Caring for Highland Park’s Backyard: A Team Approach

May 17, 2022

Imagine that your backyard covers 800 acres. If you live in Highland Park, in a way, it does. That is the size of the land cared for within the boundaries of the Park District of Highland Park.

Caring for this big outdoor space is a team overseen by Dan Voss, Director of Parks.  “It definitely requires a multi-pronged approach,” notes Voss. “There is a difference in managing a large community park such as Danny Cunniff Park with its athletic fields and playgrounds and a woodland preserve such as Heller Nature Center.

Consider the District’s newest park –The Preserve of Highland Park.  Located adjacent to the Recreation Center of Highland Park, the new park includes 100 acres of green lawns, nature-based play areas, specialized native gardens, restored woodlands, and walking and biking trails that connect neighborhoods, downtown Highland Park, and regional biking trails.

The first thing a new visitor to The Preserve may notice is that half of the Park’s acres are planted with native flowers and select grasses that thrive there. These new habitat areas are a welcome addition to the land already managed by the District’s natural areas program led by Rebecca Grill, natural areas manager.

“It’s a park that will attract people who won’t necessarily seek out a forest preserve or even our own Heller Nature Center,” Grill says. “At the same time, it is a park we will manage a little bit differently than our other large community parks such as Cunniff or Fink Parks. 

One surprise may be the necessity of mowing native areas. “That surprises people,” Grills says. “They say, ‘Why did you cut everything down? It looked great.’ We have to think down the road, and sometimes we have to mow down areas to add additional seeds, or because we have invasive annual weeds growing.”

At the same time, there will be more traditional gardening going on than at any of the designated natural areas as found in parks such as Heller.  Specialized gardens that showcase pollinator plants, native shrubs, and native plants in a traditional garden bed will require careful pruning and care of native shrubs and a small grove of apple trees.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t have green spaces within The Preserve,” Grill continues. “That was deliberate in creating areas for picnicking or areas for a pick-up ballgame. Stepping in and out of natural areas into those mowed green areas will give visitors a sense of stewardship.”

For those areas, traditional parks maintenance including weed whipping, lawn mowing, and trash removal will be essential. “To cover both aspects, the District has been able to bring on staff that has specialized skills in ecological restoration and knows how to manage a traditional park,” says Voss.

An essential part of the Park District’s management program is its volunteers. Grill estimates volunteers perform about 2,000 hours of community service annually. “A core group helps us every Friday working in different locations,” she says.  Put these all together, and you get a success story like the Skokie-River Woods project. Since 2009, roughly 15 acres of wetlands on the parcel of land along Highway 41 have been restored or enhanced. This was done in consort with the City of Highland Park, which owns the land, the Lake County Forest Preserve District, the Stormwater Management Commission (SMC), grant money through the Illinois Department of Resources and volunteer groups such as the Boy Scouts, whose troop members pulled invasive plants like buckthorn. In 2016, the Park District won an SMC award for best management practices.

“We’re fortunate that Highland Park residents appreciate, enjoy, and understand their natural areas,” Voss says. “We’re very appreciative we have support from our Park Board and lucky we’re able to have a budget that allows us to not only have staff to maintain the areas but also to bring in contractual services that we would otherwise not have the manpower to perform.”

To inquire about volunteering with the Park District of Highland Park, contact Liz Ricketts at [email protected].