Openlands and the Forest Preserves of Cook County are connected by a long and deep history, spanning back to Openlands’ founding when Charles “Cap” Sauers , who served as General Superintendent of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, joined Openlands as a Board Member. The relationship continues today as Openlands Board Member Alan Bell becomes Chair of the Conservation and Policy Council. The Council is tasked with guiding the efforts to implement the Next Century Conservation Plan – an inspired pathway to ensure that people’s love and enthusiasm for nature is realized.
Alan has served on the Council for several years and on Openlands Board for 12. He is an active attorney engaged in public finance and public-private partnerships. He is a board member of the Land Trust Alliance and founder and CEO of the Elements Group, which is committed to inspiring projects that have a lasting impact on people, the natural environment, and the world. He is passionate about nature and committed to community conservation and engagement, especially when it comes to diverse populations. His values and experience make Alan a perfect complement to the goals of the Next Century Conservation Plan and the work of the Council as it advances its civic commitment to secure the resources needed to care for the first forest preserve system in the nation.
Alan takes over the Council Chair from Wendy Paulson who led the 11-member organization through its inaugural years. Wendy is an avid birder, conservationist, and Openlands board member for the past eight years. Wendy transitioned to the Chair of Council after serving as one of the four co-chairs of the Next Century Conservation Plan Commission that oversaw the development of the Plan. Bob Megquier, Openlands Executive Vice President of Programs, has also served as an invaluable member of the Plan’s leadership team, serving as a senior advisor to Forest Preserve staff and the Council.
In 2012 the Cook County Forest Preserves was approaching its centennial anniversary, which was a cause for celebration, reflection, and looking to the future. Openlands’ long-time relationship led to an invitation from the Forest Preserves to help lead a planning effort, alongside Metropolis Strategies, to create a visionary plan looking into the next century of the Forest Preserves’ work. The vision needed to acknowledge and plan for issues not imagined in 1915 such as climate change and its effect on our region, the changing demographics of Cook County, and the contribution of healthy nature in helping to ensure healthy people. As a public agency with such a rich history that currently owns more than 10% of Cook County, the Forest Preserves wanted to take an integrated approach to planning for the future of the county’s open lands by including the important role of civic leadership in developing and driving implementation of the Plan.
The Conservation and Policy Council is the leadership team tasked with implementing the Plan and helping to bring resources to the Forest Preserves. One of the most important responsibilities of the Council is to bridge the public and private sector and drive funding to the Forest Preserves so that the goals of the plan can become a reality.
During the first five years of work of the Council it became glaringly obvious that the Cook County Forest Preserves are structurally underfunded. This is tragic because it guarantees that the preserves will never be fully cared for. The invasive plants that destroy the forests, prairies, and wetlands will win out over the oaks and hickory trees and the wildlife that depend on them. New trails and facilities will not be built, and existing ones will deteriorate. Over time, the health of the preserves will decline, and we will all lose something valuable.
That’s where the Conservation and Policy Council comes in. One of the most impactful ways to drive revenue to the Forest Preserves is through a property tax referendum that would adjust its revenue to be more in line with its need to ensure a healthy and inviting system of preserves. The Council will play a central role in building the community of support needed for a referendum to pass.
One good reason Cook County taxpayers should feel good about giving more money to the Forest Preserves is that December 2020 marks Arnold Randall’s 10th anniversary as General Superintendent of the Cook County Forest Preserves. Appointed by President Toni Preckwinkle, Arnold has transformed what was described by many as a political dumping ground costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars annually into a high-functioning and transparent government agency where employees not only do their job but take pride in their work. Arnold’s commitment is exemplified by sound conservation planning, award-winning work, and a dedication to engaging the conservation community and Cook County residents. Arnold has demonstrated his leadership over the last 10 years and has earned our trust that he will spend taxpayer dollars wisely and efficiently.
Our local preserves offer us free access to the healing power of nature. Keeping these critical ecosystems healthy should be a high priority for all of us who have treasured our moments outdoors and in nature. To get alerts when the referendum and other advocacy opportunities arise, sign up for our Cook County Action Alerts.