McHenry County Conservation District education staff and day campers explore Nippersink Creek as part of the Time Travelers Summer Camp.

The Saving of the Green

Our open spaces are a treasure and refuge that too often go underappreciated. Karla Nagy explores our region’s efforts to reconnect the link between humans and nature.

McHenry County Conservation District education staff and day campers explore Nippersink Creek as part of the Time Travelers Summer Camp. (Weg Thomas photo)
McHenry County Conservation District education staff and day campers explore Nippersink Creek as part of the Time Travelers Summer Camp. (Weg Thomas photo)

“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” –Frank Lloyd Wright

The scenic woods, prairies and open farmland of Kane, McHenry and Lake counties help to provide a quality of life that many people seek. The proof is in the numbers: Between 2000 and 2010, Chicago’s suburban population grew by more than half a million, in Kane County alone by 100,000.

That’s good news. However, increased populations require increased housing, roads, infrastructure – and space. In other words, the very thing that spurred growth is now threatened by it.

Accommodating land development while preserving natural landscapes isn’t the paradox it seems. Natural areas and open spaces not only improve water and air quality, diminish erosion and support native flora and fauna, but also improve a person’s physical and mental health by providing scenic and recreational space.

In the northwest suburbs, the concerted efforts of county forest preserve districts, conservation organizations and volunteer groups are helping to preserve open spaces and reinvigorate the inextricable connection between people and nature.

Forest Preserve District of Kane County

Valerie Blaine, nature programs manager, Forest Preserve District of Kane County (FPDKC), credits her mother for engaging her with the great outdoors. “She was an avid gardener, and we lived near two forest preserves, so we kids were always playing in the woods, building forts and just being outside.”

But as the district’s coordinator of environmental education, she knows that not everyone has shared that experience.

“There are still kids that can play in the woods and learn the interrelationships in nature on their own,” she says. “But for some who attend our programs, it’s their first time off the pavement – not just urban but suburban kids as well. Kids have an inherent curiosity about nature and just need a way to explore that curiosity.”

Four times each year, Blaine and four naturalists plan the many programs for the district’s nearly 20,000 acres of open space, historic sites and cultural centers.

Many opportunities can be found at LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve, 37W700 Dean St., St Charles. In addition to offering biking, hiking and equestrian trails, playgrounds, picnic facilities, a creek for fishing and nature trails, it’s also the site of Creek Bend Nature Center and the historic Durant House and Pioneer Scholes School. Full- and half-day camps are held here throughout the summer, for elementary school students, with the same offerings at Johnson’s Mound Forest Preserve in Elburn.

“We do a variety of fun things centered on daily themes, such as insect day, plant day, creek day,” says Blaine, an interpretive naturalist who has led many children’s nature programs. “We always have someone in camp for whom it’s all new. One of my favorites was during a school field trip with fourth-graders at Tekakwitha Woods. One little boy was afraid to go in the creek with his classmates, and kept saying, ‘I know all about this stuff from Animal Planet.’ But everyone else was having such fun, he finally got brave enough to wade in. He picked up a rock, and when he saw all of the squiggly things underneath, he said, ‘It’s so real!’ Once he connected something he’d seen on television with something tangible, it became a complete experience, and he’s forever changed by it.”

Story times for children up to age 5, held at Creek Bend on Fridays, help to create early positive experiences in the outdoors, and Little Sprouts Camp for 4-5-year-olds, is very successful.

Programs are led by staff members and volunteer certified naturalists, as well as two college interns in the summer. For them, it’s about helping people to connect with and appreciate nature.

“We’re always looking for new and creative ways to do this, and we welcome input from people,” says Blaine. “I can’t emphasize enough the benefit of multigenerational programs, where parents or grandparents come with the kids. Some of our more popular are ‘A Fungus Among Us,’ where we examine mushrooms and toadstools, and our bat program. We have a detector that picks up the bats’ chattering that human ears can’t detect. We have grown-ups who say, ‘I never knew about this before!’ and the kids pick up on the adults’ excitement. Family participation helps to instill values.”

McHenry County Conservation District

Deb Chapman, education service manager for the McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD), knew as a high schooler that she wanted a career in nature education.
“I grew up on a multigenerational family farm with two aunts,” she says. “They were Audubon Society members, and teachers, and I learned a great deal from them. We had a wood that I would wander, and I developed a deep appreciation for nature.”

Chapman knows that many 21st-century youth don’t experience nature the way she did. “The draw of electronics is a factor,” she says. “But the biggest difference for kids today being exposed to nature and exploring it on their own is that it’s just not safe. People are afraid to let their children wander around alone anymore.”

MCCD programs, led by certified staff and held in safe environments, help to bridge this disconnect, through what today is termed environmental interpretation.

“Interpreting nature to family and children is fairly new, but it makes sense,” Chapman explains. “We want people to care about the environment and preserve it. In order to care about it, they need to be exposed to it. Our goal is to help people to care enough about the environment to protect it.”

Program planning, a team effort at MCCD, takes many factors into account. “We look at instructor knowledge, current conditions, timeliness, available facilities,” says Chapman. “We also try to coordinate with school curricula, and with the current focus on STEM [science, technology, engineering and math], we put a scientific component into some of the offerings.”

With more than 20 facilities throughout the county, MCCD offers a variety of activities and events. For example, summer offerings include lectures for adults at the Prairie View Education Center, hikes for seniors, family canoe trips, themed day camps and exploration days for children of various ages, and even arts events, such as the First Friday Concert Series at Lost Valley Visitors Center in Glacial Park.
“We want to connect people in some way with nature, including music and painting,” says Chapman. “We want to create a cause-effect relationship by presenting the material in different ways.” This includes both registered and drop-in events, bilingual programs and self-guided opportunities.

An important goal is to involve parents along with their children, beginning as early as possible.

“One of our early childhood programs is the Stroller Strut,” Chapman says. “Parents bring their little kids in strollers for a guided nature hike on paved trails, and we teach them how to interact in nature with their children. Family bonding occurs in sharing experiences, especially for the first time.”

Another method is through what Chapman calls “double-headers.”

“We schedule programs where adults and children learn about the same thing, at the same time, but in separate sessions,” she says. “That way, the material is presented at the appropriate level, and later, they can discuss what they learned as a family. We hope that the adult will become a mentor and help the child with nature education.”

Lake County Forest Preserve District

“Important to having a strong family bond is shared experiences,” agrees Nan Buckardt, director of environmental education and public affairs for the Lake County Forest Preserve District (LCFPD). “That’s one of the reasons we offer programs aimed at adults, children and families. We want kids and parents to understand nature in their own way and expand upon that knowledge together.”

LCFPD even sends handouts home with children from its youth programs, so that parents can see what their children learned and explore things to talk about.

Buckardt says the overall goal is to make programs accessible to everyone. “We try to design programs that can be taught in many places, and reach as broad an audience as possible,” she says. “We do want our schools to teach to state standards, and to help students and teachers to reach their goals, we try to supplement the subjects being taught in the classroom. We have preserves within 15 minutes of every community, and that allows us to reach into the schools.”

Children’s summer camps accommodate a full range of ages but are sorted into age groups; each looks at nature through different angles. “We use a three-year theme rotation,” Buckardt explains. “Each camp is only a week long, but they rotate throughout the forest preserves.”

LCFPD also offers programs that tie in the arts, from painting and sketching nature to theater camps and a film festival in the woods.

“Research over the past 10 years shows that being outdoors benefits people’s health,” Buckardt says. “It lowers heart rate, increases cognition, boosts vitamin D – it just makes you healthier. With that in mind, we try to set things up that people can do on their own, like our fall program, ‘Hike Lake County.’ We designate certain trails at different preserves with signs, and participants record their hikes using our online log. When they complete seven, they receive a shield, and if they walk with their dog, they can get a special tag for its collar.”

LCFPD also offers a once-a-month Senior Hike program, as well as bilingual hikes through a partnership with another organization. “Our programs aren’t community-specific or aimed at any particular groups,” says Buckardt. “We have so much to do that we forget about being outside. Also, 40 years ago, the science of protecting the environment was new, and we looked more at the human impact on nature rather than on the human connection to the outdoors. We need to help people to see the value for them in preserving and understanding nature.”

Buckardt is confident that LCFPD programs are having an impact on that understanding. “We touch thousands of lives, but many are one-time visits,” she says. “I’ve got to believe we’re achieving results, in things like our 2008 bond initiative, asking for $185 million for land purchases and capital improvements. The voters supported it, which tells me they understand the importance of open space and our place in it.”

Campton Township

The people of bucolic Campton Township in central Kane County understand the connection between open space and suburban development. Established in 1835, the township’s pastoral landscape of fewer than 35 square miles belies its location just 35 miles west of Chicago, encompassing Campton Hills and Wasco, and parts of Elburn, Lily Lake, Maple Park and unincorporated St. Charles.

Since 2001, its 14,000 residents have twice approved referendums supporting the township’s Open Space Program, helping to preserve more than 1,300 acres – not just for recreation but for restoration and conservation. Grants have augmented the referendum monies.

“It’s been a real grassroots effort,” says Township Supervisor John Kupar, a geologist and environmental engineer who’s lived in the area since 1989. “We have a great board, with members who are all far-sighted and very creative. When people discover what we’ve done in this township, they’ll be amazed.”

Here’s just a sampling.

Headwaters Conservation Area is a 349-acre site on Beith Road, at the headwaters of Blackberry Creek. It’s a thoughtful mix of active and passive recreation, with a playground, dog park, picnic shelters and restrooms, equestrian and hiking trails, an expansive viewing platform, and restored wetlands, prairie and wood. “We’ve worked with the U.S. Geological Survey and developed a complex groundwater model to help protect our water resource, and we have several monitoring wells out here as well,” says Kupar.

The 120-acre Poyner Park on Swanberg Road offers three softball fields, a playground and picnic shelters for active use, and a restored prairie with two ponds surrounded by paved walking paths.

A testament to the township’s strong agricultural heritage is the 210-acre Corron Farm, on Corron Road. “It includes an 1850s Federalist house, a dairy barn and several outbuildings,” says Kupar. “A fourth generation of the Corron family still lives in the house and acts as caretaker for the property. We restored most of it to prairie, and put in hiking and equestrian trails, and the house will become a museum. We have a huge Prairie Fest at Corron Farm in September.”

Harley Woods is a 36-acre wooded area with public access. “This site has an ephemeral fen,” Kupar explains. “It appears each spring and dries up by late summer. There are very few of them in Illinois.”

Gray Willows Farm is the first purchase made under Kupar’s watch, and is not yet open to the public. Its more than 200 acres have large wooded areas with oak trees more than 150 years old, houses, a creek and a pond.

With just two full-time and three part-time staff, the Open Space Program relies on volunteers. “Our volunteers make it all happen,” says Kupar. Denise Morgan, on this day selling raffle tickets at a fundraising pig roast, is just as likely to be found pulling garlic mustard or planting a native sedge. “The payoff is huge,” she says. “We’re doing it not only for ourselves, but for future generations, so that they can take pride in their heritage and enjoy the same quality of life.”

The township allows about 360 acres to be farmed for income. The remaining money from the original referendums and grants will be used for restoration and upkeep, but it won’t last forever.

“We have two ways to generate funds for future operations and maintenance – another referendum, or develop a park district,” says Kupar. “We’ll let the people decide on the best strategy. For a small township, we have a lot. It’s paradise on a budget.”

Barrington Area Conservation Trust

Conservation isn’t just for environmental groups; individuals can also make a significant impact. Consider this.

In 1957, Lake County didn’t have a single forest preserve; by 1958, thanks to the efforts of 33-year-old housewife Ethel Untermyer, the Lake County Forest Preserve District was formed. Today, its 30,000 acres provide recreational and educational facilities for more than 700,000 residents.

Land conservation isn’t limited to huge expanses of forests, prairies and water sources, and it doesn’t always involve opening a property to public use. The Barrington Area Conservation Trust (BACT) works with private landowners who want to ensure the preservation of their property, even after they’re gone or it’s changed hands.

“We help private landowners with conservation easements that keep the land preserved in perpetuity,” says Lisa Woolford, director of land preservation for BACT. “The person still owns and uses the land, and can sell it or pass it on to family members, but the use restrictions remain in place forever.”

Properties must have conservation value in order to qualify for a conservation easement. “That may be the presence of native plants that support an endangered species of bird, or a water source, or a specific type of habitat,” Woolford explains.

The owner does give up some rights, depending on the property, such as no fences or no tree removal. Each is different, however, and the agreement is also very flexible. Landowners may include all or just part of a property, or make certain stipulations – for example, that it never be opened to public access, or that it always be used for agriculture.

“It’s a very thoughtful process, and we help property owners sort through it all,” says Woolford. “BACT was formed in 2001, when the owners of Horizon Farms wanted to protect their 420 acres. There was no local trust, so our founder, Mary Bradford-White, decided that she would start one.”

Though it isn’t its main focus, BACT does have an education component, using what Woolford calls the trust’s “ambassador property” across from Barrington High School. “We get the high school kids out there working the land with us,” she says. “Last year, we had the horticulture class grow 300 sedges and grasses in their greenhouse, and then helped them to plant them on Earth Day. That way, the kids get to help with the restoration and see the improvement firsthand.”

It isn’t just about size. Homeowners with less than an acre can practice preservation right in their own backyards – literally. With BACT’s Conservation@Home program, homeowners can ask BACT representatives to visit and offer ways to make their properties more environmentally friendly. “They can do as much or as little as they wish,” says Woolford. “We have a list of criteria in three areas: native species, water stewardship and habitat for wildlife. If the homeowner meets a certain number of criteria, we award a plaque and certificate.”

BACT also promotes Heritage Corridor, whereby landowners can protect a strip of their property along two-lane rural roadways. “Our most scenic roads are getting traffic pressure, and this will help to retain the rural quality of the landscape,” says Woolford.

And despite common perceptions, one person’s actions can make a huge difference.

“Of all open space in the Barrington area, only 20 percent is protected, and the other 80 percent is in private ownership,” she points out. “That means the private landowner is crucial to the cause. We can all improve our environment, one backyard at a time.”

The biggest problem is getting people to see the value of preserving areas they won’t actively use. “People tend to be more engaged when conservation occurs in an area where they can take advantage of it,” Woolford says. “But a healthy environment equals healthy people. The more diverse an ecosystem, the healthier it is, for wildlife and people. Everything is connected.”