By Sarah Bryan Miller
Thatcher Woods, a section of the Cook County Forest Preserve District that runs along the Des Plaines River just west of River Forest, is among the gems of the preserves. Large trees form a leafy canopy above a well-packed dirt trail where Indians once walked. Birds chirp as runners thud past, and mothers with preschoolers explore one of the few remaining scraps of Illinois that have never been paved or plowed.
Much of Thatcher Woods is underwater in late spring. The Des Plaines is usually high at that time of year, and the floodplain of the forest preserve gives the river someplace to go besides basements. But you can still walk along a narrow strip of high ground at the eastern border of the woods. Only a few yards beyond that trail are houses, but the lack of fences suggests that the constant stream of birders and hikers poses no real security problems.
That could change if a group of politicians headed by River Forest village president Frank Paris gets its way. Using an estimated $1.6 million in federal transportation dollars intended to facilitate commuting by bicycle, an intergovernmental coalition plans to put a ten-foot-wide strip of 12-inch-thick yellow-striped asphalt with three-foot shoulders through Thatcher Woods. Part of the money will go for grading the ravines of one section; because the path must meet federal guidelines, everything will have to be reasonably level. The money will also go for chopping down trees--original estimates called for taking out more than 200 trees with trunks between two inches and two feet in diameter in a 20-foot-wide construction zone in that same section--and adding concrete piers for support.
David and Ellen Hildner think this is all a bad idea. Since their property abuts the woods, they could be considered classic NIMBY ("Not in My Back Yard") complainers. But conservationists and biologists oppose the project too. "This is that rare thing--a path in the forest preserve that people actually use," says David. "It's safe because it's close to houses and it's got good access. In Salt Creek [a section of the forest preserves near Brookfield Zoo that already has a bike route] it's asphalt, and you can't hear anyone come up behind you--walkers are terrorized by rollerbladers and bikers. Now it's cool here even in the summer, but asphalt gets terribly hot. Who's going to want to walk on it?"
Most of the forest preserve alongside River Forest is a comfortable width, stretching from First Avenue on the west side of the river to Thatcher Avenue on the east. But between Oak and Lake streets it narrows drastically where three short streets cut into it. The Hildners contend that in this section there just isn't room for a bike route.
Moreover, any bike route would have to run on an existing sidewalk that leads to the Trailside Museum, a popular place for local children. Paths where pedestrians have to share space with speeding bicyclists and rollerbladers can be dangerous, particularly when small children are involved. And here the proposed bike route would mix them in an unusually narrow space.
In addition the forest preserve is already a notorious party spot for teens--the Hildners and their neighbors regularly clear away their trash. But now the primary sites are close to the street. "The kids are scared of getting lost in the dark if they go too far into the woods," says Ellen. She worries that a bike route would invite more teens and lure them deeper into the woods. She also worries that it would draw motorcycles.
In recent weeks the Hildners have collected more than 600 signatures opposing the destruction of this section of the woods. The signers of the petition aren't opposed to the bike route per se. They simply want it to go on Thatcher Avenue for the couple of blocks where the forest preserve is too narrow to accommodate it. "I was told by a forest preserve employee that IDOT [the Illinois Department of Transportation] has approved that section for Thatcher," says Ellen. "But the decision is up to the village. Why should River Forest be able to dictate to the Forest Preserve District that the path has to go through the woods?"
Victor Guarino, a volunteer steward at Thatcher Woods who's long been working on its restoration, opposes the entire project--though he was originally involved in its design. "I wanted to minimize the damage it would cause," he says. "Then I got to the point where I was against the whole thing, because I realized there was no way to minimize the damage."
According to Guarino, the notion of a bike route has been around for a while, but money was a problem until "somebody figured out that they could use [federal] transportation-fund money." He adds, "It was proposed as a transportation project, so that means a paved road--it has to be built to federal standards. The idea is that people are supposed to use the trail through the forest preserve to go shopping, to go to schools, to get to the Metra train. The irony is that in this entire proposal there is no provision for a single bike rack. There's no money allocated for them."
This segment of the bike route would run north from Madison along the west side of the river to Washington, where it would cross the river. On the east side it would run along a causeway to the high ground along the Union Pacific/Metra tracks, where an underpass would have to be constructed.
Lake Street curves where the bike route meets it, but a stoplight could be installed there. Then comes the narrow section behind the houses and the Trailside Museum. North of Chicago Avenue the bike route can go onto an existing road, though it soon drops into the floodplain again.
The next obstacle is the heavily used Wisconsin Central railroad line north of Division. "There's an underpass, but it's usually flooded," says Guarino. "It's right along the river. The consultant talked about putting in breakwaters." Once north of the tracks, the bike route would cross the river again and continue to North Avenue, where it would end.
Given the number of obstacles, why does the village want to go ahead with the plan? "[Frank] Paris is just trying to get money to build for River Forest," charges Guarino. He believes the plan is "a little scheme to build a high-priced recreation facility for River Forest with federal transportation money."
Dennis Nyberg, a biological sciences professor at the University of Illinois, specializes in conservation biology. "I biked to work from 1979 to 1990," he says, "and I did it over 100 days in each of those years. I'm quite familiar with commuting by bicycle, and I think it's a great thing." But he doesn't believe the proposed bike route would encourage any new bicycle commuting, because it would be well to the west of most prospective bike commuters. In addition, he says, "So little of our landscape in our metropolitan area is in its natural state or even near natural. The total is less than 1 percent. For the Forest Preserve [District] to allow this precious resource, evolved over millions of years, to be destroyed by more pavement is a travesty. But the forest preserves are viewed as places where there will be no political opposition."
Jim Hodapp, a teacher and forest preserve volunteer since 1983, says, "I call the area between Madison and North Avenue the 'tri-treasure preserve.' Jefferson, GAR, and Thatcher were some of the first properties that started the forest preserves. It was all saved relatively early, before there was a lot of heavy grazing on the land. Since 99.9 percent of Illinois is devoid of its original landscape, it's extra rare. What makes it rare is the understory--the wildflowers, the insects that live on the ground. And that's exactly what the bicycle trail will destroy."
Hodapp, who doesn't own a car and gets around by bicycle all year, says the ecosystems in the woods date back many thousands of years. He also says that there's a snake-shaped Indian mound in the north part of Thatcher Woods.
But Patrick Deady, president of the board of commissioners of the River Forest Park District, defends the bike route. "The park board has been advocating a paved trail for several years. We see a need to get recreational access [to the preserves] for the people of River Forest. I understand the concerns of some of the residents, but I'm not sure all the facts are in."
Why not at least run the bike route on Thatcher Avenue for the two blocks where the problems are the worst?
Deady says, "We would have to widen Thatcher. We would have to stripe it as a designated bikeway. We couldn't allow parking there. I'm not sure the village wants to have no parking on Thatcher from Oak to Lake."
Should the village be using federal transportation funds for what's essentially a recreational project, unlikely to be used for commuting?
Deady says he believes that students at Triton College--which is north of North Avenue and west of the forest preserve--might use it to get to school. "You wouldn't use it necessarily to ride to Metra or a CTA stop. The purpose of the trail is to get people out of their cars for a short trip to shop." He suggests that residents might decide to bicycle to Melrose Park to shop, though that would entail riding on a long, busy stretch of North Avenue that's a favorite of truckers and has no sidewalks. "There are different kinds of [transit] uses for the path," he maintains. "Does it also have recreational value? Obviously it does."
Frank Paris, who's in his second term as River Forest village president and is also president of Oak Brook Bank, is a strong executive who just wants to get a job done. He's convinced that a paved route through the woods would be beneficial to River Forest. Asked why, he goes into a long discourse on drugs and teens, then says that a paved trail would make it easier to root out teen drinking parties in the forest preserve. Once the bike route is in place, he says, the village will seek permission to send its police bicycle patrol officers into the forest preserve to maintain order.
Why couldn't he make such a deal now?
"No, it's not going to happen," he says. "It can't be done, period."
Is he concerned about the damage to the topography and the plant life?
"There is absolutely no possibility that there will be any degradation of virgin woods, floodplains, or anything else."
What about motorcyclists using the route?
"I don't think there will be a motorcycle problem."
The safety concerns of the neighbors?
"The path is 50 yards from the closest house. I paced it off myself. We can't let a handful of people dictate to the whole village."
Actually the closest property is less than 7 yards from the proposed bike route; the house itself is only 20 yards away.
Like the Hildners, Maureen Houston lives near a prime party spot in Thatcher Woods. Like them, she's concerned about security, privacy, and noise. So she went to look at the bike route that runs parallel to Caldwell Avenue in the forest preserve in Morton Grove. "The one in Caldwell woods is older and was built to different standards than this one would be," she says. "It's much narrower than the width proposed here. But it's still a bike highway."
Houston's photographs show how trees were clear-cut, removing the canopy that would have provided shade to an ordinary walking path. In some places chain-link fences topped with barbed wire separate the bike route from a bridle path and nearby houses. In one photo a section of fence has been cut almost to the ground and folded back on either side, providing easy access to a house and yard.
Houston also says that while she and her family were walking in the woods, "Six motorcyclists came roaring down the path. They were going so fast they were out of sight before I could even take a picture. Walking along the path with my husband and toddler, one of us had to walk backward to watch for bicyclists and rollerbladers. There is no consideration for pedestrians."
Houston says that noise and security are bad enough now in Thatcher Woods. "We call the village, and they say, 'It's not our jurisdiction. Sorry.' And trying to get the forest preserve [police] to come is laughable. Sometimes they show up, but when they do it's hours later, after everyone has already left. Last year we had to call the [River Forest] fire department because kids were setting fire to the trees. The fire department did come."
What does she think of Paris's proposal to let River Forest bicycle cops patrol the route? "The drinking parties are not an issue during the day, and [bicycle police] are not on duty at night. The forest preserves are supposed to be closed from dusk to dawn. We should be able to get enforcement of that now."
Houston says she and her husband used to ride their bicycles to the lakefront regularly. "We stopped because of the rash of kids knocking cyclists off their bicycles and stealing them" in the open areas near McCormick Place. "To have security, we had to put up with a dangerous level of congestion by doing our riding farther north. We finally gave it up."
Joe Nevius, general superintendent of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, says, "The bottom line is, this is a feasibility study, with consultants and our staff working together to look at all routes for the trail. At this stage of the feasibility study we have looked at the routes that became obvious to us, relative to the physical structure and concerns. The next step is to look at the environmental impacts that might occur from any particular route, and what areas we need to stay away from completely." Nothing, he says, is completely set.
But more than $300,000 have already been spent, and a forest preserve employee told the Hildners, "Everybody else calls this stage 'Design and Engineering One.'" Nevius disappears to consult with someone, then says, "OK, that's what IDOT calls it."
Isn't the job of the Forest Preserve District to, well, preserve the forest?
"We have a three-pronged mission--preservation, recreation, education," says Nevius. "We have to blend those aspects and try to make them work consistently with each other. We have picnic areas, horse trails, foot trails, bicycle trails. Bicycle trails are certainly consistent with the forest preserve's mission."
What about the dangers of a mixed-use route, particularly near Trailside? "There is no question that user conflicts occur on trails. Unless we make any trail dedicated for one kind of use, you will have conflicts." Nevius acknowledges that there will be rollerbladers on the route but won't say how he plans to protect pedestrians and children from them. And he too thinks the route would deter partiers.
Couldn't the River Forest police patrol the preserve now? "There would be no problem with that. We just need to work out some sort of agreement."
Ernest Ricketts is from a family of old-time Chicago-area restaurateurs. His Homestead Restaurant was founded by his father 50 years ago on the south side of North Avenue between the river and First Avenue. The bike route is supposed to go on a 16-foot-high bridge and levee through the bottomland behind his property. Then it's supposed to turn west along North Avenue, taking part of a motel's property and five parking spaces from the Homestead.
Ricketts got a letter in mid-April advising him of the Forest Preserve District's designs on his land and inviting him to participate in planning the route. "My wife and I went over to forest preserve headquarters," he recalls. "They had this path--not really a path, but a paved road with a yellow stripe down the middle--mapped out. I pointed out that one section they said would run parallel to the river was actually in the river. They said, 'Well no, it's the floodplain.' I said, 'Well no, it's the river.' The riverbed comes literally up to the edge of my property.
"I'm not a forest preserve guy. I'm in the restaurant business. But I can tell you what a river looks like, and this is a river. And if you put asphalt and concrete in the river, you will change the course of the river--you'll dam the river. Dam it at our property and it's going to back flow to North and Thatcher."
One day Ricketts saw four forest preserve employees emerge from the weeds in his back lot. "One of them was introduced to me as the forest preserve ecologist. I asked him, 'Can you honestly tell me that you can do this bike road without disturbing the ecology of what is basically a swamp?' He couldn't answer me." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ellen Hildner photo by Nathan Mandell.