September 22, 2014
A century ago, a forward-looking Cook County pioneered the idea of forest preserves, bequeathing a legacy of extensive natural acreage that is the envy of many urban areas.
Now, during the forest preserves’ centennial celebration, it’s time to take the next step forward and give the district its own independent governing body.
Through a fluke of governmental history, the makeup of the forest preserve board — while technically a separate government — is identical to the County Board. Sometimes the commissioners meet as the County Board, at other sessions they assemble as the forest preserve district.
Under that structure, the forest preserves become virtually an afterthought. The county is a complex $3.5 billion-a-year operation, compared with the forest preserves’ $57 million annual corporate fund. Commissioners focused on the county’s sprawling operations have little time left to worry about whether excessive stormwater runoff is changing the natural flora somewhere in the woods.
The priorities of the two governments also create inherent conflicts of interest. The county’s goal of encouraging economic development for the region and the forest preserves’ goal of protecting land against development can be at odds.
In the next legislative session, the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan government watchdog group, plans to push the Legislature to create a separate elected — and nonpaid — board to run the forest preserves. That’s what DuPage County did 11 years ago.
Another option under study is to create an independent appointed board of trustees that would run the forest preserves much as independent boards now manage the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden, which both are technically part of the forest preserve district.
Because of innovative thinking a century ago, Cook County got a big jump in natural preservation, but its antiquated governance structure has held it back in recent decades. Since 1988, other governmental units in northeastern Illinois have floated 55 separate referendums that have raised money for the purchase of 40,000 acres of open space. Cook County, in contrast, didn’t have even one. The forest preserves’ land acquisition plan calls for buying an additional 6,000 acres before the county is fully developed and all the open land is gone, but at this rate that will never happen.
An independent board also is needed to protect the open space we already have. In an urban area of competing interests, someone always is proposing a “better” use of forest preserve land: parks, hospitals, landfills, college campuses, businesses that would provide jobs or other uses. Sometimes forest preserve land is taken, even though it’s supposed to be preserved permanently once it’s set aside. In 2002, Rosemont managed to get two acres of forest preserve land to expand its convention center, even though a citizen advisory group voted unanimously to reject the idea.
There are other examples when the forest preserves wound up in the back seat. Under former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, the county transferred forest preserve money into its own budget, later trading back subpar land near Oak Forest Hospital.
Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, says the once-popular toboggan slides at Swallow Cliff never would have been allowed to deteriorate to the point where they no longer were safe had the forest preserves had an independent board. The slides were taken out in 2008.
“We are not well served by the Cook County Board doing double duty as the Cook County Forest Preserve Board,” Msall says.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and forest preserve managers are widely credited with improving the operations of the forest preserve district. But that doesn’t guarantee the next administration will perform as well. We need a solution that will help the forest preserves, and the county’s residents, for the next 100 years.