A Short History of Friends of Thorn Creek Woods aka Thorn Creek Preservation Association

Friends of Thorn Creek began in the 1960s as a group of Park Forest neighbors, most living along Monee Road, Stuenkel Road and Oakhill Drive near the woods, that started meeting at each other’s houses and urging the village to create a greenbelt around Park Forest. The group explored the woods and came to believe the whole woods, some 900 acres was worthy of preservation.

It was an idea that was immediately challenged since developers, looking to take advantage of new federal tax incentives offered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, had targeted the central and southern parts of the woods for housing, plus an expressway was planned to bisect the woods.

The group, incorporated in 1969 as the Thorn Creek Preservation Association, mounted a multi-pronged campaign to preserve the woods: get agencies to purchase the land; have all local and state agencies include Thorn Creek in their open space planning and to actively support its preservation; and reach out to experts to confirm what TCPA believed – that Thorn Creek Woods was special and should be off limits to development. And woven through all these tasks was getting public and political support.

TCPA worked with botanists and ecologists from the universities and groups like Open Lands Project, NIPC (Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission), Thorn Creek Audubon Society and Sierra Club. These experts confirmed that the woods represented a rare glimpse of pre-settlement woodland landscape worthy of preservation.

TCPA members donned hiking boots and walked the woods with representatives of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, the Department of Conservation, Lieutenant Governor Paul Simon, Governor Richard Ogilvie, Representative Edward Derwinski, Speaker Robert Blair, many state and village officials and local school groups – guiding and educating them about the woods. TCPA attended meetings, wrote letters and made phone calls to both political parties, local governments, schools and other agencies to bring political and public pressure to preserve the woods. The early support of the Village of Park Forest was critical to these efforts, notably Bernard Cunningham, Ralph Johnson, Mayer Singerman, Bob Pierce and John Joyce.

It soon became clear that no one agency would be able to buy the entire woods, so TCPA focused on convincing a number of agencies to acquire separate parcels, and just as importantly, devise ways that all these parcels could be managed as a unified whole and permanently protected.

The TCPA spearheaded the complex negotiations for purchase of the woods, which eventually resulted in the Villages of Park Forest and University Park, the Forest Preserve District of Will County and the Illinois Department of Conservation all owning acreage. The land was acquired over the years utilizing various grants and lawsuits, and some of the acreage was transferred from New Community Enterprises in the HUD settlement.

The Association worked hard to ensure that the woods were managed as one single entity even though there were multiple land owners, and to ensure that the citizen group would be actively involved in whatever management decisions were made. To this end, a Park Forest member whose house bordered the woods donated a foot of their land so that the TCPA qualified as a land-owning entity in this new fangled inter-governmental management commission. It took several years to finalize this agreement, and in 1977 the Management Commission took its current form composed of the villages, forest preserve and TCPA – continuing citizen input to this day.

With green streamers flying from the nature center steeple, the woods was dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve on June 4, 1978 – permanently protecting the land, its plants and animals for nature study and hiking.

In the 1980’s, the Association changed its name to Friends of Thorn Creek Woods to better reflect its ongoing stewardship of the woods. Over the years, 1500 people have worked as volunteers to acquire land, build and maintain three and a half miles of trails, study and record different plants and animals in the woods, and deliver nature education programs to children and adults. In 1972 a civil war era church building was donated and in 1976 was opened to the public as a nature center developed by TCPA and the Village of Park Forest.

What is now a 985 acre preserve began with just a handful of Park Forest neighbors who gathered together and looked across the street from their homes and saw something wild, something unique and something worth fighting for. Thanks to their efforts, generations to come will be able to come here and see the very same thing.