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Pioneer Press Series on the Forest Preserves:
Tarnished Treasure

Thursday, October 30, 2003
Pioneer Press

To some the Cook County Forest Preserve are a place for picnicking, a round of golf, nature hiking or a friendly game of soccer.

Others see an ecosystem that is been strangled, not only by politics. Politicians and interest groups have different Ideas of how the vast system should be organized and managed. Many supporters see the forest preserve as a treasure, albeit a tarnished one, worth fighting for.

In a joint effort, Pioneer Press and the Star Newspapers explore the issues facing the forest preserve in a two part special report. This week, the special examines how the forest preserve policies affect the ecosystem and how the resources and features of the forest preserves are used.

 Invasive species are replacing the species that constitute native ecosystems (in the Cook County forest preserve). If this trend is not arrested and reversed, in the foreseeable future, we will lose the entire oak woodland ecosystem that supports most of the woodland birds, butterflies, mushrooms and salamanders that have lived here for thousands of years. – Friends of the Forest Preserve and Friends of the Parks, 2002 study

 Occasional visitors to the forest preserve are the most likely to notice the discarded beer cans or the storm-downed tree limbs that obstruct some trails.

What preserve watchdogs have been noticing, for some time now, are signs of decay that are not so easily remedied – that pose a greater threat to the natural treasure that was set aside by visionaries of an earlier time. The quality and biodiversity of the 55,000 acres of forest, prairies, marshes and savannahs within the Forest Preserve District of Cook County have been deteriorating at an alarming rate, according to a study by the Friends of the Forest Preserve and Friends of the Parks Published in 2002.

 “Through a scientific checkup on the quality of the district’s 50,000 natural acres, we found much of the land is in poor health,” noted the organizations, in a pair of reports critical of the district’s failures to actively manage it’s natural areas, among other things.

In purely economic terms, the degradation has staggering implications. The study calculated the worth of the natural land owned by the district at $7 billion. The authors did not attempt to quantify the preserve contribution in sequestering storm water; preventing flooding; or improving air and water quality.

“If we don’t pay attention to caring for these assets,” said environmentalist Debra Shore on a cautionary note, “ then all we are doing is throwing up a coat of paint on the outside of the bank while the vault is disappearing.”

 In a healthy ecosystem, the younger tree population would reflect, though not precisely replicate, the older trees that form canopy trees consist primarily of oaks of the white, red, bur and black species.

 But a woodlands audit conducted in conjunction with the Friend’s study concluded that the four oak varieties made up 8 percent of the younger tree population. In contrast, the common buckthorn-a non-native and invasive species-was by far the most prevalent species in the preserves.

 Buckthorn creates a dense “understory” in the forest that blocks out the sunlight – choking seedling trees and other forms of vegetation. As a result, bare ground abounds in the preserves where once there was dense cover of native grasses and wildflowers.

 “ The buckthorn destroy the habitat so there is no place left for the birds or the animals to live,” said Stephen Packard, director of the National Audubon Society for the Chicago region. “ The beautiful wildflowers get choked. The quality trees, like the oak and hickory, stop reproducing.”

 The “ average person” may not immediately grasp the reason why the forest preserves are in decline, said Packard. “ But it is obvious to the average person that something unfortunate is going on. People comment on how beautiful the forest preserves used to be,” said Packard, a Northbrook resident who serves on the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and the Illinois Nature Conservancy.

 People who once used the preserves for recreational hiking “ don’t do it anymore. They don’t know why, but it just isn’t pleasant. It’s a thorn thicket. There are places where you physically could not walk without a machete.”

 The groups’ assessment of the degradation prompted commissioners this year to authorize a separate assessment by the district’s staff ecologists. Richard Newhard, director of resource management, said the ecologists are using a different methodology to count species within the preserves. But he acknowledged that the report would essentially corroborate the Friends’ findings about deterioration of the natural areas.

“ Some of our areas are degrading,” said Newhard, who expexts the ecologists’ study to be ready before the end of the year.

 The Friends of the Forest Preserve was incorporated in 1998 out of concern for the pace of decline in the Cook County system. The organization serves as an umbrella for local” friends” groups that focus on specific locales, such as Friends of the Norbrook Preserves, Friends of Morton Grove Forest Preserves or Friends of Busse Woods.

 “ The thinking had been that if you just leave (the natural areas) alone, they will be fine,” said Packard, who believes the preserves are declining at the rate of 3 to 3 percent a year.

 “ With a better ecological understanding of what healthy ecosystems need to thrive other counties had been keeping up with the times, through controlled burns and deer culling efforts.

 “Bring back the fires,” said Packard, and “ the oaks and hickories start reproducing again. The wildflowers and butterflies come back. The birds move back in, so there is color and sound once again.”   

 Burns Halted 

The Friends report lamented that controlled burns in Cook County “ground to a halt” when Board President John Stroger placed a moratorium on the district’s program in 1996 amid negative headlines and protests by homeowners living adjacent to preserves on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

 Newhard said the effectiveness of the Smoky the Bear campaigns in convincing the public that forest fires are a bad thing “has set things back ecologically for decades.

 “The district  has used fire for 30 years and finds it to be an effective land management tool for controlling invasive plant material,” said Newhard.

 The 1996 moratorium has been effectively lifted in most areas of the county. But while the department has been effectively lifted in most areas of the county. But while the department has detailed burn plans for its 70 sites, implementing the plans is a complex process that requires a convergence of certain wind and weather conditions. The conditions vary by proximity of residences to the burn area and their location in relation to the direction of the wind.

 “(District employees) have to wait and hope the conditions are right for burning when it can occur in the fall or the spring,” said Shore, editor of Chicago Wilderness magazine and a Friends of the Forest Preserve Board member.

 “They have to hope that crews are available on the days when the conditions (are right). Often they can only decide that morning or the night before. They have called off burns when they get to a site” and conditions are not conducive.

 According to Chicago Wilderness, which conducts an annual burn survey, the Cook County district burned only 40 acres during the burn season from October 2002 through April, 2003, an area that amounts to less than 1 percent of the district’s natural holdings. DuPage and Kane counties burned nearly 5 percent of their natural areas; Lake County nearly 7 percent and Will and McHenry counties nearly 10 percent.

 Shore noted that fires once moved regularly through the regions, set by lighting or the Indians that populated the area before the arrival of European Settlers. “Plants and woodland trees evolved under the influence of intermittent fires,” she said. “We changed that cycle.”

 Preserves advocates believe more must be done to educate the public on sound management techniques, which run counter to popular beliefs.

 “The fact that we need to cut some trees to have healthy woods, that we need to control the deer population to have healthy woods…that we need to set fires in a controlled manner to have healthy grasslands and woods – all of this goes against how much of us understood nature,” said Shore.

 For a while during the 1990s, the district effectively put the clamps on the volunteer restoration efforts that had been thriving in some areas since the late 1970s. New rules required that a district employee be present to monitor workdays devoted to cutting down buckthorn or pulling garlic mustard, a fast growing invasive weed that chokes the growth of wildflowers. But the following drastic staff cuts, there were not enough employees to go around.

 In what conservationists view as a positive development, the County Board of Commissioners last year approved a master stewards program. Volunteers certified as a master stewards can lead restoration workdays without the presence of a district employee. The premised activities include cutting down buckthorn, burning the resulting piles of brush and applying herbicides to prevent regrowth.

 Restoration advocates also are heartened that the County Board of Commissioners no longer squeezes forest preserve district.

 On another note, the forestry and conservation departments were merged into a single department focused on resource management in the Friends study.

 Previously, district crews removed debris and hazardous trees but played no active part in restoration. Under the reorganization, land management crews were created to actively manage district resources-fulfilling a mission set forth in the 1915 state legislation creating the forest preserve district: “To restore, restock, protect and preserve the natural forests together with their flora and fauna… as nearly as possible in their natural state and condition.”

 Still, Packhard lamented that the work of the crews has been stymied because staff members look to guidance from a President’s Community Advisory Council that has not met for the past year, A council meeting scheduled back in January “with a number of important questions on the agenda’ was canceled” said Packhard, and the appointments of council members have run out.

 Master steward Jane Balaban is hopeful that at some point the district will “ get its act together” and find the resources to staff an effective restoration effort In the meantime, some 3,500 volunteers devot time to restoration work, under leaders like Jane and John Balaban of Skokie.

 Since 1979, the Balabans have served as stewards for Harms Woods with the North Branch Restoration Project.

 On a recent Sunday, some 40 volunteers-ranging in age from youngsters and college students to retirees in their 70s were working with Balabans to cut Buckthorn and allow the sunlight back in the forest.

 “ Nature is incredibly resilient” said Balaban. “when you have gone out and learned about a forest preserve and done some hands on work, you have bonded with those places. You have ownership.”   

 Preserves' best view may be on the river 


Canoeists and naturalists say the Des Plaines River as it runs through the Cook County Forest Preserves is one of the crown jewels of the agency's holdings -- an under-appreciated recreational resource, but one that like much of the system needs some help.

The river, which starts as little more than a creek near Union Grove, Wis., flows 110 miles to join with the Kankakee River south of Joliet. Along its route, the river also ties together a roughly 10-mile string of forest preserve stretching from Des Plaines to Glenview, Northbrook and Wheeling, the Des Plaines Division of the district.

For all of the failures critics see in the system, river users say the waterway is the best part of the trail and woods network.

Perspective makes all the difference, said Ralph Frese, owner of Chicagoland Canoe Base, a Chicago-based outfitter and a headquarters for paddling sports in the area. The view is much more impressive on the water than from the side of a trail, where the water can look murky and stagnant and choked with debris.

"It's a slower moving river than the North Branch (of the Chicago River.) It's less likely to be obstructed by log jams," Frese said. "It amazes a lot of people the first time they do it -- the feeling of isolation you get. You're in the middle of 6 or 8 million people, the roads are packed. On the water, you have a little piece of the world to yourself."

Parking needed

Frese said efforts aimed at making the river more user-friendly have often focused on boat ramps, which are not what canoeists and kayakers really need.

"There's plenty of access on both sides of the river. They're called banks. We've always had canoe landings. All we really need is some legal parking," Frese said.

Frese's store sponsors the annual Des Plaines River Canoe marathon, which runs 19 1/2 miles from Libertyville to Dam No. 2 south of Euclid Avenue. Frese said the May event is the largest of its kind in the nation and second oldest at 46 years. The number of participants is limited to 1,000 by parking and traffic, not the river's capacity.

More to do

Frese said more needs to be done in areas of promoting the river's use and in taking input from users. Large events that promote the sport should be encouraged by the forest preserve and fees should be more reasonable, he said.

Frese said a streams committee, which for decades served as a bridge between county officials and citizens, was dismantled in recent years as a result of shrinking promotion and budget pressures. The group had used citizens as the eyes and ears of the system and helped address dumping and pollution problems, which had been more severe in the past.

Frese said an Illinois Department of Natural Resources program to post water trail signs on bridges has helped remind drivers about the resource they pass over, but more needs to be done.

Larry Suffredin, Cook County Board member and a forest preserve commissioner, said he sees access to the river as a core area for improvement of the Des Plaines River within the forest preserves.

Most people who try paddling find it worthwhile, but some obstacles can be discouraging to newcomers, Suffredin said.

"Some of our parking lots are not as conducive to the locations where you can put a canoe in.

"You've got some of the dams and there's not a good place to portage. We've got to do this to make it more accessible for people and convince them that it's a safe and positive use of their energies," Suffredin said.

More signs would help people know where they are on the river by marking bridges and sections of forest preserve.

Seeking help

Suffredin planned a meeting with Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn to see what state funding might be available to make such improvements.

"The river requires aggressive policing to clean it of debris -- fallen trees, people who throw picnic tables in. It's like any other piece of maintenance. Even before the cuts, I said we have one maintenance person for every 400 acres. Now we're probably at one for every 650 acres," he said.

 Ran in the: Wheeling Countryside, Arlington Heights Post, and The Buffalo Grove Countryside


Woods, statue honor forest unit's creator 


Two tributes to Dwight Perkins acknowledge the Evanston architect's role in creating the forest preserve system of Cook County.

One is a 7.5-acre swatch of forest preserve in northwest Evanston that bears his name. The other is a large portrait that dominates the vestibule of the Forest Preserve District headquarters in River Forest.

Now "faded and washed out," the portrait has taken on the look of a ghostly apparition, lamented watchdogs in a 2002 report that drew a parallel between the deterioration of the portrait and the decline in the forest preserve system itself.

"Dwight Perkins is largely forgotten today, but he is the person who, more than any other, created the forest preserve system of Cook County," wrote the Friends of the Forest Preserve and Friends of the Parks, in a forward to a report detailing concerns about the system.

Perkins' namesake forest preserve, too, has suffered over time from the loss of the towering Dutch elm trees to disease. But the preserve commonly known as Perkins Woods has been well tended by a succession of devoted residents, conservationists and bird watchers, said Libby Hill, who became its first official steward in 1991 and continues in that role today.


Hill believes the neighborhood character of the woods and its well-defined borders have inspired a sense of ownership among locals.

Located between Grant and Colfax streets and Ewing and Bennett avenues, Dwight Perkins Woods is a square-block oddity among the district's holdings, conforming neatly to a street grid rather than following natural boundaries.

"The real difference between Perkins and the other forest preserves is that it has limits that are easily defined," said Hill, who holds a master's degree in geography and the environment from Northeastern Illinois University. "It has always been cared for by somebody."

Invasive weeds

Hill didn't set out to become the preserve's steward, but the role came knocking in 1991 through a stroke of serendipitous timing. She was walking by the woods one day when - to her horror - she noticed an invasive weed known as garlic mustard lining the borders of the preserve from Colfax to Grant streets.

She knew from her nature studies that the tall-growing weed had a reputation for choking everything in its path. Only the day before, she'd learned to recognize the garlic mustard plant while taking a nature walk in Will County with a well-known Chicago botanist, the late Floyd Swink, who'd described the plant as the curse of the forest.

As Hill went into Perkins Woods, she saw the weed supplanting wild flowers that should have been in bloom.

"I didn't know how long (the garlic mustard) had been there, but I felt it was important to get it out right away," said Hill. Otherwise, "I could see it taking over in about five years. It would be devastating.

"I knew that somebody would need (to take charge) and that somebody would have to be me."

Urgent need

With a sense of urgency, Hill telephoned the superintendent of conservation with the Forest Preserve District, who suggested she become certified as the woods' steward under a relatively new county program.

Still, Hill was reluctant to take on the role without the endorsement of fellow residents. She took pains to circulate petitions and inform neighbors about the history of Perkins Woods and the prognosis if the invasive plants were allowed to take control.

Once assured she had community support, Hill spearheaded a spring block party in 1992 that became the first-ever Garlic Mustard Pull.

The weed is now in check - to the point where volunteers can barely fill one-half of a lawn bag during the annual event, Hill said.

"We used to fill up four large Evanston leaf bags," she said, "but if we stopped now, it would be overrun. The wild flowers were being smothered out, but you can see them coming back in.

"It is a matter of being vigilant."

"Alien trees"

Volunteers also work to control the spread of the invasive buckthorn tree. Other alien trees that find their way into the woods are the honeysuckle and European cranberry tree, popular landscaping plants found in back yards.

Volunteers also work to control the spread of the invasive buckthorn tree. Other alien trees that find their way into the woods are the honeysuckle and European cranberry tree, popular landscaping plants found in back yards.

"I don't see the (alien) trees causing a problem and we don't seem to be able to get rid of them successfully," Hill said.

Volunteers often become so zealous about cutting down the buckthorn that they forget to place a marker on the remaining stumps so that Hill can apply a herbicide to prevent regrowth.

The woods' existence amid suburban gardens opens the way for outside vegetation to arrive in seed form, carried by birds or on the backs of skunks and raccoons.

"You could work on it and work on it ... and (invasive trees) would just come back again," she said.

Woods' namesake

Perkins lived on Lincoln Street, not far from the woods that was named in his honor in 1948, seven years after his death. He is considered the father of the forest preserve system for his vision and persistence in championing the concept from the late 1800s until his death in 1941.

When the Illinois General Assembly created the district in 1915 after a series of defeats and legal obstacles, Perkins used his own money to test the law in the Illinois Supreme Court to lay to rest any questions about the district's constitutionality.

In a 1965 Evanston Review article, Perkins' son Lawrence and daughter Elizabeth described their father's single-minded devotion.

"The forest preserves were his golf, his tennis and his social life," said Lawrence Perkins on the 50th anniversary of the forest preserve system.

Equestrians enjoy trails, want others to show courtesy


Judy Walavich of Lake Forest loves riding her 10-year-old horse Aloysius on Forest Preserve District of Cook County trails east of the Glen Grove Equestrian Center in Morton Grove. She usually takes him out six days a week, she said, as she curried him one Friday in late September.

"I like nature, just being out in the peace and quiet. You can see birds and even deer out here," said Walavich, who has boarded Aloysius or other horses at Glen Grove for 25 years.

But equestrians must contend with competition on the forest preserve's 100 miles of unpaved, so-called "unimproved" trails, in the form of bicyclists, hikers or skate boarders. The other roughly 100 miles of paved trails are off limits to horses, Mike Hart, the district's trails coordinator, said.

Riders also have to deal with trail-side picnickers, and even motorcyclists driving down roads that edge close to the trails.

"I've had motorcyclists gun their motors, just to get a reaction from the horse," Walavich said.

She and other horse enthusiasts urged preserve trail users to employ common sense when they share trails with large and sometimes touchy animals.

Cindy Baffa, co-owner of Glen Grove, agreed.

Baffa leases the property at 9453 Harms Road on which her business operates from the forest preserve. Glen Grove lies in the Harms Woods section of the forest preserve. Her stables shelter about 75 horses, 15 of which belong to Glen Grove for instruction.

Equestrians riding in northern Cook County have the advantage of trails they can largely keep to themselves, she said, although no trail is off limits to anyone wishing to use it.

"If you're around a horse, move slowly. Would you run up to a strange dog? Horses are kind, but they are animals of flight and they can do that if they're spooked," she said. "It's not that horse people don't want you on the trail, but they'd just like some common sense."

Tom Nathan of Wilmette has stabled horses at Glen Grove for 11 years and his most recent horse, Ed, for just over a year. He has traveled the forest preserve's large and small dirt paths down to Dempster Street and as far north as the Skokie lagoons in Glencoe.

An enthusiastic trail rider who says he rides to relax from his job as a lawyer, Nathan reminded those who share trails with horses that "they are 1,200-pound animals who have tremendous force in their back legs."

He has dealt with everything from strollers to a parked taxi cab on the trails but said in general those he meets are courteous and respectful of horses

Forest preserve rules set out trail etiquette, which favors equestrians. Bicyclists and hikers must yield to them. Everyone must stay off trails when they are muddy, and stick to the right side of the path, since all trails are two-way. Equestrians can ride their horses no faster than a slow canter, and stallions aren't permitted.

Riders must purchase a $2 license to ride on trails. Horses from Cook County require a $10 license and those from outside the county a $30 license. They must wear their license tags.

Wilmette resident Barbara Murray has cared for her 17-year-old mare Shadow at the stables for 11 years. She rides five or six days a week, mostly on the stable property, but said, "all of us want to take the trails more."

The trails are both "fabulous" and low-maintenance, she said, adding, "There's a little trail behind (the stables). It's so close to the expressway, but you can forget you're in the suburbs. There are even deer back there."

Murray, Nathan and Walavich said the forest preserve does a good job of keeping trails clear of things like downed trees, although Walavich said "it's up to riders to let them know about things like that," and Murray said she'd like to see more general maintenance done.

Hart said division superintendents check trails three times a month and send him monthly reports on "any problems that may be out there, downed trees, washouts or areas where culverts need to be put in."

Most problems, such as rutted trails, happen after storms, he said. The district learns about them mostly from trail users. Crews clear them as quickly as possible, although work is being done with a staff down more than 200 over last year. Forest preserve spokesman Steve Mayberry said, "it's a challenge, but it's one to which I think we're rising."

To let forest preserve officials know about problems on unpaved trails, call Hart's office at 708-403-7391.

Bicycle trail lets riders enjoy rustic nature ride 

Steve Foringa of Glenview does most of his bicycle riding along the North Branch Trail in spring and fall, when the temperature is not so hot.

"I don't like riding when it's 100 degrees out here," he said while taking a ride in early September heading south on the trail. "That's why I like this trail a lot. It has a lot of shade because of all the trees and woods. It's also not usually that crowded."

One of the Chicago Forest Preserves' little treasures is this 20-mile trail that begins at Caldwell and Devon Avenues in Chicago and then winds its way north to the Chicago Botanic Gardens in Glencoe. Although riders traverse parts of Skokie, Morton Grove, Niles, Glenview, Northfield, Northbrook and Glencoe, some of their journey replicates not so much a Chicago suburb as it does the woods of Wisconsin.

"It's really a beautiful trail," said Amy Slergi of Niles, riding on the trail with her two young sons. "We come here fairly regularly because it's good exercise for me, and the boys love it. It's just very peaceful except when the trail breaks off and you have to cross some busy streets."

The Cook County Forest Preserve District describes the North Branch Trail as "nature ... right in your back yard."

"You may want to pack a lunch and ride to the Chicago Botanic Garden or to one of the picnic groves along the trail," a forest preserve trail map suggests. "There are plenty of places to stop and rest along the way, where you can get a drink of cold water from one of the convenient wells."

The paved trail winds along the North Branch of the Chicago River and the Skokie Lagoons, passing open picnic groves, golf courses, tall grasses and dense trees. A less bucolic world, however, is never far removed. The Edens Expressway and other roads are a short distance away, but often buffered by tall grasses or trees. The path at some locations pops out of its natural surroundings to cross major streets before burying itself again inside the forest preserves.

Trail riders might spot deer grazing in the grass or colorful cardinals and orioles making themselves at home on some of the trees buried deep inside the woods.

The pavement is fairly flat, which invites riders of all ages and experiences to try it out. You'll find riders who travel the entire trail and then keep heading on for many more miles and others who take such a short ride that they never cross a street.

When a hill does pop up, like at Oakton Avenue in Skokie, it can come as a surprise because little before it has prepared a rider for steeper terrain. Suddenly, the rider is pumping at low gear to reach the top of a bridge that travels over a busy street so he doesn't have to stop yet again for a crossing.

"I've been riding out here for maybe 10 years," said Gary Mechelotta of Chicago. "It's my exercise and my way to fight off stress. It's not like going on a bike trip miles away but it's good enough for being right around where you live. You can lose yourself for a short time out here."

Especially these days when peak bike riding season is more than a month behind riders and the trail is not nearly as crowded. Even on a sunny day in September, the trail has only light use. There is a distinct nip in the air and a reminder that a cooler season is not far away. Kids are not on the trail as frequently now because school is back in session.

"Just the way I like it," Foringa said, ready to start up again after crossing Dempster Street in Morton Grove to head south into Niles. "If every month were like September, I'd be on this trail biking it a lot more."

Foringa then hopped onto his wheels and took off, and in seconds, he disappeared into the woods.

'Every season it's a different place' 


When Nort Josephson glides away from the pier at the Skokie Lagoons, he's only a few hundred feet from the Edens Expressway but soon finds himself paddling past wooded islands, ducks and blue herons.

"It's just beautiful, and every season it's a different place," said Josephson, as he pulled his kayak up the ramp at the Tower Road boat launch. "If you go in up one channel, you're in one lake, if you up another, it's like another lake. There's so much wildlife. Today I saw a lot of herons."

The retired engineer kayaks in the Skokie Lagoons a couple times a month, he said, and is grateful for such accessible nature near his Morton Grove home.

That said, Josephson wishes the forest preserve district could do more to keep litter from cluttering the lagoons' banks. The efforts of volunteers make a dent in the trash but can't eliminate the problem, said Josephson, himself a member of Friends of the Morton Grove Forest Preserves.

On several early fall afternoons, people who were enjoying Cook County Forest Preserve lakes, bike trails and nature centers echoed Josephson's sentiments. Grateful to be able to find a slice of urban wilderness so close to home, they wouldn't mind seeing a little less trash, and more convenient bathrooms, water fountains and parking.

Elizabeth de la Baume, another kayaker on the lagoons, said she appreciates the boat ramp, which makes it easier to get into and out of her kayak. But she did wonder why the forest preserve district didn't see fit to put bathrooms near a facility that attracts kayakers, canoeists and fishermen.

"There are a lot of people who use this, and a lot of picnics here, too," noted de la Baume, who lives in Northbrook and volunteers to count local waterfowl for the Chicago Botanic Gardens, a forest preserve district facility.

De la Baume said she enjoys watching geese and blue herons seek out a meal of fish while paddling her kayak in the lagoons. "They must be doing something right," she explained, because the local waterfowl "all eat fish, and they must be pretty healthy, otherwise they wouldn't be surviving."

Fishing further south along the lagoons, Darrell Mooney wasn't enjoying much luck with his pole, although he'd had a few bites. The Prospect Heights resident often fishes at Beck Lake in Des Plaines but logged onto the Chicagoland Fishing Web site, seeking out new territory. He decided to make the trip to the lagoons after reading positive reviews on the Web site.

Magy Mordarska, Mooney's neighbor and fishing partner, said the area offers a pretty setting for fishing, but she worried about pulling her car off the narrow shoulder along Forest Way Drive. There are parking lots at Willow Road and Tower Road but many fishermen like to set up along the quieter banks between the two roads.

"If you don't want to walk too far, you just have to pull over to the side of the road," said Mordarska, who works nights at the United Postal Service.

John Van Norman said he has no trouble finding a place to park his car when he brings his bike over the forest preserve bike trail, which runs from Chicago's northwest side all the way to the Chicago Botanic Gardens in Glencoe.

Norman, an engineer who likes to get in a ride after work, says he worries more about the busy intersections he must cross between stretches of tranquil forested land.

He called the intersection of Glenview Road and Harms Road "an accident waiting to happen," because cars making right turns on red sometimes don't see bicyclists crossing the road.

Jon Garlovsky and Jen Stiller found the bike path on a Chicago-area recreation Web site and thought biking along the lagoons and through the woods made for a perfect day off of work.

"It's a very pretty place," said Stiller, a nurse.

Heading north past the Tower Road boat launch -- on a day threatening rain, the Chicago residents were hoping to see a covered picnic shelter soon. They also wished for more pumps or water fountains, as they hadn't seen places for a drink in several miles.

A few miles west of the Skokie Lagoons, Jan Stoltz and Chris Miller were giving their canine friends a chance to run free at Beck Lake dog park, the forest preserve district's first dog-friendly area.

As retrievers Bob and Buddy splashed in the lake, Stoltz said she is glad to have a place where she can take her dog without worrying about getting a leash-law ticket.

"The dogs need the exercise, and when they're young dogs, if they don't get that, they get destructive," said the Des Plaines resident. "They're couch potatoes at home because they know they have this."

One of several dog owners who helped persuade the forest preserve district to open the park, Stoltz says she hopes the district will make more of the $50 permits available, since all 500 permits have been sold. She also wouldn't mind seeing a couple of picnic benches inside of the fenced area, so the humans can relax while the dogs run and splash.

Susan Mack, who lives just down the street from Beck Lake, said she is glad to have the park near her home. It's not just that she likes being able to bring her two golden retrievers, Daisy, 7 months, and Wendy, 7 years old, to the park. The busy park also has served to keep away teens who used to drink and party there, she said.

"It used to be filled with bad activities," she said of the Beck Lake area. Mack said she is impressed with the behavior -- both human and canine -- of those who frequent the park.

Cook County Forest Preserve District spokesman Steve Mayberry said the district would like make suggestions for more water fountains and bathrooms a reality but lacks the funds to do so.

He said Illinois Senate Bill 83 -- which was vetoed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich -- would have provided additional funds for maintenance and possibly capital improvements like benches and water fountains.

"We're glad to hear they're enjoying their visits on the whole," said Mayberry. As for the users' requests, he said "we've heard these things before and are going to try to find ways to improve that, despite a somewhat dire financial situation."

Chick Evans' 18 keep golfers satisfied 

Some people who play the short 18-hole Chick Evans golf course in Morton Grove do so as a tune-up for longer and more challenging courses.

For others, Chick Evans is their challenge and they seek nothing more than to bring the tricky little Cook County Forest Preserves course to its knees.

But no matter what personal goals bring golfers to the heavily-wooded course at 6145 N. Golf Road, they're all happy it's there.

"I play a lot of different courses, but I like this one because it's convenient and I can tune up my game once or twice a week," says Quinn Boland of Arlington Heights.

Boland practices on the putting green on a cool September morning, trying to get his short game down before he takes to the first tee.

"I can leave my driver in the car when I come here," he says. "There's no sand. It's just a basic course and it's perfect for practice or for those who are not serious golfers."

The course is a short 5,556 yards, the longest par 5 holes are each less than 500 yards. Although there is no sand to beach wayward balls, several of the holes include dangerous water hazards.

Golfers have been swinging away on this course since the 1920s when it used to be called Evanston's Northwestern Golf Course. In January of this year, the Cook County Forest Preserves hired Bill Casper Management to run the course and the result has been an upgrade in course maintenance.

"A lot of our clientele is seniors and it's a good length for them," says head golf professional John Lindros. "They get exercise and can play golf regularly here."

Frank Duffy of Chicago has been playing at Chick Evans for 15 years.

"It's good for a workout," he says. "If you're retired, it's a nice course to come to. I like playing this course a lot."

Since the new management took over, golfers say they have noticed major improvements. Some holes used to flood during a heavy rain, says Larry Usdrowski of Wilmette. That never happens anymore.

"It's a great improvement," he says. "The greens are good and the fairways reward you if you hit the ball straight. I consider this my country club."

"It's a beautiful course," said his wife, Mary. "The greens have great variation and we just really enjoy playing here."

Lindros says the course will remain open all year long this year for the first time.

"Weather permitting, we'll have winter golf here for the first time," he says. "We'll stay open as many days as we can. I think we have enough people who love to play our course who would take advantage of that."

For information about the Chick Evans golf course, call 847-965-5353

Man leaves telltale signs of visit to woods 


American poet William Cullen Bryant, who wrote "The groves were God's first temples," would probably question the reverence shown these days by some forest preserve visitors.

They're the ones who insist on leaving behind a reminder that they were there, as a recent visit to Chipilly Woods in Northbrook proved.

From a distance, the preserve's meadow looked like an unbroken expanse of green grass. Trails through the woods revealed an abundance of flora among the trees, including a burst of bright orange mushrooms growing from a rotted log.

But on closer inspection, the inescapable mark of man was everywhere.

A few bottle caps here, broken glass there and the occasional crushed plastic cup. A respiratory mask. Scattered pages from newspapers.

A few areas were clearly gathering spots for late night partiers. In one such area, drinkers had been courteous enough to toss empty Rolling Rock beer bottles and Miller Lite cans into two garbage cans, now covered with cobwebs. But around the cans lay a rusted barbecue, the frame of a lawn chair and more alcohol containers.

A picnic table had been dismantled and its top and benches arranged in a box shape, resembling the bottom of a makeshift fort.

A few steps away, wood slats formed steps up the trunk of a dead tree, leading to a tree house someone had taken time to build on top.

In another area, yellow ribbons had been tied around three tree trunks. Was it a patriotic gesture? An arranged meeting spot? A joke?

Farther down the trail, the remains of a plastic foam cooler and empty bottles that once contained California Zinfandel wine and Smirnoff vodka littered the ground.

The rubbish was scattered and dispersed, hardly enough to be aware of unless one was looking for it.


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