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 ).
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.