Why Public Access at Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve is Important

The most significant aspect of the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve Concept Plans being advanced by the Lake County Forest Preserve District (LCFPD) is the provision for parking.

Just a Public Works Project?

To the casual public, the location of the parking lots and the number of parking spaces may look like an innocuous public works project. But in fact it encapsulates some fundamental public policy issues. Permit me to connect the dots.

walker with caneReducing the number of parking spaces and moving parking further from the bluff and the lakeshore achieves two things:
1) It puts a physical limit on the number of people who can be in the Preserve.
2) It makes it inconvenient for people to visit the very assets of the preserve (bluff and lakeshore) that they find appealing.

Such an incredulous outcome begs the question:

Why would the Forest Preserve want to limit visits and make it inconvenient?

Overuse:

One answer has been given overtly by LCFPD President Ann Maine who has said “We can love our parks to death.”

Enforcement:

The second answer has to be inferred because LCFPD hasn’t addressed it directly. That answer is that LCFPD has an enforcement problem. The lake shore is a non-swimming beach. So one way to keep swimmers off the beach is to make it very difficult to get to the beach in the first place.

Let’s explore this and understand why this thinking is wrong minded and not in the public interest.

In opposition to the LCFPD 100-year Vision

The “100-year Vision for Lake County” was recently adopted by the LCFPDwalker with cane as one its three pillars for the next 100 years (Leadership, Conservation, People) – Under the “People” section they state:

“The Forest Preserve District and partners will promote an active, healthy lifestyle by providing convenient access  for people to enjoy outdoor recreation and explore nature in clean and safe preserves and on an accessible regional network of land and water trails…..”

Certainly the proposed plan is in direct opposition to this stated objective.

We don’t protect what we don’t experience

last-child-cover-lrgConservation organizations and the think tanks that support them have recognized that people won’t be motivated to allocate resources to protect our environment if they don’t experience the environment. This may seem obvious, but there is a lot of work done and data to support this thinking.

Richard Louv’s seminal book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder created an increased interest in children’s environmental awareness. In sum, we are raising generations of people who do not experience and do not have convenient access to nature.

Can we really love Fort Sheridan to death?

No. Not with proper management. I have personally driven around Lake Michigan and witnessed many forms of lake shore management where endangered plants are growing and where endangered birds (e.g. Piping Plover) nest. You need only drive to Montrose Bird Sanctuary (Magic Hedge) that is frequented by far more people in less space than Fort Sheridan. Aggressive dog management, ropes cordoning off important plant areas are all in place to prevent us from “loving our parks to death.” Ann Maine is wrong. Only by mis-managing Ft. Sheridan can we injure it.

But this management takes some thoughtfulness, ongoing maintenance and money. And, in the end, this is about LCFPD not wanting to spend the money at this Preserve.

Missed education opportunity

If LCFPD believes we have important assets that should be protected, rather than make this Preserve difficult to access, make an effort to identify and protect these assets. Put up signage explaining their value. Create programs around these assets and help people understand the important & endangered species right under their feet (literally). Don’t hide these resources where nobody can see them or know anything about them. Education is a key mission of LCFPD. Why would LCFPD shirk from this responsibility? This is an opportunity that should not be missed!

Again, from the 100 Year Vision:

“The District will engage its diverse population through creative education and outreach programs to ensure that future generations are inspired to treasure and support Lake County’s unique natural, historical and cultural resources.”

Oh yeah? Well, not with the proposed Concept Plans. In fact, the proposed plans are directly in opposition to these adopted policies.

The wrong people are affected

Commissioner Sandra Hart said it best in her recent email about the proposed plans. She wrote,

“I believe that these Concept Plans will significantly impact the number of veterans, elderly, disabled, and families who can visit Fort Sheridan to view Lake Michigan from the bluff or the shoreline. By decreasing or eliminating parking from the existing area, it will be very difficult for less mobile people to enjoy this spectacular vista.”

In a nutshell, the healthy & mobile will not be deterred. Teens and healthy young people without children will still flock to this lakefront because the mile walk from wherever they can find a place doesn’t bother them. And they’ll pee in the woods. And swim in the lake. But families with kids and the mobility challenged will be excluded.

This is embarrassing and damning public policy and we cannot let it prevail. We must separate the access issue from the enforcement solutions. Public access and the parking required should be provided. Let’s focus on enforcement as a separate issue.

Public comment on the proposed plans is welcome through April 30 by going to this website. Make your opinion known.

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