Forest District to Hold Off On Perkins Woods Paving

Following a civil but sometimes-testy public meeting where the overwhelming sentiment was opposed to a proposed 10-foot-wide concrete road bisecting Diwght H. Perkins Woods, Cook County Forest Preserve District Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D.-13) announced by e-mail Thursday, Sept. 6, that the idea would not come up for vote on Sept. 11 as planned and was off the table pending further public input. Suffredin, however, reiterated several reasons behind the idea, including that the woods are "too dark."
Between 75 and 100 residents, ranging from immediate neighbors of the forest preserve to regular visitors and environmental activists, crowded into the Lincolnwood School auditorium Tuesday night, Sept. 4, for what had been termed a public forum on the proposal. Attendees waited patiently while Suffredin, four forest preseve staffers, and a prepared citizen-proponent listed rationales for the project. The citizen commentary that followed, however, ranged from direct contradiction of the district's assumptions to dismay at the process by which a "done deal" was rolled out to the public only after contracts had been let for what Suffredin termed the third time.
Dwight H. Perkins Woods, occupying over 7 acres on one square block between Colfax and Grant, directly west of Lincolnwood School, is both one of the smallest Forest Preserve properties and possibly one of the last remaining stands of original wetlands forest in northeastern Illinois, and certainly the only one in Evanston. Suffredin, who serves as a forest preserve commissioner by virtue of his status as a county commissioner, said that the tract, named for the Evanston architect who lived only blocks away and was one of the driving forces behind the district's creation, is believed to have never been cleared or plowed. It is home to dozens of large trees, primarily oak and ash, as well as innumerable smaller trees, shrubs, plants, and vines. With much of the preserve underwater or soggy in spring, it is considered a key stop in the migration of songbirds and has for years attracted birders from around Chicagoland each spring.
The preserve has no picnic areas, fields, or ponds, is usually devoid of human presence, and rarely has more than a few people at a time, but is considered "active" because of five 5' asphalt-topped paths that converge in the center from the four corners and the Lincolnwood playground side. Suffredin acknowledged receiving many communications from residents who treasure its quiet and solitude, a forest refuge amidst a square mile of thousands of residences, and he paid homage to what he termed its "spiritual" feel.
The CCFPD has apparently been engaged in removing over 40 ash trees injured by the emerald ash borer and identified as, officials said, hazards to human safety, while leaving trees in the preserve's interior as is. This logging has utilized heavy vehicles, wider than the existing paths, that have created large ruts alongside them. Suffredin and some speakers differed as to whether the ruts are new; my observation, reinforced by old pictures, is that there has been evidence over the years of vehicle traffic along the diagonal in question, but that the depth and extent of the damage caused this year is unprecedented.
As presented Sept. 4, only the SW-NE diagonal would be widened to ten feet of concrete, and the center circle would be reduced in diameter slightly. It was unclear whether the other three paths would also be replaced with concrete. The concrete, Suffredin said, would not be white, but an unspecified "natural" color selected by a local birder. Materials more permeable than concrete had been rejected as not capable of being supported by the often-moist soil, and culverts would run underneath the paths to connect the sections of the forest. It was also revealed that the paving is part of a larger "improvement" project for which funds have been made available, the aim of which is to increase traffic to the preserve, and that would involve removing many trees to let in more light and increase the amount of understory, while removing buckthorn and other unspecified non-native invasive species. Large locked metal gates would be installed at either entrance to the diagonal drive to bar civilian traffic. The presentation included two mounted aerial shots of the preserve along with depictions of pedestrians on a wide cement pathway.
Nearly every assertion and rationalization for the paving aspect of the project was challenged by those in attendance and has been the subject of skeptical conversations both before and after the forum:

  • There is general opposition, purely on aesthetic grounds, to a ten-foot width of pavement meant to serve vehicles rather than pedestrians. Although Suffredin claimed the widening would enhance the forest's "sanctity" and make it a model for other, the consensus seems to be that such a paving would resemble a driveway, highway, or "runway" more than a forest trail, and would dramatically and negatively transform the look and feel of the woods.
  • The assertion that only cement is appropriate for the wetlands is disputed. As one resident, a professional landscaper, put it, concrete will also buckle, commits the district to recurring program of maintenance traffic, represents an inappropriate "permanent" solution for what is a temporary challenge of tree removal, and will isolate sections of the preserve from each other since the culverts would clog. The use of removable mats for vehicles was instead recommended.
  • At least one engineer I spoke with agreed that concrete was no better than other materials and arguably worse.
  • Many residents would prefer a greener and/or more permeable surface. Crushed gravel, cinder, and timbers both of wood and recycled plastic are in use in many other forest and wetland trail projects, both in Cook County and elsewhere.
  • The rationale for the wider path was questioned. If necessary to reach trees along that diagonal, what would the district do to reach the trees in the preserve's quadrant's not accessible by the wider drive? And why was such a pavement necessary to access the trees in Perkins Woods when no such network is used in other, larger preserves? These were unanswered.
  • There is concern for the rarer and more delicate wild species that grow alongside the existing paths. Gardeners and botanists noted that many of these species do not easily transplant, and that since some are seasonal, their presence cannot be seen during the seasons when construction might occur.

At its meeting this week, the Board of Directors of the Central Street Neighbors Association voted to communicate to Commissioner Suffredin its sense that any vote should be delayed so as to allow further public input.
Excerpts from Suffredin's letter, sent to forum attendees who left their e-mail address and re-circulated by 6th Ward Ald. Mark Tendam, are as follows:
After reviewing the comments made, I have asked the Forest Preserve District to defer from the September 11th agenda of the Forest Preserve District’s Finance Committee the item relating to the project. No action will be taken without further citizen consultation....
The citizens who have made comments on the project show a deep concern and love for the Woods and for how the District will meet its mission. I will work with the District to develop an outreach process to insure that all refurbishing of the trails and restoration work is done in a cooperative manner.
Please remember these facts as we go forward:
1.      After numerous requests to replace the current broken and incomplete trails the District was able to do a refinancing earlier this year which made funds available.
2.      As part of the restoration it became clear that the Woods were “too dark” and that diseased and invasive trees needed to be taken out to allow more sun light. There needs to be developed a comprehensive restoration plan.
3.      There is currently a problem with fly dumping at the Woods of building and landscaping materials. The restoration plan will work on ways to stop this.

Commissioner Suffredin made available two phone numbers to contact his office (847-864-1209 or 312-603-6383), and his website lists an e-mail of