For most Chicago residents, the idea of pitching a tent in the woods seems like something that happens far away and in mostly exotic locales, or at least out of state.
In the urban jungle of skyscrapers and steel it’s easy to forget that over 11 percent of Cook County, which includes Chicago, is covered by nature trails, forests and groves that make up the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (FPDCC).
But new projects and reforms from the FPDCC hope to change this, making the forest preserves more accessible and visible in the minds of city-dwellers, including Loyola students. One of the methods proposed by the Forest Preserve District is opening up certain parts of the preserves to campers.
Though the project is still in the planning phases, the FPDCC hopes that the plan will ultimately introduce a larger number of Cook County residents to the wide range of nature that exists close to home.
On March 15 the FPDCC’s website released a survey for residents to weigh in on the idea of camping in the forest preserves. Survey-takers are asked what would best define a successful camping experience and what type of habitat would be most conducive to camping.
The survey will run until April 30, at which point a series of public meetings will be held to discuss the project. From both of these sources, the FPDCC hopes to craft a camping master plan that will be ready by August 2012.
The new plans for the Forest Preserve may give Loyola students new opportunities to explore nature without heading too far away from campus.
“We felt bad that this piece was missing from the Loyola experience,” said Emily Wilk, a Loyola graduate student who was part of a focus group put together by the FPDCC to find out how they could best use Forest Preserve space to support local organizations and nonprofits.
Wilk represented the Loyola Office for Outdoor Experiential Education in advising the FPDCC on potential activities that Loyola students could participate in.
Activities Wilk and others suggested included kayaking and overnight stays in new campsites, as well as accessibility options for all ranges of physical ability.
The project began in October 2011 when Cook County Board of Commissioners President Toni Preckwinkle laid out the beginnings of a new plan for the future of the Cook County Forest Preserve as part of a system-wide audit of the organization.
“For too long, the Forest Preserve has been adrift, without strong leadership or a long-term comprehensive strategy,” Preckwinkle said at a press conference announcing the findings of the audit. “It’s time for the Forest Preserve District . . . to take a hard look at its core functions and to figure out ways to improve and streamline its work.”
Preckwinkle hopes to achieve this by bringing the Forest Preserve to more people through activities and increased accessibility. Included in a list of 118 improvements to the Forest Preserves is the opening of public campsites.
Benjamin Cox, executive director of the advocacy group Friends of the Forest Preserves, says that ultimately the idea to open up camping is good and thinks that it will provide an ideal place to relax after using the park’s recreational services. He echoed concerns from Preckwinkle and the FPDCC that the Forest Preserves are not currently making enough of a concerted effort to draw people.
“The biggest challenge is that people need to know and understand what’s out there,” Cox said in an interview with The Phoenix. “People don’t know that you can go snowmobiling. They don’t know where to go and get a horse. They’re [the FPDCC] generally not engaging their public.”
Currently, camping in Cook County has been restricted to designated youth groups such as the Boy Scouts. The idea of opening Forest Preserve-specific campsites to the public is new for the county, and one that the FPDCC hopes will increase resident recognition of the nature and landscapes located within reasonable proximity to the city.
The North Branch Trail, located roughly seven miles west of Loyola and covering the nearby bordering suburban areas of Lincolnwood, Niles and Skokie, is one of the trails that may be affected by the new Forest Preserve plans. Currently, the trail is home to Camp Glenview and Camp Adahi, two private camps, as well as the Chicago Botanic Gardens, which is a key stakeholder in the plan.
Despite the appeal of nearby camping, the FPDCC says that campsites will most likely be located in more remote areas of Cook County. The hope is that the relative proximity will still attract many city dwellers who haven’t previously considered camping in Illinois.
“This is really what Forest Preserves used to be for: a place where city people could go to relax,” Cox said. “The great thing about our forest preserve is that, while there aren’t mountains, there’s a large variety of nature and diversity in wildlife.”
Take the Forest Preserve’s survey online and voice your opinion at fpdcc.com/camping.