Kane County forest preserves are home to more than trees and trails, offering many options for recreation and education – from the new nature center at LeRoy Oakes near St. Charles to horseback riding at Blackberry Maples near Elburn.
But, according to a study by the Elgin Area League of Women Voters, the forest preserve district has been committing “mission drift.” The study asserts that the district acts more like a park district than a forest preserve district.
“I find that troublesome,” said Carol Grom, League president and chairwoman of the group that did the study. “I am all for having parks and soccer fields, but they do not belong in a forest preserve. ... It is not appropriate for land that is ‘preserving nature.’ ”
Forest Preserve District President John Hoscheit of St. Charles said the organization is biased and its report does not support accurate conclusions.
“It’s easier to understand where she ... and the group is coming from if you perceive them not to be an independent group,” Hoscheit said. “The basis for the opinion is they don’t want the Longmeadow Parkway Bridge. ... Their mission is to stop the bridge, and in the meantime, try to discredit the forest preserve.”
The group takes to task the possibility of gravel mining in the Brunner Family Forest Preserve in Dundee Township, a 741-acre property purchased in 2008. It was the subject of another League study in 2012.
Grom disputes Hoscheit’s assertion.
“The bridge was a foregone conclusion,” Grom said. “Our report began from them looking at mining for gravel. That was the instigation for the report, not the parkway.”
She said the district backed away from gravel mining once it was made an election issue.
The 33-page report, issued earlier this month, asserts that when enabling legislation for forest preserves, enacted in 1913, permitted land acquisition of natural forests for protecting and preserving “flora, fauna and scenic beauties ... to restore, restock protect, and preserve the natural forests ... as nearly as may be, in their natural state and condition, for the purpose of the education, pleasure, and recreation of the public.”
Voters established the Forest Preserve District of Kane County in 1925 with essentially the same mission.
A 1996 amendment to the state’s enabling legislation amended the mission to include recreational and cultural facilities, golf courses, museums, ice rinks, golf courses and tennis courts. The district owns the Philip B. Elfstrom Events Center where the Cougars play at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark and the Fox Valley Ice Arena – other uses the report finds fault with.
Grom said the forest preserve district should be preserving natural areas for everyone’s benefit instead of focusing on programs, services and facilities.
“They’ve lost track of their mission,” said Grom, a Sleepy Hollow resident. “When you have turned forest preserve land into community gardens and athletic fields – they’re never going to be restored to any form of natural land.”
The study also criticized intergovernmental agreements that the forest preserve has throughout the county. Getting involved in these, Grom said, is not the district’s function.
“It should be about preserving natural areas for the benefits of the people,” Grom said. “It should not be about giving land use away to other organizations.”
Hoscheit said in more urban areas of the county, where there is less forest land to buy because more land is developed, these intergovernmental agreements – including ball fields and a $2 million bridge in Aurora – are a necessity.
“Board members say, ‘I can’t support it [a project] or my constituents won’t support it, if it is without investment in these communities,’ ” Hoscheit said. “We have agreements with every park district and city parks department in the county.”
A $2 million bridge project in Aurora for example – also an area of criticism by the League – will connect city property at RiverEdge Park with existing trails in the nearby forest preserve district, Hoscheit said.
Grom does not see it that way.
“They diverted referendum funds for use by another governmental entity,” Grom said.
Hoscheit said the referendum included capital projects, and this qualified.
Another example of the district’s cooperation is the purchase of the old corrections facility in the Valley View area of St. Charles Township, he said. Lawmakers successfully pushed the state to sell its 40 acres to the district, adding it to nearby Tekakwitha Forest Preserve, he said.
“We did not have the resources for improvements, so the St. Charles Park District teams up with us, and now we have a combination dog park, ball diamonds and hiking trails,” Hoscheit said. “We preserved the property and renovated this neighborhood ... to make it beautiful open space.”
The Brunner Family preserve was another multi-agency effort, he said. The district tried to buy the property for years, and when the owner died, the estate made its 750 acres available for $40 million, he said.
“We had just passed a referendum, but that would have taken 60 percent of the money, and we had made other commitments to get it [the referendum] passed,” Hoscheit said. “It was top of the line for development. Carpentersville wanted to put town homes on it.”
The county wanted right-of-way land for the Longmeadow Parkway Bridge, but the corridor would displace a 20-acre park, he said.
“I said, ‘We’ll buy the right of way and give you 20 acres of the 750 acres, and you give us the money to get us over the hump,’ ” Hoscheit said. “If we didn’t buy it, 1,000 town homes and the bridge would have gone in anyway. ... The way we got it done was better than not having it at all.”
Those who support the open space referendums include preservationists, but also a large core group wanting bike trails and wanting the district to work cooperatively with other entities, he said.
“We try to leverage our dollars to get more open space and parks,” Hoscheit said. “We try to cater to the majority and address everyone’s concerns.”
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which provides many of the matching grants the district relies on to buy property, affirms the district’s plans, he said.
“They look at it and see if it fits the criteria,” Hoscheit said. “They feel we are carrying out the mission. What better group than the DNR – if they thought we were not carrying out the mission, they would say, ‘Sorry.’ ”
Several reports on this and other issues regarding the Kane County Forest Preserve District are available on the Elgin Area League of Women Voters website, www.lwvelginarea.org.