Reclaiming our forest preserves

January 24, 2014 6:56PM

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Updated: February 27, 2014 6:44AM

It’s not often that someone turns over a new leaf at age 100.

But in a change that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago, that’s what the Cook County Forest Preserve District is doing.

On Friday, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle officially accepted the Next Century Conservation Plan, which lays out a vision of what the district can accomplish in the next 100 years.

Is this a big change? Yes. Do you remember the last time the district made any sweeping plans, other than hiring the next patronage worker? We don’t, either.

But a plan is needed. The forest preserves are dotted with crumbling relics of bridges, shelters and lookouts that a lack of repair has turned into little more than piles of weed-covered rocks. Invasive species such as buckthorn run rampant in the groves. Only 3,000 of the preserves’ 69,000 acres are considered to be in good ecological health, meaning they are populated by native plants and have good soil conditions.

The plan calls for restoring native landscapes, making the preserves more inviting, adding 21,000 more acres of open space, expanding the economic benefits and sustaining conservation and accountability. It calls for finding ways of improving transportation to natural areas so more people can use them, which would particularly benefit people living in the city. In short, it’s all about reclaiming the legacy of protecting land in a natural state.

It’s exactly what the forest preserves have needed for years.

That said, though, the district should not be in such a rush that it too quickly looks for additional tax revenues. The conservancy group Openlands, which helped develop the plan, estimated it would require $40 million a year in new revenue to implement the full plan.

But leaving out the costs for Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden, the district’s budget is only $70 million a year. Boosting that by another $40 million through property taxes isn’t realistic. The district should continue to pursue land donations, partnerships with groups such as Openlands and other tactics to meet its goals. It also could stretch out its timeline for completing the first round of specific goals in the plan, which are now expected to be put in place over 25 years.

A missing piece of the plan is one that’s necessary to maintain the district’s new momentum: a separate forest preserve board, not just a separate policy board as is now envisioned. Right now, the forest preserve board is same as the Cook County Board — the same commissioners wearing different hats. But Cook County’s government is far bigger than the forest preserve, and some of the commissioners tend to forget about the smaller agency. For example, only three of the 17 commissioners were on hand Friday when the new plan was officially rolled out. They were outnumbered by enthusiastic representatives of forest preserve districts in neighboring counties.

Although the people who created the forest preserve district a century ago had remarkable vision, those running it in the intervening decades did not. In recent decades, the bureaucracy was so bungled that a surprising percentage of employees didn’t even know who their supervisors were. Workers kept their heads down and avoided doing too much. Supervisors thought nothing of hiring a clerk who couldn’t type, a trail maintenance worker who wouldn’t use a chain saw or a police officer who refused to venture where there was trouble. But big steps forward have been made, and last year the district was even ruled to be in substantial compliance with the anti-patronage Shakman decree.

The district needs to maintain this positive momentum, and its new plan holds out hope it will do so.

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