Cook County Forest Preserve District launches $10 million makeover of Palos Preserves

Iza Redlinski holds a bouquet of garlic mustard, an invasive plant she picked out of Red Gate Woods in the Cook County Forest Preserves on April 25, 2024.

Kristen Schorsch / WBEZ

Take a trip to Red Gate Woods in the southwest suburbs and there’s a thicket of soaring oak trees where the sun shines through, awakening native plants to grow. Geranium, trout lily and small dogwood shrubs appear.

On a recent crisp day, Troy Showerman, resource project manager with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, tells a group of walkers to look up at the sky. The trees look to be craning their necks.

“They’re all kind of growing this direction, reaching for the light,” he says.

About 200 acres of this area — previously seemingly impenetrable with a dark wall of brush — have been cleared. It’s a preview of what’s to come.

The Forest Preserves of Cook County is undertaking what officials say is the biggest ecological restoration project in its history, a $10 million plan to improve more than 1,000 acres of land in the southwest suburbs.

Over the next few years, the northwest section of an area known as the Palos Preserves, including Red Gate Woods, will be made over. Forest Preserve employees and contractors will get rid of invasive species like honeysuckle that block out sunlight from native grasses and plants closer to the ground. They also will work on preventing more soil from eroding, fix up walking trails where gravel has washed away and improve signage to help hikers better navigate the preserves.

The Forest Preserves of Cook County is undertaking what officials say is the biggest ecological restoration project in its history, a $10 million plan to improve more than 1,000 acres of land in the southwest suburbs. The project includes Red Gate Woods, on April 25, 2024.

Kristen Schorsch / WBEZ

“Once you really restore these areas to ecological health, then they’re able to support the native plants and the native animals that are dependent on those protected areas,” said Eileen Figel, interim general superintendent of the Forest Preserve District.

These improvements to the preserves are also meant to bolster the lives of county residents, especially amid climate change. A healthy canopy of trees and plants holds stormwater that can reduce flooding and traps carbon to help keep the air clean, Figel said.

This big effort is part of the Forest Preserve District’s ambitious goal to restore and maintain some 30,000 acres by 2040. Figel said they are about halfway there.

The Cook County forest preserves are one of the biggest in the nation, with nearly 70,000 acres of natural areas where people can hike, fish, bike and camp. Palos is the largest contiguous area of the forest preserves, Figel said. It’s home to the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, Camp Bullfrog Lake, the grueling Swallow Cliff stairs where exercisers flock, and a designated urban night sky.

During the recent walk through the woods — up hills, over logs and rocks and crunching leaves — Figel relishes the quiet. She says she can’t hear cars.

“Can you think of any other place in Cook County where that happens?” Figel asks. “Almost nowhere.”

Several politicians in sneakers also embarked on the brief hike to celebrate the restoration project, including Toni Preckwinkle. She doubles as president of the forest preserve district and Cook County boards. Ever the former teacher, she peppers the forest preserve staff with questions.

“What percentage of our forest preserve land has been restored?”

“Do we send people in to cut the invasive species at the edge?”

At one point, Showerman points out where the world’s first nuclear reactor is buried.

As the group stops to look out over a somewhat dry ravine waiting to absorb water when it rains, Iza Redlinski pulls out what becomes a bouquet of garlic mustard, an invasive species.

“Sorry, occupational hazard,” says Redlinski, a deputy director with the forest preserves, as all eyes are suddenly on her. “I can’t help myself.”

You can make salsa or pesto out of garlic mustard, she says, before cautioning: “But remember, foraging is not allowed in the forest preserves,” to a chorus of laughter.

The restoration project is funded with a state grant, though money from a property tax hike for the forest preserves is playing a role, too. Those dollars are helping to take care of the land once it’s restored, Figel said, by helping the forest preserve district hire more staff and buy equipment like trucks and chainsaws.

Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County government for WBEZ.

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