Too little, too late?

The governor's land trust initiative drew applause from conservationists, regional planners and park advocates.
But some wonder whether good intentions will be enough

By Bill Steinbacher-Kemp

T his was an idea they could all support: Gov. George Ryan's four-year, $160 million program to preserve open spaces. The Republican governor's proposal drew applause from conservationists, regional planners and park advocates alike. Yet the staggering cost of real estate in the Chicago metropolitan area, coupled with the dwindling availability of undeveloped acreage in Lake, Du Page, Will and other counties in that region, leave some wondering whether the initiative amounts to a well-intentioned plan that will provide too little too late.

Certainly the effort to preserve open spaces depends on state assistance, and to a lesser degree local governments. Though green belts improve the quality of life for area residents and increase property values for homeowners, private developers have little financial interest in setting aside land necessary to create large-scale park and recreation sites. And even well-funded not-for-profit organizations such as The Nature Conservancy cannot raise the tens of millions of dollars that would be necessary each year to meet land acquisition needs in Illinois.

And, as tourism becomes an increasingly vital industry in the state, there's also a likely public payoff for preserving Illinois' natural landscape. With the growing popularity of closer-to-home mini-vacations, local and state recreation sites are playing a greater role in the competition for tourism dollars. According to the Illinois Association of Park Districts, 18 of the 35 most popular tourist sites in Illinois are managed by the state's Department of Natural Resources or by local park and forest preserve districts.

In fact, the importance of in-state tourism, already the fourth leading industry in Illinois, is expected to increase well into the next century. State parks and other state-managed sites already draw record numbers of visitors. In 1998, those sites logged more than 41.8 million visitors, an all-time high. Illinois Beach, on the shores of Lake Michigan, was the most popular state park, with more than 2.8 million visitors. Seven other state parks, including Chain O' Lakes near the Wisconsin border, and Pere Marquette at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers in Jersey County, each drew more than one million last year.

There is general agreement that Ryan's land initiative represents a long-overdue commitment to preserving such areas, especially in the rapidly developing northeastern region of the state - before there is nothing left to save. But along with the applause comes a sober realization that in the so-called collar counties surrounding Chicago, land is disappearing under developers' bulldozers faster than the public can purchase it.

Gerald Adelmann, executive director of the Openlands Project, a not-for-profit group pushing for open spaces in northeastern Illinois, considers Ryan's program a welcome move. Yet at the same time, he acknowledges that even $160 million over the next four years represents a "very modest" investment.

Indeed, open space is at a premium in the collar counties, where state and local governments compete with homebuilders and commercial developers. "We're now buying land by the square foot instead of the acre," is the way Ted Flickinger describes it. Flickinger, executive director of the Illinois Association of Park Districts, also heads the not-for-profit advocacy group Friends of Illinois Parks. Acquiring land in the expanding Chicago metropolitan area is difficult, concedes Jerry Beverlin of the state's Department of Natural Resources. "The first thing you have to have is opportunity, then you have to have the money. Property is very expensive, and it's not getting any cheaper."

Residential and commercial development has been the dominant land use in the collar county area since middle class families began their exodus from Chicago in the years immediately after World War II, and the trend has escalated dramatically in the past two decades. In the eight-county greater metropolitan region, almost 150 of 250 natural sites identified by the state remain unprotected, according to a study by the Openlands Project.

Aimed at reversing this trend, Ryan's Illinois Open Land Trust initiative will

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set aside $40 million each year for the next four fiscal years to boost the state's long-underfunded land acquisition program.

It allows the state to team up with nongovernmental organizations, including The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited. And it will provide a combination of grants and loans to local governments for the purchase of open space threatened by encroaching development, including unspoiled wetlands, farmland and second- and third-growth woodlands. Such local governments as forest preserve districts and municipalities are eligible for grants of up to $2 million per project. Further, the program will provide community planning grants to local governments that have public lands within their jurisdictions. This provision is intended to reward local officials with capital grants for cooperating in the purchase of land. In other words, the state is saying: "Help us acquire this tract and we will help you widen that county road."

Each year's appropriation will be divided between state and local needs: $18.5 million for state acquisition; $20 million for local government grants and nongovernmental organization partnerships; and $1.5 million for community planning allowances to compensate for land taken off the tax rolls.

But the governor's staff and officials in his natural resources agency are careful to say only landowners who are willing to sell their property will be considered prospects for this program. "This could be extremely beneficial," says the agency's Beverlin. "Not only for state parks, but to state fish and wildlife areas and recreation areas. There's potential all around."

The parks association's Flickinger calls the move long overdue. "In the '70s and '80s we weren't buying land," he says. After those lost decades, the land trust initiative represents a much-needed "make-up program."

Illinois has been preserving land for nearly a century. In 1903, Fort Massac on the Ohio River at Metropolis became the first state park. The fort, made famous by George Rogers Clark's frontier campaign during the Revolutionary War, was a lone sentry in the system until 1911. That year, the state acquired Starved Rock, a sandstone bluff on the south bank of the Illinois River in La Salle County. That move was significant because the act designating the purchase included creation of a three-member park board. Though other states, including New York and Michigan, established state parks earlier, and others, including Wisconsin, created bureaucracies to manage land earlier, the Illinois Park Commission was the first state agency in the nation vested with the authority to acquire, protect and manage parks.

At first, Illinois' park system grew at a deliberate rate. In 1917, there were only 416 acres in the system. But it

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increased dramatically in the 1920s and 1930s. By 1940, the state's park holdings covered more than 9,100 acres. Today, there are 62 state parks accounting for slightly more than 89,000 acres. Though parks remain the flagship in the system, they account for only about 22 percent of all state-managed land. Conservation areas encompass almost 84,000 acres, and fish and wildlife areas account for almost 62,000 acres. Other sizable holdings include nature preserves and natural areas, state forests, greenways and trails. By its own account, the agency now owns and manages more than 400,000 acres.

But state-managed sites are just one piece of the public land puzzle in Illinois. Land managed by approximately 350 local government agencies across the state accounts for an additional 192,000 acres of parks, recreation areas and open spaces. The expansive system of county forest preserves in the Chicago area represents much of this acreage. And there are two significant federal holdings: the 270,000-acre Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois and the new 19,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County.

State funds to operate parks and other nonwildlife sites have increased since the middle of this decade, from $30.3 million in fiscal year 1995 to $40.2 million in fiscal year 1998. But, state funding for land acquisition has remained stagnant. Tom Flattery of the natural resources agency says during the past four years the state lacked a dedicated funding source for purchasing land, making negotiations with landowners difficult, if not impossible. Further, the state's Bureau of the Budget hasn't issued bonds for general land acquisition since setting aside $1 million in fiscal year 1995.

Nevertheless, the state has been able to purchase some open spaces. A small fraction of the real estate property transfer tax is dedicated to the acquisition of natural areas, generating between $3 million and $4 million a year. The habitat stamps used by hunters support the purchase of fish and wildlife areas, totaling another $100,000 or so. And one-time appropriations were used to purchase land. Natural Resources Director Brent Manning notes that during former Gov. Jim Edgar's eight years in office, the state acquired more than 38,000 acres of park, recreation and habitat land - "more land than any other governor."

Between 1980 and 1998, the state acquired slightly more than 67,900 acres for more than $83 million. A notable acquisition included the purchase in 1992 and 1993 of more than 2,000 acres of forested land south of Oregon along the Rock River in northern Illinois. This $3.35 million tract became the Lowden-Miller State Forest. In 1993, the state also purchased 15,574 acres from Commonwealth Edison for $8.75 million, establishing the Site M Fish and Wildlife Area in Cass County. That tract represents the largest single land purchase in state history. And in 1996, Illinois bought about 1,000 acres from the Peabody Coal Co. for $645,000. This tract, now called the Harry "Babe" Woodyard State Natural Area, extends two miles along the Little Vermilion River south of Danville and supports 12 state endangered or threatened species.

Various public-private partnerships also have been an important part of the state's ability to preserve and manage park and recreation lands. For example, the 4-year-old Illinois Conservation Foundation, a not-for-profit organization created to supplement state programs, has channeled more than $5 million in corporate and private contributions into land acquisition and other projects. The foundation signed a long-term agreement with the Illinois State Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation to support additional land acquisition in several locations, including Effingham and Jo Daviess counties. "To be honest, I think we're scratching the surface of what's out there," says John Schmitt, the foundation's executive director.

Park supporters say the state missed numerous opportunities during the past two decades, especially in the state's northeastern corner. Factoring out the purchase of Site M, between 1980 and 1998, the natural resources department spent, on average, $4 million a year to purchase 2,750 acres. But some land the state might have purchased 10 or 20 years ago in the collar counties is now lost forever, long since converted to strip malls and subdivisions. Other land, once relatively cheap, is now prohibitively expensive.

The state, though, has made halting progress over the past several decades in acquiring open space in the Chicago metropolitan area. In 1991, the state spent $10 million to purchase 527 acres (an average of $18,975 an acre) near the west suburb of Bartlett. Once opened, Tri-County State Park, at the intersection of Kane, Du Page and Cook counties, will feature restored prairie, marsh and savanna ecosystems. During the 1998 groundbreaking ceremony, Edgar extolled the virtues of public land acquisition to ameliorate the region's hypersprawl. "In one of the most rapidly developing metropolitan areas in the country, Tri-County Park will stand as an example of the educational and recreational benefits of open space preservation."

Park supporters agree with that assessment, but they had hoped to see other similar big-ticket acquisitions in the region during the past decade. But the state is not the only player. This April, voters in Kane and Will counties gave their support for more open spaces. They approved $70 million bond referendums to expand their respective forest preserve districts. Lake County voters approved a comparable measure for $55 million. In addition, Will County's Homer Township passed an $8 million referendum to acquire 400 acres of open space. In 1997, a similar forest preserve referendum for $75 million received the approval of Lake County residents.

Adelmann of the Openlands Project interprets the results of these referendums in some of the most fiscally conservative communities in the state as a clear sign the public is willing to tax itself to protect and preserve open space.

Meanwhile, state officials are faced with calculating where natural areas are most endangered, and where land remains comparatively inexpensive. With these two criteria in mind, the second ring of collar counties, the

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Du Page counties of the next millennium, may present the best opportunity for open space acquisition. Ryan's plan, though less ambitious than some park supporters would like, may still permit the state to do in Kendall and Grundy counties what it failed to do 20 years ago in Lake, Will and other more developed counties. There are, for instance, stretches of the Illinois and Fox watersheds within this second ring that are ripe for open space protection, and Adelmann is calling on the state to concentrate some of its resources in this area.

In fact, the state already has several invaluable holdings in this area, including Silver Springs, a 1,350-acre park located along the Fox River just west of Yorkville in Kendall County, and Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area, located southwest of the Kankakee and Des Plaines rivers in Grundy County. The state needs to consider opportunities in these areas, acknowledges Flattery. Today, open space may go for $7,000 to $10,000 an acre; tomorrow, he says, it may go for $35,000 to $55,000 an acre.

Other Ryan-backed initiatives will help, if only indirectly, in the uphill struggle to protect open space in the Chicago area. Ryan's massive public works program, for one. The cornerstone of his first legislative agenda, it will set aside more money for mass transit ($4.1 billion) than for roads and bridges ($3.7 billion). And Adelmann is encouraged by assurances from the governor's office that staffers will begin working this summer on a smart growth initiative for Illinois, a wide-ranging program that will seek to reduce suburban sprawl and protect open spaces statewide.

For now, there's hope that the Open Land Trust signals a serious commitment on the part of state government to increase park, recreation and habitat land throughout the state. "This legislation will significantly increase Illinois' ability to set aside land for open space to benefit our grandchildren and the generations that follow," the governor trumpeted after the state Senate unanimously passed his land initiative in late March.

Others are more reserved in their judgments. "Are we making the same commitment our forefathers did?" asks Flickinger of the Friends of Illinois Parks, referring to creation of the string of world class parks along Chicago's lakefront and the establishment of forest preserve districts in Cook and the collar counties at the turn of the century.

But as residents in the once-rural Lake County community of Grayslake see the last farm field or wooded grove fall to the bulldozer, there will be a scramble to save what's left.

"I think it's been a wake-up call for people," Flickinger says of the move toward open space protection. 

Bill Steinbacher-Kemp is a freelance writer living in Bloomington. His article on the establishment of Starved Rock State Park will appear in the summer 1999 issue of the academic quarterly
Journal of Illinois History.

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