering 625 nature programs; collecting 3,000 tons of refuse; adding 152 acres to district holdings; and issuing 6,298 picnic permits serving more than 2 million citizens.

Apparently the most popular activity in the Forest Preserve is just sitting around eating.

"We have so much to offer out there," Bylina said. "We have so much opportunity that it's a shame it's not used as it could be."

One of the district's chief missions is adapting and determining what people in the 21st Century want. What sport gets more fields?

"Rollerblading wasn't around 30 years ago," noted Chris Merenowicz, superintendent of conservation.

Merenowicz said he asked a woman what her top priority would be for the preserves and she replied kayaking.

"I walked away realizing I cannot have predictable, predetermined ideas about preferences," he said. "It's everybody's preserve."

And not a static one. Bylina said the district should take title to 100 acres of donated land in the fall, is looking at land at Lake Calumet and hopes its acquisition budget will enable it to acquire more suitable land.

Bylina, 55, took over administration of the district in August 2003. He had worked for the city of Chicago and loves the notion of wilderness experiences being a step or two from a high rise. A Chicagoan can disappear into the woods with a fishing pole in a way he can't at a Lake Michigan harbor. Or, he can paddle the north branch of the Chicago River--as Bylina has done.

Bylina also believes he is no different than many city people who long for nearby nature and wilderness they don't have to drive hours to reach.

"There is a calling for it," Bylina said. "The softening of the concrete jungle by greenery has proven beyond a doubt to be beneficial."

What Bylina is keenly sensitive to is the idea that people will not bring kids to parks if they perceive them to be poorly maintained and dirty. When he lists achievements, this desire to make sure the environment is attractive ranks highly.

Keeping bathrooms clean, mowing the lawn, picking up the trash, and removing graffiti from walls are all efforts Bylina plans to maintain. He also has a rebuke for fishermen who are supposed to be environmentalists, but leave empty Styrofoam bait containers behind. The district is urging bait shops to pass out green and yellow "Put Litter in its Place" stickers.

"The image needed to be rejuvenated," Bylina said. "It needed to be repaired."

Preserve the Preserves is Bylina's theme. It is a worthy campaign and it should appeal to visitors coming to the parks for a respite.



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