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Forest Preserves start ‘Stay on the Trail’ initiative to protect critical habitats 

Forest Preserves of Cook County announced Thursday, Oct. 5, the start of an effort to educate visitors to stay on established trails in order to protect the plants and animals in the preserves.

The trails through thousands of acres of woodlands, wetlands, prairies and savannas are bordered by critical habitat, FPCC officials said. The marked trails strike a careful balance between providing access to nature and protecting Cook County’s diverse flora and fauna.

To encourage visitors to remain on the designated trails, the Forest Preserves is piloting an informational campaign focused on Swallow Cliff Woods to encourage trail users to avoid unrecognized footpaths weaving through sensitive natural areas. 

During the pilot period, special signage and barriers have been placed at unofficial trail entrances, and Forest Preserves staff, partners and volunteers will host tabling events and other opportunities to educate visitors of the importance of staying on the trails.

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“Forest Preserves trails are designed and built by professional landscape architects and reviewed by ecologists who take into account both the enjoyment of all trail users as well as environmental concerns which include wildlife habitat and trail erosion,” said Forest Preserves General Superintendent Arnold Randall.

Designated trails can be identified by reviewing physical trail maps at trail heads and groves, paper maps available for pick up at Forest Preserves nature center or viewed online via a PDF map or the Forest Preserves’ interactive web map at map.fpdcc.com. Additionally, most designated trails provide confidence markers and intersection markers to indicate a trail user is on an official trail.

The Palos Preserves is home to one of the Forest Preserves most popular amenities, the Swallow Cliff Stairs, attracting countless visitors to its nearly 300 limestone stairs for exercise and to enjoy nature and the outdoors. In addition to an excellent workout, here visitors can also explore crucial ecosystems that support rare plants and animals.

“Use of unofficial trails damages ground layer vegetation and creates soil compaction, which alters the way water flows across a preserve and can lead to soil erosion, especially on slopes.  Unofficial trails are also often pathways for new invasive plant species to gain ground in our preserves, and human presence in a natural area can unintentionally cause stress to wildlife,” Forest Preserves Senior Ecologist Rebecca Collings said. “As visitors explore Swallow Cliff, they can help conserve, protect and maintain public lands by remaining on designated trails.

“The development and use of unofficial trails has increased over the last several years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. While more people are out exploring nature, in some places, this has had a negative impact on the ecosystems that plants and animals depend on. We need everyone’s help, and they can do that by simply staying on the trail.”

Want to get involved?

Individuals can help monitor our trail system and educate visitors about using official trails by joining Trail Watch, a volunteer program where members serve as a visible presence to help make the Forest Preserves of Cook County welcoming and inviting to all visitors—while enjoying their favorite outdoor activities. Learn more at https://fpdcc.com/volunteer/trail-watch/.

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