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Family campfires may burn again in Cook forest preserves
Officials are drawing up a camping master plan

Saturday, April 28, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by Robert McCoppin

This month, for the first time in their lives, some 10- and 11-year-old Cub Scouts from Chicago built a fire, pitched tents and slept under the stars.

The kids discovered the great outdoors in a small patch of Cook County Forest Preserve across the street from a housing development in Tinley Park. It's not wilderness, troop leader Ariadna Sanchez conceded, but for one night, she said, it was another world.

"It gives them the feel for the outdoors while living in the city," she said. "You can be in nature but still be safe. If you need to get a pizza, you can still go to the mall."

Long derided as neglected natural resources, the forest preserves of suburban Cook County may not be an obvious destination for those looking to escape the urban hustle and bustle. County officials hope to change that perception — and are banking on a proposed investment of up to $22 million in upgrades to lure campers.

The proposal is part of County Board President — and former Girl Scout — Toni Preckwinkle's goal to improve neglected district facilities and provide more recreation in hopes of attracting more people to the preserves.

Currently, only youth groups are allowed to camp overnight, and they accounted for 5,000 stays last year. The idea is to open the preserves to adult and family camping, which are currently prohibited. As officials draw up a camping master plan, the changes could also provide greater access for people with disabilities, and possibly for corporate retreats, day camps, RVs and campers.

This spring, officials sought feedback on the plan from groups like Boy Scouts of America, YMCA and Sierra Club. A public input period on the master plan runs through Monday at preserve nature centers and at Public meetings will be held on the proposal this summer, and if the plan is finalized by August, officials hope to have new facilities ready for use starting by late next year.

The proposed changes come at a time when the number of people camping nationally has been holding fairly steady. The Outdoor Foundation, an industry group, reported that while the number of people camping decreased 10 percent in 2011, camping had increased during the recession as a cheap getaway. Participation is spread evenly across income levels and ages, the group says.

Elsewhere in the Chicago area, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties all offer forest preserve camping, which attracts thousands of campers each year, generally starting May 1. Illinois state parks offer sites year-round, and now is the time to make summer reservations, because the half-dozen most popular sites, like Chain O' Lakes and Starved Rock state parks, generally fill up.

Cook County also offered public camping in the past. At one time it had nine camps, most of which were acquired from other organizations. But over the years, the district didn't maintain the sites, some of which dated from the 1930s, said Gordie Kaplan, executive director of the American Camp Association, Illinois. The sites deteriorated, and many were eventually closed.

The county now has three campsites, plus three others operated by youth organizations. But the remaining sites are run down and in less-than-idyllic locations — near main roads or under an airplane flight path, said forest preserve Commissioner Timothy Schneider.

He supports creating new campsites to get people out to enjoy the forest preserves, which cover more than a 10th of all land in Cook County, according to the district.

"There's never been an emphasis on camping as long as I've been commissioner," Schneider said. "We need to provide more passive recreation in our forest preserves so people can realize what a beautiful environment we have."

For dramatic landscapes, officials admit, forest preserves can't compete with some out-of-state sites that lure Chicago-area residents, like Devil's Lake State Park in Wisconsin. But for convenience and affordability, district Executive Director Arnold Randall said, the preserves offer an easy way to introduce beginners to the great outdoors.

The preserves also encompass a mix of woods, marshes, rivers, ponds, hills, rare orchids and a variety of wildlife, including a recently discovered nest of bald eagles.

A big goal is to make outdated facilities more appealing. Instead of fly-ridden outhouses and pump wells, Randall said, officials hope to offer amenities like hot showers and better access for people with disabilities. A new conference room might provide room for corporate retreats. To complement the campgrounds, the district might have activities like naturalist-led hikes, team building or ropes courses, and mount a marketing campaign to attract visitors.

"We want to do it really well," Randall said. "We want to have a lot of different experiences for people and be known regionally as a destination."

One potential model for such a facility, suggested by supporters, is Lakewood Forest Preserve, Lake County's largest, which offers camping, fishing, a dog area, miles of trails and a local history museum in Wauconda.

Because alcohol is allowed in the Cook County preserves, the district likely would have to beef up security by its own police or other alternatives such as park rangers to combat late-night partying.

While the measure appears to have support among Cook County Board members, who double as forest preserve commissioners, not everyone loves the idea. Jim Tobin, president of the Taxpayers United of America, said the notion of spending $22 million on campsites is a "travesty," noting that as a boy in Chicago, he and his friends used to ride bikes and camp by day in forest preserves without a formal campsite.

During hard economic times, following a major state income tax increase, Tobin said, governments should be cutting spending, not increasing it.

Officials plan to borrow the money by starting to issue bonds this June, and plan to repay it from existing revenue in a balanced budget without raising taxes, Randall said. As proposed, $100 million to $110 million in new borrowed money would go to a variety of projects for the next five years.

In addition to the money earmarked for new and upgraded campgrounds, the spending could include $25 million for buying land, about $10 million for improvements to theBrookfield Zoo and $7 million for Chicago Botanic Garden upgrades. User fees — currently $10 per night per tent, though an increase is possible — would also help pay for camping operating expenses.

Bob Buehler, Cub Scout master of Pack 381 in Buffalo Grove, welcomed the plan as a way to offer an underrated and satisfying reconnection with nature. Buehler grew up on Chicago's South Side and spent a lot of time in the preserves as a Boy Scout.

"It's always nice to get out in nature and see there's things bigger than us and our day-to-day lives," he said. "You lose touch with that in the city. Even in those little patches of forest across the street from a Hackney's restaurant, it feels like you're out in the woods."

To help draw up the camping plan the Forest Preserve District last fall hired Dallas landscape architecture firm Studio Outside for $300,000.

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