Are Forest Preserves really about maintaining property values and quality of life, not protecting nature?

Each day on the way to and from work I drive past multiple Forest Preserve properties. They are generally green and open, providing a relaxing scene under the rising sun or after a long day. Yet, how much are they really about preserving or protecting nature as opposed to improving the quality of life of suburbanites? Are these two goals antithetical to each other?

The DuPage County Forest Preserve – alongside others in the Chicago metropolitan region – has been aggressive over the decades in purchasing land. The pace of acquisition picked up after World War II in the era of mass suburbanization where development eventually spread throughout all of Cook, DuPage, and Lake County. See an animation here of the land acquired by the DuPage County Forest Preserve since 1920.

The mission of the organization is stated here:

As mandated by the Illinois Downstate Forest Preserve Act, our mission is “to acquire and hold lands containing forests, prairies, wetlands, and associated plant communities or lands capable of being restored to such natural conditions for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora, fauna and scenic beauty for the education, pleasure and recreation of its citizens.”

The mission mentions both nature and citizens. But, one way to look at the acquisitions is that they enhance the quality of life of wealthier residents by providing green and/or open space that will not be developed, offering recreational opportunities, and raising property values for nearby housing and not just for those that border the properties but for numerous developments who don’t have to contend with more nearby developments. Of course, forest preserves and parks can be used by residents of all class backgrounds. Yet, taking away all of the land from possible development means that affordable housing – already limited in wealthier places like DuPage County – may be even less possible. Property values are always lurking in the background of development decisions in the suburbs and I suspect it is relevant here.

Additionally, “protecting and preserving” nature is a tricky business. It is not exactly in a “natural state” as human beings have been in the area for at least hundreds of years going back to the first white settlers in the 1830s and Native American groups as least a few decades before that. These Forest Preserves present a particular kind of nature, one that this is never too far from busy roads, housing developments, tricky water run-off situations, and pollution. This is made more clear in the term sometimes used of “open space” where concerned suburbanites want empty land.

In the end, do suburbanites really desire Forest Preserves for the mediated nature they provide or the enhanced quality of life they bring? The answer might be both but we rarely discuss the implications of the second reason.

Using the Forest Preserve to protect thousands of acres

The Chicago Tribune highlights the proactive efforts of the Cook County Forest Preserve to protect land:

Why does Cook County have a bigger, better-distributed array of preserves than does any other U.S. metropolis?

In part because indefatigable visionaries (1) projected metro Chicago to someday grow to 10 million people, (2) figured that property development would devour unprotected plots of land, and (3) staged their own land grab so greenery forever would punctuate urban sprawl. As public health pioneer Dr. John Rauch said after the Civil War in his much-cited push for a Chicago parks district, “we want not alone a place for business, but also one in which we can live.”

But the key stroke of brilliance came in 1904 from architect Dwight H. Perkins and landscape architect Jens Jensen. They studied Cook County’s still open lands and concluded: “Instead of acquiring space only, the opportunity exists for preserving country naturally beautiful. … Another reason for acquiring these outer areas is the necessity of providing for future generations …” The upshot was a state law that created the district and its mission statement — overwhelmingly tipped toward preserving and protecting lands, plants and animals rather than toward ball fields, playgrounds and other park-like recreation…

In January a blue-ribbon panel of outsiders set that 25-year agenda, including: Acquire another 20,000 prime acres selected by naturalists, rehab 30,000 acres overrun by invasive plants, and build a huge network of volunteers and members of a new Civilian Conservation Corps. We’re counting on a new policy council of volunteers with excellent conservation cred to ride herd on the plan. Distinguished groups such as Openlands and Metropolis Strategies also are on the case.

For those concerned about sprawl, efforts like those of the Cook County Forest Preserve, the DuPage County Forest Preserve, and other bodies have helped retain some open land amidst 9+ million residents in the Chicago region. These spaces are often more “natural” than sculpted parks even if I’ve heard hundreds of jokes about the lack of nature in northeastern Illinois (nature seems to equal hills or mountains for many). Chicago may be a world leader in regards to its lakefront parks but the collection of Forest Preserves across the region is also pretty unique.

On the other hand, it would be interesting to note how many Chicago area residents utilize these Forest Preserves that are within an easy drive for many. I drive past several DuPage Forest Preserve properties each day and yet I don’t think I visited any during this calendar year. (In contrast, I’ve used the Prairie Path dozens of times. This trail was started by citizens and today is maintained by a number of groups.) The Forest Preservers are supported with tax dollars so if people want a return on that money, they should utilize these spaces. (However, if everyone did, I suspect these places wouldn’t seem very natural.)

Chicago Symphony Orchestra seeking DuPage County outdoor venue

The CSO wants a permanent outdoor site in DuPage County but is having a hard time securing one of the four possible locations:

But two of those sites are on land owned by the DuPage Forest Preserve District and that will pose legal problems for those hoping to build an outdoor concert venue here.The district’s attorney, Jim Knippen, has researched the question and determined the forest preserve commission doesn’t have the legal authority to lease its land to a private entity for a private purpose. If commissioners want to pursue such an agreement, Knippen said, they will have to pursue changes to state law…

Pierotti said he met several months ago with representatives from the CSO and Choose DuPage, the county’s public-private economic development group. He then assigned forest preserve Commissioner Tim Whelan to participate in the discussions because the Danada Forest Preserve was the first district-owned site the CSO considered. Danada is located in Wheaton, which is part of the area Whelan represents…

During subsequent meetings, other district-owned sites were examined, including Hidden Lake near Downers Grove and St. James Farm near Warrenville.

I would guess this deal gets done, even if it takes some time to go through the state and get an exemption. While the Forest Preserve might be about conserving open land, an economic opportunity like this would be too hard for everyone to pass up. DuPage County, the most populous collar county and home to lots of jobs, would love to have such a permanent cultural presence. The CSO would love to have easier access to wealthier people in DuPage County. I imagine there would be some spillover sales tax dollars for nearby restaurants and stores. Additionally, the DuPage County Forest Preserve could probably easily spare the at least 40 acres required as the Forest Preserve was quite aggressive after World War II in securing land before the county was completely suburbanized.

One note: the three Forest Preserve sites mention in this article are all within a ten minute drive of I-88, providing easy highway access. The Danada site which appears to be in the running is a relatively undeveloped area between Wheaton and Naperville that could end up being quite scenic as well as have easy access to some major roads (I-88, Butterfield Road, Naperville Road).

Preferable to selling to a developer for McMansions: creating a paintball facility

One Fairfax County, Virginia couple has decided to develop their 200 acres as a paintball facility rather than let it go to developers and McMansions:

Jeff Waters and his wife could have sold her family’s 200-acre property at 6390 Newman Road in Clifton in “two seconds” to a developer to carve into McMansion lots.

Instead, they’re developing it themselves — into Fairfax County’s first paintball field. The special use permit application was submitted in June. The fees assessed: $16,375.

“We wanted to come up with some way for the property to generate enough income to justify keeping it,” Waters said. “The county wants it to stay an open space. Despite the fact that it’s taking forever, I think the county wants this to happen.”…

This will be green paintball. What could have been 40 lots, 40 septic fields and 36 new acres of impervious surface — or “1,000 pigs,” Waters said — will be a wooded game arena with a couple ancillary buildings.

I wonder if the county and/or the Park Authority would make a good offer to purchase the land itself. I would guess nearby residents would prefer paintball to more subdivisions but wouldn’t they prefer protected open space even more? As the article notes, getting the paintball operation up and running isn’t cheap (between $150-200k). And, imagine the kind of people that are attracted to paintball operations…are these the kind of people neighbors want to see? Perhaps the stick in the mud here are the current owners who appear to want to keep the land themselves – and who could always look for better development opportunities down the road.

Naperville thinking of expanding its Riverwalk

Naperville’s Riverwalk is often touted as a key feature of the community. Riverwalk officials are now interested in expanding it further south:

Chairman Jeff Havel said an extension would link Edward Hospital and Knoch Park to the downtown.

The idea came up last summer when McDonald’s was looking to open a restaurant at the southeast corner of Hillside Road and Washington Street near the Riverwalk’s current terminus. That plan fell through and the site is still occupied by a Citgo gas station. It is the only piece of land along the proposed extension the city does not currently own.

Havel said the Riverwalk Commission is always looking to complete gaps in the path’s boundaries, update its appearance and improve safety, accessibility and hospitality…

If the plan does move forward as Park District Commissioner Ron Ory hopes it does, he said he would like to see it happen through volunteer efforts and private funding.

I’d say go for it, particularly if the cost could be kept low in the spirit of the original Riverwalk that was first created with donated time and materials from people in the community. The Riverwalk is a unique feature of Naperville; while the DuPage River is not that grand as it winds through the community, it still provides something few suburbs have. For most of its history, the river was not accentuated in the community even though early Naperville featured a mill on the river. Buildings in the downtown that backed up to the river did little to provide an interface between the two places. But, with the first Riverwalk planning beginning in the 1970s and the first section opening on Labor Day in 1981, it has provided a public space and a park right in the middle of downtown.

Also, such a park can continue a process that has been taking in DuPage County over recent decades: using land along waterways as park land or Forest Preserve land. The DuPage County Forest Preserve has bought a lot of land around the branches of the DuPage River and Naperville can contribute to this project with a Riverwalk extension.

A third point: I wonder if this was lurking behind Naperville’s tough questions of the proposed McDonald’s on Washington Street. If the proposed site is the only site along the river the city does not own, this earlier decision makes more sense.

DuPage County Forest Preserve continues aggressive land acquisition

The Daily Herald reports that the DuPage County Forest Preserve continues to purchase more land:

Five years after voters approved a $68 million tax increase so the DuPage County Forest Preserve could buy more land, officials report they have acquired 43 properties and more than 473 acres so far.

The biggest purchase came three years ago of 94 acres for $12.3 million to protect a unique wetland near Bartlett, Kevin Stough, director of land preservation, said in a recent report to forest preserve commissioners…

“The timing has worked for us, since land prices started dropping in 2007 and have gone down more steeply in recent years,” he said. “So that’s something where we have been very fortunate.”

In total, the district has purchased 143 acres of floodplains, 124 acres of wetland and the remaining 206 acres are primarily forested areas, all accessible to the public. And Stough said the forest preserve still has money left to purchase more land.

I’ve noted before that the DuPage County Forest Preserve has been quite aggressive over the decades. This is how much land the Forest Preserve controls:

The District owns or manages over 25,000 acres of land at over 60 forest preserves, about 12 percent of the total land in DuPage County. As a result, every home and business in DuPage County is no more than ten minutes from a forest preserve.

Within these 25,000 acres are 60 forest preserves, 600 acres of lakes, 47 miles of rivers and streams, and over 145 miles of trails. Some forest preserves are jointly owned, and some are the site of nature centers or amenities operated by other agencies.

That is a lot of preserved land within a county that experienced a lot of population pressure after World War II and today has little open land for development.

I would love to see figures about what DuPage County residents think of the Forest Preserve. The Forest Preserve suggests its land is quite popular:

Each year, 3.4 million visitors enjoy the county’s 60 forest preserves. Additionally, over 100,000 visitors participate annually in educational and cultural programs at the Forest Preserve District’s five education centers.

How do County residents see the trade-off between paying higher taxes versus having the Forest Preserve land to enjoy? Is there anyone who thinks that putting this much land off-limits to development raises housing prices? How important is open space to County residents versus other concerns?

 

County forest preserves benefit from economic downturn as they purchase cheaper land

The reduction in land values has not been bad for everyone: the Chicago Tribune reports that Chicago area forest preserves have bought up more land than anticipated in the past few years. Among the findings:

Flush with $185 million from a 2008 bond sale, the [Lake County] district went on a buying spree, gobbling up some 3,400 acres of land. The second-largest forest preserve system in the state at 29,300 acres, the 53-year old district has grown by nearly 12 percent since the onset of the recession.

“We spent down the money quicker than we had anticipated, mainly because there were so many good buying opportunities for us in 2009 and 2010, especially,” Hahn said…

Founded in 1971, the McHenry County Conservation District has essentially doubled over the last decade to just less than 25,000 acres…

Though the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s biggest growth spurt was in the 1970s, the 25,000-acre district managed to add some 2,400 acres over the last decade…

Racing the clock against development in one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, the Forest Preserve District of Will County has added about 8,300 acres since 1999, increasing its holdings by about two-thirds to nearly 21,000 acres…

The timing has been more fortuitous in Kane County, where the Forest Preserve District has added nearly 12,000 acres since 1999, increasing its holdings by 170 percent.

The only county forest preserve that didn’t add a significant amount of land was Cook County which likely has little available land. There hasn’t been too much news about these acquisitions in the Chicago area, even as these land purchases have been funded by bond sales approved by the public.

Overall, this has presented these districts with an opportunity to purchase land they might not have been able to purchase in better times. Particularly in some of the booming counties, such as Will or McHenry, this opportunity may have been the last one before suburban growth took up too much land.

This does lead to another question: how much land should Forest Preserves aim to have? I know there are recommendations about how much parkland or open space there should be for a set amount of people. Is most of this newly acquired land going to be open space/natural settings or more developed parks and recreation areas? Would there be a point where the Forest Preserves will stop purchasing or will they keep acquiring land forever?