Cook County Forest Preserve District leaders on Friday unveiled sweeping plans to overhaul the sprawling system, an ambitious program to restore 30,000 acres to a pristine state, buy more land and draw thousands of new people to the natural areas.
But the proposed improvements to the long-neglected system come with a steep price tag and few details as to where the tens of millions of dollars needed to reach the goals will come from. Members of a panel that put together the 25-year outline say a property tax increase could be part of the mix, but County Board President Toni Preckwinkle declined to say whether she supports such a move.
The idea is to rehab both the habitats and the image of a forest preserve district that even advocates acknowledge suffered for decades as a premium was put on patronage workers instead of maintenance of the 100-year-old system.
“There really hasn’t been much planning since they were founded… this was part of the Burnham Plan, and the preserves and the lakefront were the only parts (of that) that were implemented,” said longtime observer and frequent critic Stephen Packard of the National Audubon Society.
“There is a lot of enthusiasm for what has been going on (at the forest preserve district) in the past few years.”
The blueprint, created by a commission formed by Preckwinkle last year, calls for finding $40 million a year for 25 years to restore some 30,000 acres that have been overrun by invasive species that have choked out native plants and fauna. Of the nearly 69,000 acres now owned by the district, only about 3,000 are considered in healthy ecological condition.
The district also would seek money to buy more than 20,000 additional acres of land in Cook County that naturalists have identified as natural areas in need of preservation.
All told, the 25-year-plan calls for spending $1 billion to $2 billion, with a newly formed charitable foundation helping raise money to foot a portion of the tab, and a combination of volunteers and a new Civilian Conservation Corps.
For years, advocates have called for more money to be spent, arguing the current budget of about $86 million from tax revenue is not enough to maintain the largest, and oldest, forest preserve system in the nation. The district, which comprises less than 1 percent of a typical Cook County tax bill, also provides some funding for the Chicago Botanic Garden as well as the Brookfield Zoo.
Friday’s announcement comes as the district seeks to reclaim tens of thousands of acres now dominated by invasive species like buckthorn and honeysuckle. After years of neglect and mismanagement, conservationists are working to restore flora that bloomed in the region for centuries before being choked out by “green deserts” of non-native plants and trees.
The plan is a first for the 100-year-old forest preserve system, said Ben Cox, director of the watchdog group Friends of the Forest Preserves.
When the district was created at the turn of the last century, the preserves were envisioned as a belt of parks and woods that would provide a respite for urban dwellers, though the district long ago earned a reputation as a thriving habitat for patronage workers.
Early conservationists assumed that leaving the land untended would preserve its natural character, and over the decades, county leadership has tasked the district staff with maintaining less naturalistic settings, like golf courses, said Ben Cox, director of the preserves watchdog group Friends of the Forest Preserves.
Over the years, the reputation of the woods themselves suffered, Cox said, as much of the acreage became overgrown and a generation of county residents came to know county preserves at best as pleasant picnic grounds, and at worst, a scary tangle of forbidding underbrush.
“People just aren’t aware of the forest preserves and what is available there, and some of what they do see is just not inviting,” Cox said.
Forest Preserve Superintendent Arnold Randall acknowledged that one priority is increasing use of the forest preserves, particularly by Chicago residents who have only about 3,000 acres of forest preserve land within city limits. In recent years, the district have added activities such as camping and canoeing, and has stepped up collaborations with schools and naturalist groups.
“Many people are not aware of the treasure that we have here in the forest preserves,” he said.
County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, whose north suburban district includes the Skokie Lagoons, said he’s excited about the plan and optimistic that its implementation will bring more people to the preserves. But citing the potential for private donations and federal funding, he said any talk of a property tax hike is premature.
“I think there a whole number ways of funding it other than tax increases,” Suffredin said. “I think it’s a mistake to immediately presume that to do these things we’re going to have to, in some huge way, increase the property taxes for the forest preserves.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun