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'A better kept secret than it should be.' Celebrating 100 years of the Winnebago Forest Preserves

WNIJ celebrates the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County's centennial anniversary
Alison Weust
WNIJ prepared a printable map of the county forest preserves

This year marks the centennial anniversary of the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County. What started as a single 228 acre preservation near Rockton, IL has grown to over 11,000 acres of high quality natural areas throughout the Rockford metro area.

The Forest Preserves of Winnebago County were officially established on November 7,1922 but didn’t acquire its first property until two years later. Ann Wasser, the director of education for the Forest Preserves said they’ve been slowly adding properties ever since.

“Whether it's through purchase or donation, we’re really looking at trying to preserve the county's natural resources,” said Wasser. "Its prairies and woodlands and wetland areas, and help restore those areas that need to be restored and keep those high quality natural areas high quality.”

At the guilford county forest preserve in Rockford, IL
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
At the Guilford Forest Preserve in Rockford, IL

Wasser adds that the goal of the forest preserves is to maintain thriving ecosystems not only for residents of Winnebago County but also for the plants and wildlife whose habitats have been replaced with urban and commercial development.

The R. Robert Funderburg Forest Preserve was the 44th and latest addition to Winnebago’s expanding family of preserves. Wasser adds that with the addition of the Funderburg site, there are now some 1700 acres of contiguous natural area.

“It's completed a network of natural areas down here in the southwest part of Winnebago County,” said Wasser. “Because you've got Severson Dells Forest Preserve. You've got Howard Coleman Hall Creek Preserve. And then you have the Byron Forest Preserve, which is also a Coleman Dells property as well.”

Part of the challenge of natural areas management in the Midwest in particular, is that it is very much a patchwork between agriculture and urban development and suburban sprawl. Wasser explains that being able to conserve large tracts of abutting, natural area is rare.

“So in places that we can do that, we should definitely try because there are definitely species that need those bigger pieces of connected property,” said Wasser.

The way Wasser sees it, people in Winnebago county have options when it comes to outdoor recreation, 44 of them. And counting.

WNIJ has compiled a map of the sites. You will find a printable, ink friendly map of the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County.

The Forest Preserves of Winnebago County has a series of events planned throughout the summer to commemorate its centennial anniversary. For more information visit https://www.winnebagoforest.org/.

Juanpablo covers environmental, substandard housing and police-community relations. He’s been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office in Chicago. As a civic reporting fellow at City Bureau, a non-profit news organization that focuses on Chicago’s South Side, Ramirez-Franco produced print and audio stories about the Pilsen neighborhood. Before that, he was a production intern at the Third Coast International Audio Festival and the rural America editorial intern at In These Times magazine. Ramirez-Franco grew up in northern Illinois. He is a graduate of Knox College.