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A small amount of extra money will help the forest preserves bloom
With more natural land in a heavily populated area than anywhere else in North America, the preserves are almost like having a national park right here at home.
Wednesday, September 28, 2022 Chicago Sun-Times by EDITORIAL BOARD
Forest preserves, like the trees, other plants and wildlife they are home to, need proper sustenance to thrive.
Yet since the visionary creation of the Cook County forest preserves more than a century ago, there never has been a referendum to provide more resources for the preserves, even as the collar counties have done so repeatedly for their own natural spaces. Voters can remedy that in the Nov. 8 election, when a county referendum will appear on the ballot.
A nominal increase in the forest preserve property tax — less than $1.66 a month for most homeowners — would allow for the restoration of 30,000 acres, acquiring 27,000 acres over the next 20 years and boosting year-round engagement programs.
It also would provide much-needed money for the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden, which sit on forest preserve land and are partly funded by the district. Both the zoo and garden have pressing infrastructure needs. Without a referendum, the forest preserve district cannot raise a nickel of taxes on its own.
The COVID-19 pandemic gave many people a tremendous appreciation for having nature and its psychic healing powers close by. With more natural land in a heavily populated area than anywhere else in North America, the preserves are almost like having a national park right here at home. They are accessible for a pleasant ramble without having to get on an airplane.
During the pandemic, more than 100,000 people a year visited the forest preserves, whose cumulative acreage is larger than almost 20 national parks. Cook County’s preserves had more than eight times the 14.1 million visits to the Great Smoky Mountains, the nation’s most popular national park.
On pleasant weekends, cyclists enjoy trips on bike trails, and many people gather for cook-outs in the numerous groves. Nature lovers can spot a wide variety of stunning wildlife, including migrating birds that visit the preserves in the spring and fall. Hikers turn out in every kind of weather.
The forest preserves make Cook County the most ecologically diverse county in the state. Yet many of the district’s trails and facilities need a facelift. Scenic shelters and bridges built decades ago have crumbled away. Some stretches of the more than 350 trails need significant improvements. Roadways, pollution and invasive plants continue to cause ecological damage. The district needs upgrades to its central warehouse, fleet garage and other support facilities to efficiently provide maintenance.
It is also becoming ever more clear how the forest preserve district’s 70,000 acres of woodlands, savannas, prairies and wetlands are a nature-based ally in addressing climate change. The millions of trees and other greenery in the preserves provide wildlife habitat, filter the air, store carbon, restore oxygen to the atmosphere, filter pollutants from surface water and reduce the amount of storm water runoff that floods waterways and basements.
Deer Grove East has undergone restoration by Openlands in close partnership with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. It is now home to 389 different native plant and animal species and is a great place to spot such birds as sandhill cranes, Henslow sparrows, red-headed woodpeckers and bobolinks.|Photo provided by Openlands
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Camp Bullfrog Lake in Willow Springs.|Jeanne Ayers for Friends of the Forest Preserves/Provided photo
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A family enjoys a picnic at the Ned Brown Forest Preserve, commonly known as Busse Woods, in northwest Cook County.|Forest Preserve District of Cook County photo
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A great blue heron at LaBagh Woods in Chicago.|Corrina Jorgensen for Friends of the Forest Preserves/Provided photo
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Children learn to fish during the Forest Preserves’ annual Kids’ Fest event at Wampum Lake in south Cook County.|Forest Preserve District of Cook County photo
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The Chicago Botanic Garden boasts many ponds and streams among its 26 gardens.|Sun-Times Library
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Belleau Lake in Park Ridge is one of the deepest lakes in the Cook County forest preserves, with a maximum depth of 31.6 feet.|Thomas Frisbie/Sun-Times
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Kids carry a canoe during a summer camp program in the Forest Preserves of Cook County.|Forest Preserve District of Cook County photo
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The Deer Grove west entrance along Quentin Road north of Dundee Road in Palatine. Deer Grove is the oldest forest preserve in the nation.|Sun-Times Library
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A picnic shelter at the Forest Preserve District of Cook County’s Allison Woods that was built during the Depression through a public works project, probably the Civilian Conservation Corps or the WPA.|Thomas Frisbie/Sun-Times
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Blue violets in the Ned Brown Forest Preserve, popularly known as Busse Woods, near Elk Grove Village.|Maria Sacha for Friends of the Forest Preserves/Provided photo
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The forest preserve district already has dipped into its rainy day fund to keep going. Without money from the referendum, it will run into crises, including a pension shortfall that will grow exponentially without a fix now. But with the new money, the district will be positioned to succeed for the next generation.
Residents of many other areas of the country would gladly have a system of forest preserves like Cook County’s. The small tax increase that would be authorized by the referendum would ensure residents here protect what they have.
Less than 1% of the property taxes levied on an average home goes to the forest preserve district. It’s not just an amazing value, but also a wise investment in one of the county’s jewels — and in ourselves.