Supporters Celebrate ‘Victory for People and Nature’ as Forest Preserve Tax Hike Appears a Winner

Pond at Sand Ridge Nature Center, a Cook County Forest Preserve in the Calumet region. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)Pond at Sand Ridge Nature Center, a Cook County Forest Preserve in the Calumet region. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)

A referendum proposing an increase to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County’s taxing rate has met with little, if any, vocal opposition during the run-up to Tuesday’s election. The question now is whether Cook County voters will show their support at the ballot box. 

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The answer appears to be a resounding yes. Preliminary unofficial totals in suburban Cook County and Chicago show "yea" votes in favor of the referendum running two-to-one versus the "nays": 796,605 for the tax increase; 373,580 against.

Though the measure passed handily in both the city and suburbs, Chicagoans showed even greater enthusiasm for the referendum, with nearly 75% voting yes, compared with 63% in suburban Cook.

Arnold Randall, general superintendent of the Forest Preserves of Cook County, thanked voters in a statement.

"We recognize your trust and will invest these extra resources thoughtfully and carefully," Randall said. "Our work begins tomorrow on enacting plans to expand ecological restoration work, add more land to the preserve system, address critical long-term needs, continue to grow our programming and public outreach, and more.

"With the results we see tonight on the referendum, it’s clear that people deeply appreciate all the benefits the Forest Preserves of Cook County provides, starting with access to nature so close to home," he continued. "It’s exciting to see."

Benjamin Cox, executive director of Friends of the Forest Preserves, was chairman of a coalition of 170 nonprofits, businesses and organizations that campaigned for the referendum.

“Today is a great day for the people of Cook County, who have voted overwhelmingly to invest in our environment, economy and natural areas by passing the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Wildlife referendum," Cox said in a statement. "Tonight’s vote means cleaner air for residents to breathe, cleaner water in our rivers and lakes, and more protected areas for native plants and animals."

Openlands President and CEO Jerry Adelmann, a coalition partner, declared the vote a "long-awaited victory for people and nature."

“Today, Openlands celebrates the passage of one of the most important environmental funding measures in Cook County history," Adelmann said in a statement. “The support of Cook County voters shows just how vital nature is to all residents and how the sound management of the Forest Preserves has had a huge impact on residents' relationship with nature close to home."

While the increase is small — one-fourth of one-tenth of 1% — it will add $40 million to the preserves’ coffers annually. 

Forest Preserve officials have said the infusion of funds will address deferred maintenance, allow for more habitat restoration and will help wipe out the district’s pension shortfall.

In making a case for the increase, Superintendent Arnold Randall noted that in the past decade, the preserves had doubled the amount of land under restoration, added campgrounds, expanded trails and doubled the number of programs offered. The district also supports the Chicago Botanic Garden and Brookfield Zoo. At the same time, the district’s budget has grown by less than 10%, he said. 

The district’s ambitious long-term goals include the restoration of 30,000 acres of native habitat and the acquisition of 20,000 additional acres (the district currently has the funds to purchase 100 acres).

Acquisition is necessary because the district’s 70,000 acres were acquired piecemeal, are disconnected and are distributed unequally throughout the county, said Benjamin Cox, executive director of Friends of the Forest Preserves.

Filling in gaps would provide more Cook County residents with access to green space, and would also create continuous corridors for wildlife in terms of habitat and food, Cox said.

Friends of the Forest Preserves led a coalition of organizations campaigning for the levy’s passage, promoting the referendum as a "yes" vote for clean air, clean water and wildlife.

The campaign earned the stamp of approval from local newspaper editorial boards and the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog group.

“This money isn't just going to be thrown into the system,” said Civic Federation President Laurence Msall, who added that the district, under the leadership of Randall and Board President Toni Preckwinkle, has cleaned up its act.

The forest preserves saw unprecedented usage during the COVID-19 pandemic, which may work in the referendum's favor.

“We don’t have these big sweeping vistas that you find in Yellowstone or something. But what we do have is this incredible diversity of plants and animals that are indigenous to this unique spot at the tip of Lake Michigan,” Cox said. “Once people start to tap into it and understand it and know it better, they have a much better appreciation. They fall in love.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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