It is difficult to define open space.
Open space can include forest preserves and farmland. A water retention pond, bike trail or even a grassy ditch along the side of a road count, too.
To a developer, open space might be a park in the middle of a subdivision. To an environmentalist, it could be land that has never been built upon and provides a natural habitat for wildlife.
To Jim Eby, director of planning and development for the Batavia Park District, open space includes athletic fields and walking trails.
“[Open space] gives the residents of our district or forest preserve district an opportunity to get outside and really enjoy any kind of outdoor pursuit they might want,” Eby said. “The choices are endless, certainly in the Fox Valley.”
Despite being different in scope, all of the above definitions qualify as open space and fulfill a purpose. Land specifically designated as protected open space has increased the past few years in Kane County despite the population exploding in recent decades. Once developed, it can take decades to return open space to its natural state – if it can be done at all.
Preserving open space is an identified priority for the county. Karen Miller, executive planner with the Kane County Development Department, said 50 to 60 percent of the county is comprised of farmland and other types of open space.
The Kane County 2040 Plan, which outlines future quality of life in Kane County, states open space is the “armature” of a plan that provides the “framework that complements all other land uses.” The plan commits to ensuring 50 percent of the county’s land in 2040 remains farmland or open space.
The county added 530 acres of protected space in 2012, alone – the highest of any county in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s coverage area, which includes Kane, Cook, DuPage, Kendall, Lake, McHenry and Will counties. Protected space includes forest preserves, conservation districts, parks and similar areas.
Kane County officials, conservation groups and volunteers have worked to preserve the area’s natural landscape by buying and restoring land for forest preserves – a decadeslong process that has coincided with an exponential population growth.
When surveyors first documented the land in Kane County in the late 1830s and 1840s, they marked trees or made mounds of charcoal at each corner of land boundaries.
Mary Ochsenschlager, who is retired from the St. Charles Park District as assistant superintendent of natural areas and interpretive services but still is involved in nature-related organizations, said surveyors back then described flat farmland and areas of timber and prairie.
Oaks were the most common trees found when settlers first arrived. Historical accounts say settlers could drive their wagons through oak savannas, which are lightly forested grassland where oaks are the most prominent trees.
Settlers from the East were familiar with oak groves, and tended to gravitate toward them when settling in the area, Ochsenschlager said – hence the prevalence of the word “Grove” in the names of some local municipalities.
Miller said the county’s 1840 landscape featured mostly prairie, timber, fields, marshes and wetlands.
Back then, fire mainly shaped the woods. Large, old oak trees could withstand prairie grass fires, and natural habitats were restored as native plants grew back. Because the fire element no longer is what it once was, the landscape has been shaped differently.
“There have been lots of changes since removing fire,” Ochsenschlager said. “You see remnants of wildflowers, but they might not be there in the numbers they were.”
Removing fire paved way for some invasive species to thrive, when they typically would have been burned away through natural forest fires. Ochsenschlager said fewer wildflowers grow in today’s forests because maple trees, for example, can block sunlight from the forest floor.
If fires still shaped forests as they were naturally intended to do, maple trees likely would have died. Although controlled burns take place these days, most fires since have been removed for safety reasons.
Decades of change
The county’s population and landscape have changed since the county was first settled. In 1840, Kane County’s population was 6,501. In 2010, the Census Bureau recorded 515,269 residents. The county estimates it will be more than 800,000 by 2040.
Aerial shots taken in 1939 show the county had 25,906 acres of remnant oak woodlands – described by Miller as a “keystone species” because they are an important part of the ecosystem in terms of habitat.
Those aerial photos recently helped the county develop a map of remnant oak woodlands to plan out connectivity opportunities and preservation options. The county received technical assistance through a regional organization that connects people with nature called Chicago Wilderness to develop a Green Infrastructure Plan for Kane County. Part of the technical assistance included mapping the location and extent of existing oak woodlands in the county.
Miller said the map may be used to identify areas where clusters of woodlands could be connected through contiguous forest preserve land – allowing a safer means of travel for plants and animals between two habitats.
By 2011, 14,278 acres of remnant oak woodland – or 55 percent of what originally was recorded – remained.
Areas dedicated as forest preserves, on the other hand, have more than quadrupled since 1999, when the forest preserve district was comprised of about 4,500 acres of land. The county’s forest preserve district today consists of about 20,000 acres of open space.
The Kane County 2040 plan published last May states that a 1993 forest preserve inventory showed only 736 acres of the 334,031 acres in the county have original, undisturbed flora. The rest has been affected by agriculture and urbanization.
Jon Duerr, who retired several years ago as director of the Kane County Forest Preserve District, said open space is not erased permanently once it is developed. But returning it to its natural state, or close to it, can take a long, long time.
“A house or a barn, those things can be bulldozed and taken off the property,” he said. “But it’s going to be a scar.”
Local officials at multiple levels have found that it takes successful referendums, grants, a bevy of volunteers and a solid, long-term plan to preserve existing open space.
County Board member Mike Kenyon, R-South Elgin, said he feels the future of open space is bright because the county, municipalities, townships and park districts are proactive about preserving land for future generations.
“We have to save these things before people destroy them,” he said. “Everybody realizes how important it is.”
The Kane County Chronicle is taking a closer look at the changing open space landscape in Kane County. This is part one of a three-part series.
• Part 1: looks at the definition and history of open space in Kane County.
• Part 2: looks at the importance of open space and the strong support of open space referendums.
• Part 3: looks at the balance between preservation and development, and the importance of volunteers.
FAST FACTS ABOUT OPEN SPACE IN KANE COUNTY
• Kane County now is home to about 20,000 acres of forest preserve land.
• From 1939 to 2011, the county's remnant oak woodlands decreased from 25,906 acres to 14,278 acres.
• The county has more than 60 parcels of forest preserve land.
Source: Kane County Forest Preserve District