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Cook County Forest Preserve District has big plans to get better

Wednesday, April 02, 2014
Daily Southtown

The goal is to get you off the sofa, out of the house and onto a path toward better health and a greater appreciation for nature.

To mark its 100th anniversary, the Cook County Forest Preserve District is looking at ways to improve on and expand recreational offerings in its roughly 68,000 acres of woods, prairie and wetlands.

A significant part of the district’s recreational master plan that was enacted a year ago is a newly approved trails master plan that will bring improvements and changes to many of the district’s hundreds of miles of trails, including several in the Southland.

District spokeswoman Karen Vaughan said the trails plan was created with input from many of the district’s most active trail user groups, including Trails for Illinois, Friends of the Forest Preserves, Chicago Area Runners Association, Chicago Area Mountain Bikers and the Horsemen’s Association.

Among the local projects set to begin by June is installing a paved trail around the 960-acre Orland Grassland, which lies southwest of 167th Street and LaGrange Road. The nearly 5-mile path will accommodate bicyclists and equestrians as well as pedestrians. And it will hopefully encourage hikers to enter the grassland via footpaths to gaze upon birds, turtles and other animals as well as protected ecosystems.

The project is not without controversy, however. Pat Hayes, site steward for the Grassland, said she’s all for getting more people into the area to learn about its uniqueness and importance.

But she and other environmentalists have concerns about how the new trail might affect animals that use the southeast section of the preserve. The path will separate a wetland from the grassland, forcing nesting birds to cross the trail with their young to get from one habitat to another.

Among the birds found within the Orland Grassland are the Henslow’s Sparrow, Dickcissel, Grasshopper Sparrow and Bobolink.

“We know people will learn a lot by using the new trail,” Hayes said. “We just have this angst about the eastbound section.”

She said the villages of Orland Park and Tinley Park want the trail and the forest preserve district is trying to accommodate all parties.

“We’re not against bike trails. We realize that if we don’t give the bicyclists a path, they may create their own,” she said. “Still, if we had our druthers, the path would not go up along LaGrange Road. It would be C-shaped instead of a loop.”

District spokesman Don Parker said staff “took the ecological value of the site into account, most importantly the decision to create a loop trail instead of one that runs through the site’s interior. In response to stakeholder feedback, we adjusted the trail’s placement in several places to minimize impacts to sensitive areas, but in some places it wasn’t possible for safety and other reasons.

“We’re confident we’re putting the best solution into place to allow the public to see and experience this beautiful site while protecting it as habitat for grassland and wetland birds and many other creatures,” Parker said.

“Grassland birds nest basically on the ground in clumps of grass,” Dave Kircher, landscape architect for the district, said. “You’ve also got a number of other wetland-sensitive species that use this site. It’s in a key area where it is a stopover from other points. It’s kind of an island here so birds come in, use this site for a rest.”

Kircher said the paved trail, along with the inland footpaths, will enable visitors to get closer to nature. He expects the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to finish this summer its restoration of the grassland preserve, which has included brush cutting and removing invasive plants and trees as well as drain tiles installed decades ago by farmers.

“When that’s done, it will bring this area back to a state of what it was like before there was agriculture,” Kircher said, adding that installing the trail and signage is expected to be completed by late fall.

The Orland Grassland project is just one of many improvements the forest preserve district plans in the coming years. Additional Southland projects are planned for the Thorn Creek preserves, Calumet-Sag Trail, Oak Forest Heritage Preserve and Burnham Greenway.

The projects grew out of an in-house study of the trail system as well as user surveys, said Kindy Kruller, senior planner for the district.

Among the improvements the public asked for were clearer trail maps and better signs regarding amenities, such as water fountains, portable toilets and call boxes, she said. In addition, those who use the trails and recreational facilities offered ideas for increased and improved programming.

The trails master plan is intended to provide baseline information on the trail system, recommend new policies for managing trails, create a process for assessing requests to improve unrecognized trails and prioritize future improvement projects, Vaughan said. She said it also describes the need for more staff and volunteers to adequately fund, maintain and police the system as it continues to expand.

There are an estimated 40 million visits each year to the Cook County forest preserves, where people can enjoy bicycling, hiking, fishing and other outdoor activities. This winter saw a record-breaking number of cross country ski rentals, Kruller said.

Despite the seemingly high number of forest preserve visitors, the district recognizes that there are still many people who have yet to explore what the forest preserves have to offer, she said.

“We hear every day about this connection between health and the outdoors and physical activity,” Kruller said. “The forest preserves are a great way to be outdoors and make that connection with nature.”

One downside to having so many distinct groups using the trails is that bicyclists, pedestrians and equestrians don’t always get along. For that reason, Kruller said, May is being designated as Share the Trails Month, when the district will emphasize trail etiquette and better ways for users to enjoy the trails together.

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