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Cook County forest preserves want city folk back sleeping under stars

Friday, April 06, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

A century ago, city dwellers and suburbanites alike could simply head to the nearby Cook County Forest Preserves to go camping — and could even build their own cabins within the preserves’ boundaries anywhere they saw fit.

But by 1929, officials — upset that campers “came and went whereever they pleased, littering the ground and marring the beauty and serenity of the woodlands” — outlawed the private cabins, forest preserve records state. Eventually, all public camping within the forest preserve largely stopped.

Now, Forest Preserve Supt. Arnold Randall is working on a plan to once again open up pockets of the 68,000-acre “green necklace” to the public so campers won’t have to travel far to commune with nature.

With gas prices hovering above $4 a gallon, Randall wants to offer more affordable vacation options for veteran outdoorsmen with well-used L.L. Bean tents and urban families with children who haven’t spent much time sleeping under the stars.

“We want to focus on bringing people into the forest preserves from urban areas,” he said. “There’s a benefit to bringing people into nature early — just giving them a different perspective.”

Randall expects any overnight public camping to take place in preserve land away from the din of the city.

At least one forest preserve watchdog group is on board, praising the forest preserve for consulting camping experts on the plan while honoring its environmental conservation mission.

“A long time ago, families would go out to Camp Reinberg and spend two weeks at a time, so why not today?” said Benjamin Cox, about a now-closed camp on forest preserve land near Palatine.

Cox, executive director of Friends of the Forest Preserves, said that officials must ensure the camping environment is maintained for those who want to get back to nature and not simply looking for a place to party.

“We want to make sure it’s not a group of good old boys sitting around the campfire drinking beers,” he said.

But what about the perception that the forest preserve is a haven for crime?

That’s not true, he said.

“Crime rates in the forest preserve are much less than the communities surrounding them — the numbers are much lower and the kind of issues we deal with are smaller issues,” he said.

He said layers of security — from forest preserve police to on-site camp staff, would play various roles in keeping campers safe.

The DuPage, Will and Kane forest preserves already offer some type of overnight camping that’s open to the public.

But for now, adult and family camping across the Cook County system is prohibited.

Six camping areas are used by youth groups, including Camp Sullivan in Tinley Park and Camp Alphonse near Palatine. Half are operated by the forest preserve and the other half by nonprofits such as the Boy Scouts. Three other areas have been closed. Some of those nine sites — which feature tent camping and cabins — could be opened to the public, but plans aren’t final.

The forest preserve has already entered a $300,000 contract with Dallas-based Studio Outside to oversee the creation of a “camping master plan” that will be rolled out in August. Officials are also surveying the public for ideas.

The final pricetag for the project remains to be seen. Already, $3 million in taxpayer money has been set aside as part of a capital budget. As much as $22 million could be raised for the project by selling bonds.

If all goes well, Randall said, happy campers could be staking their tents in the forest preserve sometime next year.

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