Using the Forest Preserve to protect thousands of acres

The Chicago Tribune highlights the proactive efforts of the Cook County Forest Preserve to protect land:

Why does Cook County have a bigger, better-distributed array of preserves than does any other U.S. metropolis?

In part because indefatigable visionaries (1) projected metro Chicago to someday grow to 10 million people, (2) figured that property development would devour unprotected plots of land, and (3) staged their own land grab so greenery forever would punctuate urban sprawl. As public health pioneer Dr. John Rauch said after the Civil War in his much-cited push for a Chicago parks district, “we want not alone a place for business, but also one in which we can live.”

But the key stroke of brilliance came in 1904 from architect Dwight H. Perkins and landscape architect Jens Jensen. They studied Cook County’s still open lands and concluded: “Instead of acquiring space only, the opportunity exists for preserving country naturally beautiful. … Another reason for acquiring these outer areas is the necessity of providing for future generations …” The upshot was a state law that created the district and its mission statement — overwhelmingly tipped toward preserving and protecting lands, plants and animals rather than toward ball fields, playgrounds and other park-like recreation…

In January a blue-ribbon panel of outsiders set that 25-year agenda, including: Acquire another 20,000 prime acres selected by naturalists, rehab 30,000 acres overrun by invasive plants, and build a huge network of volunteers and members of a new Civilian Conservation Corps. We’re counting on a new policy council of volunteers with excellent conservation cred to ride herd on the plan. Distinguished groups such as Openlands and Metropolis Strategies also are on the case.

For those concerned about sprawl, efforts like those of the Cook County Forest Preserve, the DuPage County Forest Preserve, and other bodies have helped retain some open land amidst 9+ million residents in the Chicago region. These spaces are often more “natural” than sculpted parks even if I’ve heard hundreds of jokes about the lack of nature in northeastern Illinois (nature seems to equal hills or mountains for many). Chicago may be a world leader in regards to its lakefront parks but the collection of Forest Preserves across the region is also pretty unique.

On the other hand, it would be interesting to note how many Chicago area residents utilize these Forest Preserves that are within an easy drive for many. I drive past several DuPage Forest Preserve properties each day and yet I don’t think I visited any during this calendar year. (In contrast, I’ve used the Prairie Path dozens of times. This trail was started by citizens and today is maintained by a number of groups.) The Forest Preservers are supported with tax dollars so if people want a return on that money, they should utilize these spaces. (However, if everyone did, I suspect these places wouldn’t seem very natural.)

Big differences in life expectancy across American counties due to income differences

Here is an update on the “longevity gap,” the differences in life expectancy, by county in the United States:

Fairfax County, Va., and McDowell County, W.Va., are separated by 350 miles, about a half-day’s drive. Traveling west from Fairfax County, the gated communities and bland architecture of military contractors give way to exurbs, then to farmland and eventually to McDowell’s coal mines and the forested slopes of the Appalachians. Perhaps the greatest distance between the two counties is this: Fairfax is a place of the haves, and McDowell of the have-nots. Just outside of Washington, fat government contracts and a growing technology sector buoy the median household income in Fairfax County up to $107,000, one of the highest in the nation. McDowell, with the decline of coal, has little in the way of industry. Unemployment is high. Drug abuse is rampant. Median household income is about one-fifth that of Fairfax.

One of the starkest consequences of that divide is seen in the life expectancies of the people there. Residents of Fairfax County are among the longest-lived in the country: Men have an average life expectancy of 82 years and women, 85, about the same as in Sweden. In McDowell, the averages are 64 and 73, about the same as in Iraq…

Since the 1980s, “socioeconomic status has become an even more important indicator of life expectancy.” That was the finding of a 2008 report by the Congressional Budget Office. But dollars in a bank account have never added a day to anyone’s life, researchers stress. Instead, those dollars are at work in a thousand daily-life decisions — about jobs, medical care, housing, food and exercise — with a cumulative effect on longevity.

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/03/15/business/higher-income-longer-lives.html

This is part of a growing body of research that links demographics and social forces, including social spaces, to different health outcomes. Wealthier counties can offer a wide range of health and social services as well as have more higher class residents while poorer counties have different social structures.

While the county level data is interesting, I would assume there would also be some wide differences in life expectancy within counties. Fairfax County, Virginia is one of the wealthiest U.S. counties but income levels there are not uniform. Cook County, Illinois could include some of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago as well as Kenilworth, Illinois, one of the wealthiest suburbs with a median household income of over $247,000. Check out these maps from VCU’s Center on Society and Health on life expectancy in metro areas. Here is what they found in Chicago:

So the contrast between a county in Virginia versus one in West Virginia might be notable but one doesn’t have to travel that far to find big differences in life expectancy.

County forest preserves benefit from economic downturn as they purchase cheaper land

The reduction in land values has not been bad for everyone: the Chicago Tribune reports that Chicago area forest preserves have bought up more land than anticipated in the past few years. Among the findings:

Flush with $185 million from a 2008 bond sale, the [Lake County] district went on a buying spree, gobbling up some 3,400 acres of land. The second-largest forest preserve system in the state at 29,300 acres, the 53-year old district has grown by nearly 12 percent since the onset of the recession.

“We spent down the money quicker than we had anticipated, mainly because there were so many good buying opportunities for us in 2009 and 2010, especially,” Hahn said…

Founded in 1971, the McHenry County Conservation District has essentially doubled over the last decade to just less than 25,000 acres…

Though the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s biggest growth spurt was in the 1970s, the 25,000-acre district managed to add some 2,400 acres over the last decade…

Racing the clock against development in one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, the Forest Preserve District of Will County has added about 8,300 acres since 1999, increasing its holdings by about two-thirds to nearly 21,000 acres…

The timing has been more fortuitous in Kane County, where the Forest Preserve District has added nearly 12,000 acres since 1999, increasing its holdings by 170 percent.

The only county forest preserve that didn’t add a significant amount of land was Cook County which likely has little available land. There hasn’t been too much news about these acquisitions in the Chicago area, even as these land purchases have been funded by bond sales approved by the public.

Overall, this has presented these districts with an opportunity to purchase land they might not have been able to purchase in better times. Particularly in some of the booming counties, such as Will or McHenry, this opportunity may have been the last one before suburban growth took up too much land.

This does lead to another question: how much land should Forest Preserves aim to have? I know there are recommendations about how much parkland or open space there should be for a set amount of people. Is most of this newly acquired land going to be open space/natural settings or more developed parks and recreation areas? Would there be a point where the Forest Preserves will stop purchasing or will they keep acquiring land forever?