Preservation’s Loss: The Statutory Construction of Forests in Cook County, IL

By Natalie Bump Vena

Why did the State of Illinois establish a Forest Preserve District in northeastern Illinois, where forests made up a small fraction of the landscape? And what were the ecological consequences of doing so? With jurisdiction in the county that encompasses Chicago, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, IL today manages 69,000 acres of protected land, mostly located in the city’s suburbs. At the turn of the twentieth century, civic and political leaders dreamed of establishing this system of open land as a natural retreat for Chicagoans who could not otherwise afford to leave the teeming metropolis. To begin realizing that vision, Chicago’s City Council hired Architect Dwight Perkins to compile a report for an enlarged park system in 1903. Perkins in turn asked Landscape Architect Jens Jensen to recommend land to include in what they called an “outer belt park.” They published the report in 1904.

During archival research, I became interested in how and why Jensen and Perkins’ inclusive vision for an outer belt park composed of wetlands, prairies, and forests became, by 1916, a Forest Preserve District with the purpose of acquiring and protecting natural forests. That evolution was even more puzzling to me, because Perkins and Jensen both had strong ties to Chicago’s Prairie School of Architecture made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright. While Jensen described all of Cook County’s landscapes in the 1904 report, he made clear the prairie’s ubiquity, writing: “The predominating character of the landscape around Chicago is that of prairie” (83). Through a combination of legal research and examination of administrative documents from the early twentieth century, I gradually realized that preservation in Cook County complicates understandings of U.S. conservation law. Indeed, the case exemplifies how legal preservation may save some landscapes, while degrading others.

Forest Preserve District of Cook County map, ca. late 1940s, early 1950s

After Perkins and Jensen published their report, civic leaders and politicians began the legal and political work necessary to create an outer belt park for Chicago. Between 1904 and 1913, the Illinois State legislature passed three different Forest Preserve Acts. Illinois’s governor did not sign the Act of 1905 into law and the Illinois Supreme Court found the Act of 1909 unconstitutional. The Cook County Board of Commissioners finally organized the District in 1916, based on the Act of 1913. By studying documents produced during that protracted process, I found that the politicians and civic leaders organizing to create an outer belt park narrowed their efforts to protect woodlands, as a legal strategy to achieve the greater goal of providing Chicago’s public with more open space.

Although the Act of 1905 ultimately failed, it left an imprint on subsequent legislation by introducing the term “forest preserve” to describe the proposed district. The Act of 1905’s drafters likely named the bill for forest preservation, in order to avoid charges of double taxation (Hayes 1949: 10). Chicago already had a number of park commissions, each one responsible for a different region in the city. Based on contextual research regarding contemporary landscape architecture in Chicago and on the East Coast, I believe that the drafters invoked forests in the legislation’s title to appeal to popular conceptions of nature in America at the turn of the twentieth century. The Act of 1909’s drafters kept the forest idea in name, but not in purpose. Although called “An act to provide for the creation and management of forest preserve districts,” the Act of 1909 had the broad aim of preserving local species and “scenic beauties” (Laws of the State of Illinois 1909: Section 13). In December 1911, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down the law on equal protection grounds in People v. Rinaker.

Forest Preserve District official on prairie land, ca. late 1930s – 1940s

In non-binding language, the Rinaker court also criticized the drafters for composing an enabling statute for a special purpose district named to preserve forests, but that embraced other subjects and failed to articulate forest protection as the law’s central purpose. As the baffled court pointed out, one could even interpret the legislation as authorizing the board to protect prairies. They stated,  “a reading of the statute leaves it open to grave doubt whether it does not authorize organizing a district in the prairie, without any forest whatever in it” (People ex rel. Koch v. Rinaker et al, 252 Ill. 275 [1911]).

In response to the Rinaker court, the Act of 1913’s drafters made clear that the Forest Preserve District’s purpose was to acquire and to protect “natural forests.” While the Act of 1909 gave the District board the authority to “hold lands for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora and fauna and scenic beauties of the State,” the Act of 1913 stated the board could “hold lands containing one or more natural forests or parts thereof, for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora and fauna and scenic beauties within such district [emphasis mine]” (Laws of the State of Illinois 1913: Section 5). The Illinois State Legislature passed the bill, and the governor signed it into law in June 1913.

Planting trees in the forest preserves, ca. 1930s.

While examining the early Official Proceedings of the Forest Preserve District Board of Commissioners, I learned the extent to which the commissioners prioritized the acquisition of woodlands when they began purchasing land in 1916. However, due to the relative scarcity of forests in Cook County, the commissioners also had to acquire farmland, prairies, and wetlands to build the District’s holdings.

In order to resolve the increasing discrepancy between the characteristics of the property and the name and statutory purpose of the District, the commissioners increasingly turned to forestation. District leaders even described the large-scale tree planting as “reforestation,” thus creating the illusion that they were establishing something that had previously existed on the land (e.g., Reinberg 1920: 13). To protect the newly planted trees, the District also adopted a policy of fire prevention, which contributed to the near disappearance of the fire-dependent prairie ecosystem. In carrying out their land management policies, the District depended on the Civilian Conservation Corps and other Depression-era work relief labor to manually transform large swaths of the District into forests. During post-war suburbanization, the District scrambled to acquire more land at the edges of Cook County, much of which had been plowed for corn and soybeans. Without the abundant manual labor available during the 1930s, the District used mechanized tools that enabled them to plant forests quickly and with fewer people. Major forestation and fire prevention efforts continued through the 1970s.

Just as Dwight Perkins and Jens Jensen’s inclusive vision for an outer park belt got lost in the legal battle to found the District, Cook County’s prairies nearly disappeared during the twentieth century as District staff constructed a forest landscape to match the enabling statute’s name and language. Throughout my archival research, interviews with District staff, and fieldwork alongside interlocutors restoring prairies, I sensed the deep loss attendant to the District’s twentieth century land management policies. For instance, I read an account written in 1940 by an ecologist from the University of Wisconsin, who observed that the District had planted tree seedlings on remnant prairies in several northern Cook County forest preserves (Sperry 1940). And during an interview, a retired forest preserve naturalist recalled visiting a prairie in southern Cook County during the 1950s, where he and his troop of boy scouts found species like compass plant, prairie dock, and smooth green snakes. He remembered that soon after, “The Forest Preserve District, in its infinite wisdom, planted trees. Now there are no green snakes there.” I asked him why he thought the District wanted to change that prairie, and he intuitively said, “Because it’s called a ‘forest preserve.’”

Fighting fires in the forest preserves, ca. 1930s.

In their efforts to create more open land for Cook County’s public, the District’s founders made legal compromises that produced an agency named for woodlands with a statutory purpose reflecting its namesake. The District’s leaders subsequently cited that law as guiding their forestation policy, which entailed planting thousands of trees on prairie remnants as well as prairies that had been plowed. The case of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County demonstrates, then, how the legal and administrative process of protecting lands may cause one landscape to be found, while another is lost.

Natalie Bump Vena is a Ph.D./J.D. candidate in Northwestern University’s Department of Anthropology and School of Law. She grew up on the south side of Chicago, and visited the Cook County forest preserves every weekend with her father. In her dissertation, she examines why the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, IL has repeatedly transformed the land that it is mandated to preserve over the past 100 years. 

Photography credits: “Cook County Forest Preserve Photographs” (Richard J. Daley Special Collections; University Archives, University of Illinois at Chicago)


Hayes, William P. 1949. Development of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois. M.A. Thesis, Department of History, DePaul University.

Jensen, Jens. 1904. “Report of the Landscape Architect.” In Report of the Special Park Commission to the City Council of Chicago. Chicago: Hartman Company Printers.

Laws of the State of Illinois Enacted by the Forty-Fourth General Assembly. 1909. Forestry, Forest Preserve Districts. Springfield: Illinois State Journal Co.

Laws of the State of Illinois Enacted by the Forty-Eighth General Assembly. 1913. Forestry, Forest Preserve Districts. Springfield: Illinois State Journal Co.

Reinberg, Peter. 1920. Fourth Annual Message of Peter Reinberg, President, Board of Forest Preserve Commissioners of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, State of Illinois. Chicago History Museum Research Center, Chicago, IL.

Sperry, Theodore M. 1940. “Report on Proposed Prairie Restoration for Forest Preserve District of Cook County.” Forest Preserve District of Cook County Records, University of Illinois at Chicago Special Collections and University Archives, Chicago, IL.



Posted in Engagement Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off

An Anthropology of the Uncontainable

By Robin Nagle

I recently published an ethnography called Picking Up. It’s based on a decade of research with New York City’s Department of Sanitation and it tries to answer a simple question: what’s it like to be a sanitation worker and why should anyone care?

The second part of the question was easy. If we want to recalibrate the way we live on the planet so that both we and the planet might survive, we must understand all the costs of our consumption and discard habits. One of those costs is the labor, formal and informal, that discards always require. I was specifically interested in how such labors were organized around municipal solid waste in my hometown. Sanitation workers have the most important job on city streets, and I was a little incredulous that no one had given them any serious anthropological attention.

I sent a proposal to the DSNY outlining a straightforward participant-observation study to answer the first part of my question. After two years of asking, I was eventually allowed to visit Sanitation garages, walk the routes with the workers, work side-by-side with them, and interview DSNY people in various ranks and titles around the city. It was a rewarding stint of fieldwork, but soon I realized that it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t learn what I needed to know unless I were actually a worker myself. After 15 months of tests, medical clearances, and thickets of paperwork, I was hired into the Department’s uniformed ranks. When people find out that for a little while I was a truck driving, garbage flinging, mechanical broom operating, snow plowing sanitation worker for the City of New York, they are often amazed, but their reaction puzzles me. How else would an anthropologist learn the perspective of a culture not entirely her own?

I’m no longer on the job as a sanitation worker. Now I have a different title. Since 2006, I’ve been the DSNY’s anthropologist-in-residence. It also raises eyebrows (even though I’m careful to make clear that it’s an unsalaried position), but to me it’s just logical. The world of garbage is a fascinating subject for cultural anthropology.

It’s also perpetually challenging. Just as the material stuff of trash is always breaching its containments, so research on trash is always leaking out of whatever boundaries are imposed on it. Cultural anthropologists investigating solid waste will find themselves facing a host of sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradictory considerations about environmental integrity, labor advocacy, public health, urban planning, infrastructure history, political intrigue, and economic brinksmanship (among many other variables). Garbage is endless; once the questions start, they, too, are endless – and endlessly satisfying to explore.

New York Times Book Review

New York Times Book Review of “Picking Up.”

Robin Nagle at TED City 2.0

Robin Nagle at TED City 2.0


Posted in Engagement Blog | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

A&E Panels and Events at the 2013 AAA


The Anthropology & Environment Society has put together a PDF of events and meetings at the 2013 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. Read the attached PDF or  continuing reading for descriptions of the different sessions by theme.

Continue reading

Posted in At The Meetings, Section News | Comments Off

Leslie Sponsel on Spiritual Ecology, Connection, and Environmental Change

ENGAGEMENT editors recently connected with Leslie Sponsel, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Hawai’i, to talk about his recent book, Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution (2012, Praeger), and its broader contributions to environmental movements and policy decisions around the world. This interview is the latest in an ENGAGEMENT series that explores how environmental-anthropological book projects have profound and important impacts on the world around us.

Continue reading

Posted in Engagement Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Designing Sacred Lands

By Steve Lansing

After four unsuccessful attempts, in June 2012 UNESCO approved a new World Heritage Cultural Landscape: the subaks and water temples of Bali. An innovative management plan empowers the elected heads of subaks and villages to manage the World Heritage as a Governing Assembly, with assistance from government departments.  Implementation of this management system has been delayed, but it has been endorsed by UNESCO as a promising model for democratic adaptive management.

Continue reading

Posted in Engagement Blog | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, And Ecovillages

Edited by Joshua Lockyer and James R. Veteto

In order to move global society towards a sustainable “ecotopia,” solutions must be engaged in specific places and communities, and the authors here argue for re-orienting environmental anthropology from a problem-oriented towards a solutions-focused endeavor. Using case studies from around the world, the contributors—scholar-activists and activist-practitioners— examine the interrelationships between three prominent environmental social movements: bioregionalism, a worldview and political ecology that grounds environmental action and experience; permaculture, a design science for putting the bioregional vision into action; and ecovillages, the ever-dynamic settings for creating sustainable local cultures.

Continue reading

Posted in New & Notable | Comments Off

O-yama: Mountain Faith and Uncertainty in Late Capitalist Japan

By Eric J. Cunningham


Every year in July a small group of people gather on the summit of Ontake-san, a 3,067-meter volcanic mountain in the central Japanese prefecture of Nagano, to ceremoniously open it for the summer season. They do so with prayers to the gods, or kami, who dwell on the mountain. After Shinto priests have welcomed the kami with chants and offerings, representatives of several local constituencies come forward to offer prayers; included among them are employees of Japan’s national Forestry Agency and officials from local government and business offices. Continue reading

Posted in Engagement Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Making Peace with Nature: The Greening of the Korean Demilitarized Zone

By Eleana Kim, University of Rochester

Through my ongoing research on the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), I am engaging with broader questions about the “nature” of militarized landscapes and the production of their ecological value. In this piece, I examine how South Korean state and NGO projects configure the DMZ as a unique site of biodiversity that could provide the basis for sustainable development and also peace on the Korean peninsula. These projects, however, often depend upon a branding of the DMZ as a bounded space of pristine nature, disregarding the more complex social and political landscapes of the inter-Korean border region, of which the DMZ is just one part. This tendency to fetishize the DMZ and its “nature,” moreover, disguises the ways in which global capitalism, development, and militarization are affecting other parts of the border region, areas where the majority of what is known of the “DMZ’s biodiversity” exists.

Continue reading

Posted in Engagement Blog | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off

Jim Igoe interviews Veronica Davidov

As part of an ongoing series profiling finalists for the 2012 Anthropology and the Environment Junior Scholar Award, Jim Igoe interviews Veronica Davidov about her research and writing on the eco-tourism-extraction nexus.

Veronica Davidov

Continue reading

Posted in Featured Research | Comments Off

Colin West interviews Shaylih Muehlman

Muehlmann, Shaylih. 2012. Rhizomes and other uncountables: The malaise of enumeration in Mexico’s Colorado River Delta. American Ethnologist 39(2): 339-353.

Dr. Muehlmann’s article is a wonderful and compelling account of how three distinct processes of enumeration interact to create a crisis narrative regarding the people, language, and ecology of the lower Colorado River Delta of northern Mexico. I have to admit that I was rather skeptical from the outset. I know a lot about the area and have personally interacted with many of the researchers who work in the region. I initially thought to myself, “C’mon now! How could counting residents, birds, fish and native language speakers really have negative consequences for people struggling to assert local control over natural resources?” As I read the paper, I got sucked into the story by Muehlmann’s clear prose and vivid imagery. Like all really good ethnographies, I felt like I was there. I felt like I was talking with Don Madeleno, catching birds in nets with Christian, or listening to the radio with Cruz’s family. So, my skepticism faded away and I became convinced that counting does matter.

Continue reading

Posted in Featured Research | Comments Off