Eight years ago I wrote a story about the Cook County Forest Preserve District for Chicago magazine. The story was, overall, considerably less than complimentary.

I applauded the district for buying as much land as it could. Almost 11 percent of the land area of Cook County is forest preserve. If every county in Illinois had done even half as much the state wouldn’t need an endangered-species list. I praised the district for defending its preserves from land grabs by the federal government, the University of Illinois, and practically every municipality in the county.

The Forest Preserve District was a legacy of the progressive era, a part of the first great environmental awakening in America. This movement began in the closing decades of the 19th century and ended in the reactionary years after World War I. It gave us our preserve system, the first of its kind in the world, as well as the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, and the first laws for the protection of our native wildlife.

The district started off well, acquiring 13,000 acres by 1918, but by the early 30s it had sunk into a state of corruption sufficient to arouse civic outrage. George Sauers was brought in from the Indiana state park system to be the first superintendent of the district. He held the job until the early 60s, expanding the system and professionalizing the conservation department. Sauers was a highly skilled politician who gained the steady support of the political hacks who occupied most of the seats on the county board, in part by naming picnic groves after them. You can see the results of his work on signs all over the system that honor guys you never heard of.

The uncomplimentary parts of my story were mostly about the district’s failure to manage the lands it had so nobly acquired and defended. Prairies on district land rapidly turned into brushy thickets, alien species invaded the woodlands, and the district’s own forestry department was filling open fields with a weird mixture of trees that had never appeared together in any natural community anywhere in the world.

Various kinds of ignorance were at the root of many of these problems. Everybody was ignorant of how to manage a prairie until quite recently, so the district couldn’t be faulted for failing to do what nobody else could do either. And nobody even knew what a savanna was until within the last ten years. But the district was also ignorant in ways that could have been avoided. In many cases nobody knew what lived on the various preserves. Staff members spent whatever time they could spare surveying district lands, but nobody was assigned that task as a primary responsibility. State law requires the district to grant easements for roads and utilities to cross forest-preserve lands, but the district retains the right to specify the precise routes the roads or power lines follow. The intent of the law is to allow the district to protect the most ecologically sensitive areas, but all too often in the past the district didn’t even know where those areas were.

I am very happy to say that a lot has changed since 1985. Arthur Janura, who spent nearly 30 years as general superintendent, has retired. Joe Nevius, who had been a landscape architect with the district, replaced him. Where once the traditional suspicious, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent” attitude of Chicago pols reigned, now an army of volunteers, currently about 2,000, is at work.

For the first time in its history the district has a person on the staff with the title “land manager.” Ralph Thornton, who holds the job, says that learning is a big part of what he does. With the help of summer interns and that army of volunteers, he is compiling data that will eventually provide a comprehensive picture of the plant and animal communities of the entire preserve system. This information will be the basis for management plans that will provide for the preservation of existing natural areas and for the restoration of natural conditions on the degraded landscapes and old cornfields the district has purchased.

The district has already entered into cooperative agreements with the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Illinois Department of Conservation, and the Nature Conservancy to undertake joint restoration projects on forest-preserve lands. The Fish and Wildlife Service is already working on a major wetland restoration near Palatine.

According to Nevius, “By joining forces, we hope to be able to expand our expertise and our dollars. I think the Forest Preserve District is in a position to become a national model for these types of projects.” Becoming a national model is an excellent goal. The district began life at that exalted level, and there is no reason why it cannot achieve that status again.

In addition to making a major effort to better manage the lands it owns, the district is looking at the remaining open land in the county to decide what is worth buying and which potential purchases ought to have priority. “We have a cap set by the legislature of 75,000 acres,” Nevius says, “but we could go to the legislature and ask for an increase if we thought it was needed.” The district is currently 7,000 to 8,000 acres below the cap.

Meanwhile, those 2,000 volunteers are at work along the Des Plaines River and the North Branch of the Chicago River, at Poplar Creek Preserve near Hoffman Estates, in the many preserves in the Palos area, and at Powderhorn Marsh and the other preserves south of Lake Calumet. They are removing invading alien species, gathering and planting the seeds of native species, surveying the plant and animal life of the preserve, and carrying out controlled burns in prairies and savannas.

The district provides the volunteers with hand tools and generally oversees all the projects they undertake. It also listens to the volunteers and, within the limits of the budget, installs structures such as barriers to trail bikes and off-road vehicles where volunteers discover a need for them. A volunteer coordinator has been added to the staff to set up training programs and to serve as a liaison between the staff and the volunteer groups.

The volunteer army also provides something the Forest Preserve District never had before: an organized constituency, a group of very interested and well-informed citizens who can both support and criticize the system. Government bureaucracies in America need their own special-interest group.

In my 1985 article I told of a visit to Jurgensen Woods Prairie at 183rd and Cottage Grove. There was a sign along 183rd identifying the place as a prairie, but I described the landscape as looking like “Tarzan’s summer home.” The prairie was being buried under a junk forest of invasive trees, vines, and European buckthorn. If it were neglected much longer, the prairie plants would be gone.

Six years ago Marlene Nowak, who lives in nearby South Holland, volunteered to be steward of Jurgensen Woods Prairie. Her husband Joe serves as steward at the Powderhorn Marsh and Prairie. Marlene and Joe are typical of the sort of volunteers who are providing the district with services “we couldn’t afford to buy,” as Nevius puts it.

Marlene spends part of almost every weekend at the prairie. In winter she clears brush and girdles the larger invasive trees. In summer she monitors the plants of the prairie as they come into bloom. When she started there were only two patches of prairie left–one six feet across, the other eight feet. A bit more than three acres are now cleared, and she is hoping for some dry weather soon to allow her to conduct a burn.

Jurgensen’s Woods is an extraordinary place. Classified as a sandy shrub prairie, it contains combinations of plants that are unique. This year Marlene found a club moss that is endangered in Illinois. Club mosses are common in northern Michigan, but very rare around here. Other northern plants include jack pine. The next nearest site for this species is the Indiana Dunes. The next nearest population is 60 miles farther north and east in Michigan. Sweet fern, a northern species with a pungent odor reminiscent of rosemary, also lives at Jurgensen, and all these northern species are growing alongside southern specialties like sassafras. It is possible that there is no other place exactly like this anywhere. And thanks to the wisdom of Cook County’s politicians and the devotion of some of its citizens, Jurgensen’s Woods is being reborn.

If you are interested in getting involved as a volunteer in the forest preserves call the Nature Conservancy, 346-8166.