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Cook County Forest Preserves turns 100

The Cook County Forest Preserves is the first and largest forest preserve district of its kind in the country.
The Cook County Forest Preserves is the first and largest forest preserve district of its kind in the country.

This year, they're celebrating their 100th anniversary. But it was a long process with many hurdles, toward preserving the natural land.

The Forest Preserves of Cook County cover nearly 69,000 acres of public land. In fact, 11 percent of the land in Cook County is forest preserve.

There are rare ecosystems, 40 managed lakes and ponds, 6 nature centers and hundreds of species of wildlife and birds. Plans to develop the forest preserves began at the turn of the century, modeled after the Chicago Park District.

"The need for preservation of open space," Sand Ridge Nature Center Director Jim Carpenter said. "Not just in the terms of parks and recreation but the need for preservation of open space in its natural state."

A simple concept, but it took over 10 years of legal battles and political wrangling for the early visionaries plan to become a reality. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County was established on Nov. 30, 1914.

The first forest preserve, acquired in 1916, was Deer Grove in Palatine - 500 acres of woodland, wetland and prairie.

This Victorian-era mansion in River Forest has an interesting connection to the Cook County Forest Preserves. Built in 1876, it served as a residence and a school.

"In 1919, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County purchased this house as their first headquarters for the preserves," Trailside Museum of Natural History Director Michele Mottloqitz said.

By the 1920s, a committee was put in charge of land acquisition - but not without controversy. There was debate over what qualified as a forest and not all landowners were willing to sell.

Still, the forest preserve district grew to more than 30,000 acres by 1940.

Today, many forest preserves are a window to the past. Thatcher Woods was acquired in 1917 from the Thatcher family, who kept the land in its natural state.

"It wasn't plowed, it wasn't grazed, it wasn't logged," Cook County Forest Preserve Resource Ecologist Kristin Pink said. "So all of the things that live here - the plants and the animals - they lived here for hundreds of thousands of years."

Along with resource ecologists, biologists and trail management, the forest preserve district has more than 2,000 volunteers - many of them helping restore the land at one of the six nature centers.
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