The Cook County Forest Preserve

Jim Davis (my blog)

The Cook County Forest Preserve is one of the environmental jewels of the Chicago urban environment. The preserve covers more than 68,000 acres of forest, prairie, wetlands, rivers, and lakes-- more than 10% of county land -- in the second most populous county in the United States. (The Unofficial Cook County Forest Preserve District Page; Bopp, 1997; Wikipedia) Some 40 million people visit the preserve each year. (Friends of the Forest Preserve, 2002, hereafter Friends) Despite the public interest, the Preserve today suffers from deteriorating facilities and habitat decay. The roots of these problems can be found in the history of the Forest Preserve in the context of the Chicago patronage system, at the intersection of local politics and the environment.

The Cook County Forest Preserve grew out of the conservation and "City Beautiful" movements of the late 19th and early 20th century. The same Progressive milieu that reserved much of the National Park system also saved Chicago's lakefront from development and led to the establishment of the Forest Preserve. (Bopp; Cunningham, Cunningham and Saigo, 2005) A 1904 report by the Municipal Science Club urged setting aside a belt of wilderness areas around the city. "All of these [areas] should be preserved for the benefit of the public in both the city and its suburbs, and for their own sake and scientific value, which, if ever lost, cannot be restored for generations." (in Thornton, 2004)

After several attempts, advocates of the preserve finally succeeded in getting state legislation passed to establish the preserve in 1914. The legislation set forth the mission of the preserve:

[T]o acquire ... lands containing one or more natural forests... for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora, fauna, and scenic beauties ... and to restore, restock, protect and preserve the natural forests ... for the purpose of the education, pleasure and recreation of the public. (Friends)

In 1927, with the first round of acquiring land completed, the Forest Preserve Board focus shifted to developing the land. This activity took place in the milieu of Chicago patronage politics, where jobs and contracts are distributed in return for political support. Land acquisition offered opportunities for corruption through dubious land purchases; land development offered opportunities for patronage jobs. Charles Sauers, who served as general superintendent of the district from 1929 to 1964, noted about his patronage workers, "They know that if they are going to receive a full day's pay, they must give me at least a half day's work." (in an interview with Mike Royko, in Friends)

The patronage system thrived within a particular historical period of a generally expanding local and world economy expressed through a stable tax base and Federal grants. The patronage system bought a foundation of support for the Democratic Party in Chicago -- at its peak, Mayor Richard J. Daley controlled some 35,000 patronage jobs. (Biles, 2005) The "city that works" worked because the patronage system was able to deliver services in spite of the inefficiencies of padded payrolls and contracts. The Forest Preserve was able to continue to acquire lands to serve its preservation and recreation role. By 1947, the Preserve had 36,800 acres under management, with 80 percent in a natural state. Fifteen million people used the Preserve that year. By 1980, when land acquisition began to drop off, the Preserve exceeded 65,000 acres. (ibid)

The economic crisis that began to spread in the 1970s undermined the patronage system. Cuts in taxes and federal money to cities started to choke off patronage money. The Harold Washington mayoral victory in 1983 signified the beginning of a shift. "Nor did the election to the mayoralty of Richard M. Daley, the eldest son of the deceased boss, indicate a resurrection of the machine in a new guise. As the younger Daley readily acknowledged, radically different demographics and the attendant alterations in the political calculus clearly made the machine politics for which Chicago became famous an anachronism by the end of the twentieth century." (Biles)

Although the environment out of which the patronage system grew may be disappearing; and the machine politics that relied on it, an anachronism; the system persists. The Forest Preserve is still widely regarded as a healthy patronage site. According to some Cook County commissioners, the ratio of laborers to supervisors is a top-heavy 4-1, although Forest Preserve officials say it is a more reasonable 8-1. At the same time $35,000/year laborers were laid off recently, Forest Preserve president John Stroger, Jr. appointed a Democratic committeeman to a $69,000/year job supervising the repair of picnic tables. (Pallasch, 2005) A 2002 Chicago Tribune editorial described the problem: "This environmental treasure has rested in the hands of so many bumblers, thieves and patronage hacks."

In a period of stable or rising revenue, such patronage could be overlooked if services could be maintained. But revenue shortages have meant budget shortfalls in 2001 and 2002, including a $20 million deficit in 2002. A 1993 state-imposed tax cap, in line with similar measures around the country, has complicated the district revenue picture. Reforms in the early 1990s attempted to put Forest Preserve management on a modern footing. However, since 1994, under the tenure of Stroger, district management has slipped back into its old ways. As a result, the same Tribune editorial charged that "the District's shabby finances remain an ongoing embarrassment." Forestry and conservation allocations have fallen as a percentage of the budget as money has been shifted to high profile projects like the Botanic Gardens and the Brookfield Zoo, both outside of the core mission of the preserve. Forest preserve services meanwhile are not being maintained. In a Friends survey, preserve users complained about the deterioration of the natural habitat and the district's general unresponsiveness to the public. The Friends report found that land acquisition was at a standstill (and in fact money was being taken from that fund to pay for other district operations), that the land management efforts had been "crippled by a lack of resources and the Board's failure to take seriously, or act upon, the ongoing deterioration of the land." The report also noted that "the land ..., on the whole, is in a sorry state and getting worse." The report estimates that two-thirds of the land is in poor ecological condition.

The other important political force that has shaped the Forest Preserve is the "public", in various forms. The formation of the preserve was prompted by public action. Citizen's Advisory Committees, first established in 1929, have, on important occasions, acted as an independent public voice for the preserve. Organizations like the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, and the Friends of the Forest Preserve provide watchdog functions and political muscle to retain the Forest Preserve's mission. A vocal and committed army of volunteers helps to maintain the preserve and restore habitats. Behind the committed volunteers are the millions of visitors who view the preserve as important for "a chance to get away from urban life", to visit "a habitat for wild plants and animals", "a chance to see wild plants and animals", and an opportunity for "recreation in a natural setting" as a Friends survey showed.

Because this public counter-balance exists, the crisis at the Forest Preserve provides a political opening to unseat current board president John Stroger. County commissioner Forrest Claypool is challenging Stroger in the March, 2006 Democratic primary for Cook County Board President (the Cook County Board of Commissioners president also serves as the president of the Forest Preserve District Board of Commissioners). The management of the Forest Preserve is a major plank in Claypool's platform. (Claypool, 2006) As an indication of the political significance of the Forest Preserve, the Cook County Sierra Club is mobilizing its 12,000 or so Cook County members to vote for Claypool on the basis of his environmental promises. The local Sierra Club considers their votes enough to tip the race in an otherwise bland primary year, if they can mobilize their membership. (Chicago Group of the Sierra Club, 2006)

Claypool is no novice to party politics, having served as Mayor Richard Daley's chief of staff and chief executive officer of the Chicago Park District. While CEO of the park district in the 1990s, Claypool instituted a program of downsizing, privatization of services, pushing programming and hiring decisions to the local park managers, and transforming staff culture, including training to "to support the development of skills that employees would need in order to bring them into the 21st century." (Claypool, 1996; Bator, Pesavento and Schlatter, 2000) The county president race is not a case of outside reformer versus the machine. Rather, it represents a struggle within the Cook County Democratic Party between modern merit-based corporate management-oriented politics and remnants of the old patronage system (Stroger started working with the Southside Democratic Party in 1953, before the first Richard Daley was mayor). (The HistoryMakers, n.d.)

The Cook County Forest Preserve District exists within a political context that directly determines its ecological health. This is the reality of nature stewardship in the urban environment. How the preserve will be managed, for what purpose, and who it will serve have been part of the preserve's history from its very beginning. In Chicago, politics have historically been expressed through the patronage system, such that resources like the Forest Preserve are seen first as a vehicle for patronage jobs, and only second as a means of environmental preservation, education, and recreation. However, inasmuch as the patronage system in general is threatened by broader economic and political changes, these changes are reflected in the dismal state of forestry and conservation efforts in the district. This crisis opens the way to reform, but only to the extent that a public and independent force exerts itself in the political arena.


Bator, M. G., Pesavento L. and Schlatter, B. E. (2000). Reorganizing a world-class park system: The Chicago Park District's evolution from patronage to professional status through staff training. Retrieved February 7, 2006 from

Biles, R. (2005). Machine politics. The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society. Retrieved February 5, 2006 from

Bopp, N. (1997). Ecosystem Management: A Framework Plan. Unpublished paper.

Chicago Group of the Sierra Club. Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club Endorsed Candidates. Retrieved February 5, 2006 from

Claypool, Forrest (1996). Speech. Achieving Great Parks conference, Austin, Texas, March, 1996. Retrieved February 7, 2006 from

Claypool, Forrest (2006). The Claypool platform: Environmental protection. Forrest Claypool for Cook County Board President. Retrieved February 5, 2006 from

Cunningham, W., Cunningham, M., & Saigo, B. (2005). Environmental science: a global concern. Boston: McGraw Hill.

Friends of the Forest Preserves (2002). The Forest Preserve District of Cook County: Study and recommendations. Phase 1, March, 2002. Available online

The Historymakers (no date). John Stroger biography. Retrieved on February 5, 2006 from

Pallasch, A. M. (2005, January 20. Too many chiefs, too few workers, forest critics say. Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved February 5, 2006 from

Thornton, R., ed. (2004). The Early History of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, 1869-1922. Compiled from Hayes, W. P, (1949). Development of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Masters thesis, DePaul University. Retrieved February 5, 2006 from

The Unofficial Cook County Forest Preserve District Page. Retrieved February 5, 2006 from

Wikipedia. Cook County, Illinois. Retrieved February 5, 2006 from