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Squandering the forest preserves

Wednesday, May 05, 2004
Chicago Tribune

Last year, an official of the Cook County Forest Preserve District grew curious about nine tennis courts next to the district's headquarters in suburban River Forest. Tennis courts typically occupy park district land, not forest preserve property--yes, there is, and should be, a big difference. The official, Albert Pritchett, started asking pointed questions.

Pritchett's questions led to the discovery that from 1924 to 1962, the private Oak Park Tennis Club had contracted with the Forest Preserve District to use some of its land for the courts. But for the 41 years since 1962, the club had been squatting on district land without permission. Not in some far-flung location, mind you, but right outside the offices where generations of patronage workers showed up--on paydays, at least--to oversee the Forest Preserve District.

The district has since worked out an agreement with the club, but not without taking a heap of ridicule for being such a shoddy shepherd of its property. Under the 1913 state legislation that created the district, its land is set aside for all the people of Cook County--not just select coteries of club members in tennis whites.

The district's forgetfulness isn't the only threat to its preserves. A companion threat is the willingness of Cook County Board members to curry favor by letting municipalities, schools, park districts and private groups use district land for their own purposes. The 17 County Board members also serve as the Forest Preserve District's commissioners. In recent decades, they repeatedly have allowed encroachments that essentially privatize lands that belong to all citizens, for all time.

Last month the board voted to permit a welcome-to-Westchester sign on a 50-by-200-foot piece of district land, and allowed River Grove to take control (though not ownership) of 11 acres the village already had been using--apparently without approval--as park and recreation land. In effect, County Board members have given away the use of those forest preserve properties.

Permission has been granted for radio towers, private drives and cable TV equipment. Some roadways have split district parcels in ways that left some abutting land virtually useless. And in a metropolitan area where open space is dwindling, growing numbers of interests are seeking the use or ownership of forest preserve parcels.

The Forest Preserve District isn't a land bank which exists to provide acreages for ball fields, tot lots, fire stations or any of a thousand other seemingly beneficial uses. By law the district has one, sacrosanct mission: acquiring, protecting and preserving natural lands in perpetuity. That mission was set down in the 1913 law, and also in the district's Land Policy, adopted in 1946.

In the early and middle 20th Century, county officials largely stuck to that mission, rebuffing numerous requests to nip away at district holdings. That's why Cook County today has its emerald necklace of preserves--a resource unmatched in any other major metropolitan area.

But it's difficult for County Board members to rebuff constituents who want to use "just a small area" of district land. As E.E. Brown, head of an advisory committee to the district, wrote before the Land Policy was approved in 1946: "The Commissioners are importuned constantly to grant special privileges to organizations of all kinds by allotting to them a house or cabin, a special tract of forest preserve land for airplane hangars, a site for a livery stable, school building, hospital, dance hall, theatre, cemetery, private museum and many other structures ... The granting of such special privileges is in direct violation of the purposes of the preserves, and of the law.

"Although there are many worthy causes among those for which special arrangements are asked, none should be allowed on forest preserve property." (Italics original.)

Even more embarrassing than the Tennis Club fiasco: When the Tribune disclosed it, some County Board members didn't even know the district had a policy to block encroachments. At the time, board member Michael Quigley said the district needed a more airtight policy to keep municipalities, private groups and others from chipping away at its 68,000 acres.

On Wednesday, Quigley will introduce that new Land Policy, a document that reflects the hard work of volunteers from six groups dedicated to protecting district land: Friends of the Forest Preserves, Friends of the Parks, The Nature Conservancy, Openlands Project, Audubon Society and the Sierra Club. Quigley also proposes that, lest the new Land Policy fall into shabby disuse as its predecessor did, its provisions now be codified as an ironclad county ordinance.

This is a sensible policy, clearer on some points than the 1946 Land Policy, that would better help the district live up to the legislation that created it 91 years ago. County Board members should approve and codify the new policy. Particularly given that their own shameful negligence toward the district has resulted in years of sloppy land management. The district also quietly took millions set aside for land acquisition to cover big holes in its budget.

As Cook County becomes more built out, County Board members should be protecting and adding to forest preserves. These lands are a legacy to our children's children and beyond--if the County Board keeps squatters firmly at bay.

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