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Forest Preserve District of Will County started 90 years ago

Roots go back to start of national conservation movement

Will County has grown and so have its forest preserves.

The Forest Preserve District of Will County this year is marking its 90th anniversary.

The benchmark year has not come with any major events or celebrations. But it has offered a chance to reflect on how preservation of open lands has changed the landscape of a county that has become increasingly urban and suburban since 1926.

Since the first land acquisition in 1930, the forest preserves have grown from 144 acres at Messenger Woods in Homer Township to nearly 22,000 acres today.

The acreage of land preserved from development vastly grew during the 1990s when Ralph Schultz, now the chief operating officer of the Forest Preserve District, was hired as a landscape architect.

At the time, Schultz said, the Forest Preserve District was acquiring land, trying to preserve it, while developers were rapidly acquiring property to build on.

There was an “explosive growth in the county,” Schultz said. “People looked out their back windows on what used to be a farm and was now a subdivision. Or, what used to be a two-lane road was now a five-lane road.”

From the acquisition of Messenger Woods to the late 1980s, the Forest Preserve District grew to about 6,000 acres. More than 15,000 acres has been acquired since.

But it has always been concern about the loss of land to development that spurred the expansion of the Forest Preserve District, Schultz said.

“Back in the 1920s, they were seeing some development proposals and some development pressures,” Schultz said. “Those same kind of concerns were present in the 1980s and 1990s.”

Conservation movement

The formation of the Forest Preserve District of Will County came as a conservation movement was growing in Illinois and the United States.

Illinois law first permitted forest preserve districts in 1913. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County was established in 1914. The National Park Service was created in 1916.

“There was this great awareness in the early 1900s that as a nation we had not treated our environment well,” said Brook McDonald, president and CEO of The Conservation Foundation. “If you look at the history of conservation in this country, it all started about 100 years ago.”

Will County preservation efforts in more recent decades also followed a regional pattern, said McDonald.

A “sense of urgency” arose in the 1970s in the collar counties of Chicago with suburban development, he said.

The Conservation Foundation, which is located in a section of Naperville in Will County, was created in 1972.

The popularity of preservation has been shown in the passage of referendums totaling $1.3 billion for public acquisition of open land in the collar counties since the early 1990s, he said.

“People will vote no for good things like schools and libraries,” McDonald said. “They have never voted down an open space referendum since the early 1990s.”

Will County preservation

The Forest Preserve District of Will County was created by a referendum on Nov. 2, 1926, that passed by more than a 2-to-1 margin.

Will County voters in 1999 and 2005 approved referendums providing the Forest Preserve District with a combined $165 million for land acquisition.

The Forest Preserve District had already been busy for years preserving land. By 2000, the district had more than 12,300 acres.

“I think Will County is a much better place to live because of the forest preserves,” said Rita Renwick, a Joliet resident and longtime member of the Will County Audubon Society.

Renwick moved to the area in the early 1970s and said she found it remarkable that she would find more forest land as she drove to Chicago.

“It was shocking to me that there was all this preserved forest in Cook County, and here we didn’t have so much,” she said.

Now, she said, the Will County Audubon Society organizes field trips to try to visit all the forest preserves throughout Will County.

In the neighborhood

People today have more access to forest preserves, not only because there are more of them, but because they are closer to home, Schultz said.

“We became part of your community,” he said. “We are down the street in your town rather than off in some forest.”

The Joliet Iron Works Historic Site, which marks the remains of a former industrial site along a bike and hiking trail, and the Isle a la Cache museum in Romeoville, which tells the story of early French explorers and Native Americans, are two Forest Preserve District sites that reflect how forest preserves have changed over the years.

Dog parks, too, bring more people into the forest preserves, Schultz said.

“People wanted not only to enjoy property,” he said. “They also wanted to enjoy them and use them.”

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BENCHMARK YEARS IN FOREST PRESERVE HISTORY

1926: Voters approve creation of Forest Preserve District of Will County on Nov. 2.

1930: Messenger Woods in Homer Township becomes first forest preserve.

1932: Hammel Woods in Shorewood is acquired.

1942: Hickory Creek Preserve in Frankfort Township is formed, the first of many acquisitions along the county’s longest creek.

1970s: District acquires 2,124 acres, part of a movement throughout collar counties to protect land from development.

1989: District issues $50 million in bonds, which is used to bring total acreage to 5,754 acres.

1999: Voters approve $70 million bond referendum to expand forest preserves.

2005: Voters approve $95 million bond referendum for land acquisition and improvement projects.

2011: Forest preserve acreage tops 20,000 acres.

Source: Forest Preserve District of Will County

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