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Legislature takes axe to Cook County forest preserve plan

From nearly 200 miles away, the Illinois Legislature is casting a shadow over the Cook County forest preserves.

In its recently adopted plan for the next century, the forest preserve district set a goal of expanding its acreage from 68,000 to 90,000 acres.

That required going to Springfield because state law caps maximum the number of acres in Cook County at 75,000. No one expected much of a fuss, and it was even described beforehand as a “merely” bill, i.e, one that merely tweaks an existing law in such a minor way that no one opposes it.

The idea was supported by the county and environmental groups, and no one had registered any objection.

But when state Rep. Kelly Burke actually introduced the bill, she ran into the kind of buzz saw that developers like to bring in before they start building on formerly wooded tracts. After two short debates, it was shot down on its third reading, partly because some lawmakers thought it would expand the district’s bonding authority.

“They took exception to some of the bonding authority, and I tried to stress that it wasn’t giving the forest preserve any new authority in terms of what they are entitled to do under statute anyway,” Burke said.

The bill also was opposed by the Cook County Farm Bureau. Bona Heinsohn, director of public policy and public relations, said the bureau’s board is opposed because of doubts about the district’s ability to “to manage and restore the current acreage.”

The bureau wasn’t worried about the district trying to condemn farmland because the forest preserve superintendent had testified it would not do so, she said. A 2007 survey showed the county still has 23,836 acres of farmland, but most of that is in small parcels, she said. A farmer might farm 10 acres, then travel a few miles down to road to work another 10 acres, and then go a few more miles to work another five, she said.

There’s no rush to get the expansion approved, because at the rate it buys a few hundred acres here and few hundred there, it will take a long time before the district hits its 75,000-acre cap.

That will give Burke plenty of time to reintroduce a bill, perhaps after making sure lawmakers don’t think it's altering the district’s bonding authority.

“Like any good strategic plan they are trying to put a roadmap in place and this is one of the things they thought they needed to do in order to make their roadmap work,” Burke said.