Cook County forest preserves open — for now

By Kevin Beese Staff Reporter

Samantha Ambrose ascends stairs Sunday as part of her workout in Dan Ryan Woods in Chicago. Cook County officials say they will keep forest preserves, like Dan Ryan Woods, open if people follow social distancing. (Kevin Beese/Chronicle Media photos)

Cook County forest preserves and paths will remain open if people follow social distancing rules, according to county officials.

“If we see places where people are not fully following their responsibility we can — and we will — close those locations,” Cook County Forest Preserve President Toni Preckwinkle said Sunday, March 29 inside the pavilion at Dan Ryan Woods in Chicago.

While preserves, paths and trails remain open, all restrooms in the preserves — both those in public buildings and portables — have been closed.

Also closed are all public buildings in the preserves; all six of the Forest Preserve District’s nature centers, grounds and trails; the Swallow Cliff stairs in the Palos Preserve; nature play areas; and all campgrounds.

Preckwinkle said the closed facilities do not allow visitors to follow social distancing and other public health guidelines in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Forest Preserve District has canceled all public events, volunteer activities and permitted events through May 11, following the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation.

“We are trying to keep open as many of our trails, lakes, woods and open fields as possible to serve as a respite from everything we all are facing — to provide places to listen to a birdsong or have a bike ride or look for wildflowers. To do so we need your help by following social distancing and other public health guidelines,” said Forest Preserve District General Superintendent Arnold Randall.

Particularly close attention will be paid to the 13 forest preserves in Chicago, such as Dan Ryan Woods at 87th Street and Western Avenue, Randall told the Chronicle, noting they tend to draw groups of people.

“But there are a number of locations in suburban areas where we know people have historically tended to congregate in large numbers,” Randall said. “We have mitigated a lot of that already by canceling all picnic permits, special events and programming so that will shut down a lot of action.”

He said the Forest Preserve District has a list of facilities ripe for group gatherings and will keep a close eye on those locations as the weather warms up.

“We will be out there observing, and if we feel it is something that is not manageable, we will shut it down,” the superintendent said.

Randall said that shutting down the parking lots in the quickest and easiest way to keep people from congregating in preserves.

Forest Preserve staff and Trail Watch volunteers have been instructed to report any crowded conditions they see.

Residents are encouraged to call the Forest Preserve District’s non-emergency public safety number, 708-771-1000, if they see crowded conditions.

The Forest Preserve District has installed signs on trails and in parking lots that remind people of the importance of social distancing.

President Preckwinkle said Forest Preserve Police Department officers have been instructed to respond where overcrowding is reported, and they will disperse crowds where people are congregating or violating the social-distancing order. She added that along with their regular patrols, Forest Preserve police are adding more alternative patrols to increase their presence on trails and in preserves.

Randall said he and the Forest Preserve chief of police have created a rapid-response, cross-departmental team that can act to close specific sites as need.

Information of site closures, event cancellations and recommended visitor precautions can be found on the Forest Preserve District’s COVID-19 web page,