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  Last year more people used the County's forest preserves than visited Yellowstone National Park.

Conservationists back forest preserve budget

Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

Conservation groups and trail users gave high marks Tuesday to the Cook County Forest Preserve District's proposed 2006 budget.

Unlike in previous years that saw continually deteriorating conditions at the preserves, Supt. Steve Bylina has placed an emphasis on conservation and acquiring new land.

"(Conservation) has always been a priority, but in the past it might have been somewhat neglected ... as perceived by the environmentalists," Bylina said. "In the past few years, we've acknowledged that fact, and they've supported the budget."

Frequent district critics Friends of the Forest Preserve, Friends of the Parks and the Sierra Club joined in the praise.

"Today, the picnic groves are cleaner, the trails are better groomed and marked, restroom facilities are much improved, and graffiti and trash are down," said Friends of the Forest Preserve executive director Benjamin Cox.

Cox and others praised the district's $46.1 million operating budget for increasing money to purchase land for preservation and adding naturalists and front-line maintenance workers.
The budget proposal would increase the property tax levy by 8.5 percent, or $6.4 million. That will mean an average tax increase of about $2.74 for a home worth $200,000.

Half of the tax increase goes to funding operations, while the other half goes to paying back last year's $50 million bond sale for districtwide renovations.

The district's plan to spend that bond money has been vague and too secretive, sai d the Civic Federation, a government watchdog group that was the only group that came forward with blanket opposition to the budget.

"The process lacked transparency," foundation research director Lise Valentine said. "Two budgets (after the bond sale), and all we have is a list with one- or two-word names for projects."

Valentine said the district needed a more public comprehensive capital improvement plan, like Chicago's.

Bylina said information has been presented at public board meetings, and more details will be released shortly as commissioners are asked to approve projects.

Bylina said it was his staff who were in the best position to judge what improvements the district needs.

"We have come up with a list that comes from painstaking research over many years," Bylina said. "We can go back and forth on this forever."

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