Cook County Forest Reserves Need Our Help To Thrive In The Future | Editorial
As tens of thousands of people head to Cook County Forest Reserves to celebrate this July 4th weekend, we are reminded that the woods and fields they enjoy could be useful and deserve help.
Cook County Forest Reserves were the top among counties in the country, and their 70,000 acres of forests, savannahs, meadows, wetlands and groves add to more natural land in a densely populated area than everywhere else in North America. The pandemic has reminded many of how precious reserves are, providing a glorious escape to a crowded metropolis.
But, even though surrounding counties have passed several referendums over the years to improve their forest reserves, Cook County never did.
It is time to do it.
The district lands are more than a scenic place to hike, bike, canoe, or reduce stress. Its flora neutralizes climate change, cleans the air and provides habitat for wildlife. Reserves absorb storm water and reduce flooding. But the district is struggling to carry out its mission.
Seven years ago, the Forest Reserve District put together a forward-looking program, its next century conservation plan, outlining how it will restore the lands, improve its more than 350 miles of trails, expand its holdings, and improve others. manners. He’s made some progress.
But if the district can’t find more money, it won’t be able to do everything that needs to be done. It will have to cut programs and services. He will not be able to make up for deferred maintenance. It will not be able to do so many educational programs in its nature centers. He won’t be able to replace so many invasive plants with native species that have deeper root systems and hold more water. He will not be able to acquire and restore more land for future generations. He has already dipped into his fund for rainy days.
Although the district pension fund is better funded than that of many other local governments, it still has a deficit, in part because a significant reduction in the number of workers means less contributions to the system. The district must fully fund its pensions so that payments do not drain the money needed for other priorities. Workers in forest reserves do not have social security and their average pension is $ 33,224 per year. It makes sense to put the pension fund on a sound financial footing.
If passed, the referendum will also provide much-needed money for the Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Botanical Garden. The Forest Reserve District donates money to the zoo and the garden but does not have enough to meet their needs. The Brookfield Zoo and Botanical Garden both do a good job of fundraising, but they need the district’s help, especially with such mundane but important things like replacing heating systems in buildings.
Many exhibit areas in the nearly 100-year-old zoo have deteriorated to the point where animals can no longer occupy them. You can walk around the zoo without seeing a single animal. The zoo has huge capital needs.
As for the Botanical Garden, since its opening about half a century ago, it has become a world attraction, more popular than imagined. Today it welcomes more than a million visitors a year. Infrastructure, such as roofs, walking paths and parking lots, creaks under pressure. The garden also needs more greenhouses.
Unlike the days when forest reserves were seen as a dumping ground for favoritism, environmentalists say district officials have made a difference. The area of land under ecological restoration has doubled. The district’s Conservation Corps program provides jobs for high school youth. There are new campgrounds, more trails and natural play areas.
Since 2010, the district has acquired over 1,200 acres. He needs to purchase more land – while it is still undeveloped – to protect natural habitat and connect existing forest preservation lands where possible, both for recreation and to support local wildlife.
Cook County Council, which also acts as the Forest Reserve District Governing Board, will vote in July and again in December on holding a referendum on raising taxes in the poll of November 2022. Commissioners have indicated support for the idea.
If the council accepts the referendum, it should be an easy call for voters. Less than 1% of the property taxes levied on an average house goes to the forest reserve district. If the referendum passes, the increase would be about $ 20 per year for an average home.
Like the lakeside, Cook County’s vast forest reserves are a defining feature of the Chicago area. They are a gem in need of caring stewardship.
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