Cook County’s forest preserves need our help if they are to flourish in the future

Collar county forest preserve districts have passed multiple referendums to improve their holdings. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County never has done so.

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Snowy egrets at the Forest Preserve District of Cook County’s Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve in south suburban Burnham.

David Gruver for Friends of the Forest Preserves/Provided photo

As tens of thousands of people head to the Cook County forest preserves to celebrate this Fourth of July weekend, we’re reminded that the woods and fields they’re enjoying could use and deserve some help.

Cook County’s forest preserves were the first among counties in the nation, and their 70,000 acres of woodlands, savannas, prairies, wetlands and groves add up to more natural land in a heavily populated area than anywhere else in North America. The pandemic reminded many people of how valuable a resource the preserves are, offering a glorious escape in a congested metropolis.

But, even as surrounding counties have passed multiple referendums over the years to improve their forest preserves, Cook County never has.

It is time to do so.

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The district’s land is more than a scenic place to hike, cycle, canoe or reduce stress. Its flora counteracts climate change, cleans the air and provides habitat for wildlife. The preserves absorb storm water and reduce flooding. But the district is struggling to carry out its mission.

Seven years ago, the forest preserve district drew up a farsighted program, its Next Century Conservation Plan, laying out how it will restore land, improve its more than 350 miles of trails, expand its holdings and upgrade in other ways. It has made some progress.

But if the district can’t come up with more money, it won’t be able to do all that needs to be done. It will have to cut programs and services. It won’t be able to catch up on deferred maintenance. It won’t be able to do as many educational programs at its nature centers. It won’t be able to replace as many invasive plants with native species that have deeper root systems and hold more water. It won’t be able to acquire and restore more land for future generations. It already has dipped into its rainy day fund.

Although the district’s pension fund is better financed than that of many other local governments, it still has a shortfall, partly because a significant reduction in the number of workers means fewer are paying into the system. The district needs to fully fund its pensions so payments are not draining money needed for other priorities. Forest preserve workers don’t get Social Security, and their average pension is $33,224 a year. It makes sense to get the pension fund on sound financial footing.

If passed, the referendum also would provide much-needed money for the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden. The forest preserve district gives money to the zoo and garden but doesn’t have enough to meet their needs. Both Brookfield Zoo and Botanic Garden do a good job of fund-raising, but they need the district’s help, especially for such prosaic but important things as replacing heating systems in buildings.

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Many of the nearly 100-year-old zoo’s exhibit areas have deteriorated to the point that animals cannot occupy them. You can walk for stretches at the zoo without seeing a single animal. The zoo has huge capital needs.

As for the Botanic Garden, since it opened about a half-century ago, it has become a worldwide attraction, more popular than anyone imagined. It now has more than a million visitors a year. The infrastructure, such as roofs, walking paths and parking lots, is creaking under the strain. The garden also needs more greenhouses.

Unlike the long-ago days when the forest preserves were seen as a patronage dumping ground, environmentalists say district officials have been turning things around. The amount of land under ecological restoration has doubled. The district’s Conservation Corps program provides jobs for high school youths. There are new campgrounds, more trails and nature play areas.

Since 2010, the district has acquired more than 1,200 acres. It needs to buy more land — while it is still undeveloped — to protect natural habitat and link up existing forest preserve land where possible, both for recreation and to support local wildlife.

The Cook County Board, which also acts as the board of the forest preserve district, will vote in July and again in December on putting a tax-increase referendum on the November 2022 ballot. Commissioners have indicated they support the idea.

If the board does go with the referendum, it should be an easy call for voters. Less than 1% of the property taxes levied on an average home goes to the forest preserve district. If the referendum passes, the increase would be an estimated $20 a year on an average home.

Like the lakefront, Cook County’s expansive forest preserves are a defining feature of the Chicago area. They are a jewel in need of caring stewardship.

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