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Cook County, Illinois

Cook County is the largest and most populous county in Illinois, including the city of Chicago, where Openlands is headquartered. Like Lake County, Cook shares a coastline on one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes, Lake Michigan. While much the land-use in Cook County is developed, though it boasts a robust forest preserves system, with over 70,000 acres devoted to natural areas including woodlands, marshes, prairies, and hundreds of miles of trails.

Since Openlands’ founding as part of the Metropolitan Welfare Council of Chicago, it has been committed to connecting urban dwellers with nature close to home. Openlands work in Chicago and Cook County focus on building advocates for nature through community-driven tree plantings and care, environmental education, and working with partners like the City of Chicago and Forest Preserves of Cook County to acquire and restore land for future parks, preserves, and natural areas. Our work in policy and advocacy expands and deepens these efforts, by pursuing policies and land-use decisions that protect habitats and wildlife, and the health and well-being of residents across the metropolitan region.

Where We Work

The Chicago region has one of the most complicated geo-political landscapes in the nation, covering three states. Northeastern Illinois has more units of local government than any other metropolitan region in the nation. Land use decisions are made daily within these municipal boundaries, often in isolation, and with a limited view of how it will affect the region’s health, resilience, and biodiversity.

Rivers, streams, trails, habitat, and other landscape-scale projects do not respect these political boundaries. Since Openlands’ founding, we have played a critical role as the only conservation organization looking systematically across the region at the relationship between the natural environment, urban growth, community health, and comprehensive land-use planning.

Our projects are at the scale of the region

map of Openlands area of service, where it focuses its programs and projects.

Looking at the scale of the region requires that projects be dynamic, strategic, and collaborative with diverse partners and communities. We take on initiatives that light up our whole region, such as advocating for stronger water quality standards and creating the region’s first headwater streams plan. We are an incubator for innovative programs that engage community members in advocating for and enjoying nature, like Space to Grow and TreeKeepers. These programs and projects transform our communities, enrich the way we teach our children, expand how we understand and interact with nature, and reconnect and heal the ecology of our waterways.

As a trusted organizational partner and convener, we do not hesitate to join the fight against major transportation and infrastructure projects that would impact critical natural and agricultural resources. We build coalitions, provide leadership, and litigate when prudent.

Priority Landscapes

Cook County Forest Preserves Referendum

For several years we have worked together to find additional public revenue needed to fully protect and restore the Cook County Forest Preserves. A strong community support evolved, and polling showed that a majority of likely Cook County voters would support a referendum that would put the Cook County Forest Preserves on sustainable financial footing and advance the goals of the Next Century Conservation Plan.

In early October we asked that you let your Forest Preserve Commissioner and President Preckwinkle know that you support their vote that would allow a referendum to be placed on the March 2020 primary ballot. Thank you!

We want to let you know, that even though most Commissioners were in support of doing so, the matter was not advanced. We worked long and hard to get to this hopeful spot and are deeply disappointed that a referendum will not move forward. We will continue to advocate for the needs of the Forest Preserves, but it is also important to recognize that there is no easy fix.

It has never been easy to protect this unique and valuable asset. Remember that Forest Preserve founders Jens Jensen and Dwight Perkins lost repeated legal challenges. They were defeated four times, but each time they refused to give up because they were deeply committed to protecting nature for generations to come. We, too, must continue to press forward.

We are so grateful for all your efforts to date. And we hope we can continue to count on you in the years to come.

Have You Discovered the Palos Forest Preserves?

Whether it’s hiking or biking, camping, kayaking, picnicing, or more, the Palos Forest Preserves have something for everyone and are one of our region’s best recreational amenities. The expansive network of lakes, trails, and scenic vistas can be enjoyed at any pace and make the Palos Forest Preserves an excellent place to visit.

At 15,000 acres, the Palos Preserves in southwest Cook County are the largest concentration of preserved land in the Forest Preserves. Thanks to more than three decades of habitat restoration, they also hold some of the highest-quality natural areas in Cook County. These trails join many popular sites, such as the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, Pulaski Woods, Saganashkee Slough, and Maple Lake.

We’ve highlighted some of the best activities in the Forest Preserves below, and you can check out all the places to visit and things to try using the Openlands Get Outside Map.

If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagrammer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find in the Forest Preserves! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.

Have You Discovered Busse Woods?

Head out to the northwest suburbs and explore one of the largest forest preserves in Cook County! With over 3,500 acres of conserved open space, winding mixed-use trails, open pastures and picnic areas, paddling opportunities, wildlife viewing, and more, Busse Woods is one of the region’s best outdoor recreation destinations. Whether you’re an experienced kayaker, a trail runner, a family looking for a great picnic, or a nature lover, this place has something for everyone.

Busse Woods is pretty huge, and there’s so much to unpack and explore within the forest preserve, which makes it quite a fun time. With so much to do there, you’ll probably want to spend a whole day there. And while Busse Woods is great year-round, know that you’ll get some excellent views of fall colors as you explore this massive forest.

If you’re intrigued, be sure to plan ahead for your day. The main trail loop is nearly eight miles roundtrip, but it is definitely doable. The trail is pretty flat, paved throughout, and shaded for about half of the trip. There are a number of places to rest along the way. Plan three to four hours, depending on your pace, and bring plenty of snacks and water. If you’re thinking of a shorter trip, consider the portions of the trail surrounding Busse Lake as it’ll provide some excellent views — not to mention a cool breeze on a warm day.

Busse Woods is also home to the unique Busse Forest Nature Preserve, one of the richest and most diverse natural areas in the Cook County forest preserves, and has been designated an National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service.

FYI: if you’re trying to figure it out, it’s pronounced “bus-see”.

Have You Discovered Orland Grassland?

Pack a lunch and take a trip back in time, exploring the landscapes, habitats, and views found in our region long ago! Located in the south suburbs and managed by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Grassland is an exceptional display of the expansive prairies that used to stretch across the region. More than 10,000 years ago, glaciers left behind this rolling landscape and made Orland Grassland one of the higher elevation points in Cook County. On a clear day you can even spot the Chicago Skyline!

Orland Grassland is one of the largest grassland habitats in all of Cook County. Starting in 2002, this 960-acre preserve has been transformed from farmland back into a grassland complex with prairies, wetlands, open ponds, oak savannas, and woodlands. Openlands helped restore the landscape at Orland Grassland and today, much of the preserve is enrolled in the Illinois Nature Preserve system and it is a designated important bird area by Audubon Society.

A five-mile paved trail rings Orland Grassland with several unpaved trails winding through the restoration areas. The south unit of Orland Grassland also featured a 1.6-mile paved trail if you’re looking for a shorter trail (or a longer extension of the main trail). The unpaved trails are marked with handmade signs created by Cub Scout Troop #372 of Orland Park. Be sure to check out the interactive trail map from Forest Preserves of Cook County before your visit.