A Focus on Preservation in DuPage County
by Joseph Cantore,
President, Board of Commissioners
When DuPage voters approved the organization of a county forest preserve district in 1915, the idea was simple: Preserve land today so residents could relax in undeveloped open spaces tomorrow. It was a concept that had been growing on a national level, and even though DuPage County was in its infancy, voters believed it was wise to plan ahead. But as with all things so early in the 20th century, there was no way they could know how complicated the new agency’s mission would become when placed in the middle of a skyrocketing urban population decades later.
As with all forest preserve districts at the time, the operations of the new DuPage agency were governed by the same people elected to the county board, which meant they were also responsible for infrastructure improvements. Conflicts between preservation and progress were evident from the beginning, the first appearing in 1917, when the Forest Preserve District made its initial purchase, York Woods in Oak Brook. The rationale? To be able to use part of the land for the westward expansion of 12th Street, today’s Roosevelt Road.
By the second half of the century, forest preserve land was providing people with fresh spaces to relax and unwind but it was also being constantly eyed as easy locations for new parking lots, roads and buildings — even county waste. In 1965 when the county’s sole landfill was at the brink, the DuPage County board opted to use its authority over forest preserve land to establish a fill at Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville.
To be fair, some defended, even lauded, the decision. As one paper printed about the possibility of a landfill at Rocky Glen and Signal Hill forest preserves (today’s Waterfall Glen in Darien), “The forest preserve areas have lands which are presently useless for ordinary purposes but eventual use of the area as a landfill will correct that condition.” As the hill at Blackwell grew, the board opened landfills in 1974 and 1975 at Greene Valley in Naperville and Mallard Lake in Hanover Park, using engineering efforts similar to those in California that some felt had successfully “reclaimed” canyons by filling the areas with garbage.
In 1988 the focus returned to roads. Developers wanted to improve access to suburbs in the southwest corner of the county, and a new four-lane road was the answer. Members of the county board wearing their “forest preserve” hats decided to sell 26.5 acres of McDowell Grove Forest Preserve in Naperville to the county (the same board members but in their “urban development” hats) and Diehl Road was created.
In the late 1990s, talk of roads moved north to Pratt’s Wayne Woods Forest Preserve in Wayne, where planners were pushing for the construction of a four-lane north-south road through the heart of the preserve. There was overwhelming public opposition, and the board nixed the idea, but it was becoming clear that the two-hat system was generating more and more conflict. As one board member said, it was “tough to serve two masters.” Conservation-minded residents of DuPage County increasingly supported board members who felt the county could have successful urban development without threatening protected public land, but with a single board, it was becoming evident that sooner or later those interests — and the voters who supported them — would be at risk for being on the losing side.
Springfield took note, and in 1996 with support from local legislators and conservation groups, the state amended the Downstate Forest Preserve Act, allowing counties with populations like DuPage to choose separate governing bodies. In December 2002, for the first time in the agency’s history, a seven-member Board of Commissioners separate from those individuals elected to govern the county took the oath of office for the Forest Preserve District. Since then, the District has restored the county’s natural areas and improved public access in a fiscally responsible manner and with support from forest preserve fans and partnering agencies alike.
From time to time individuals spurred by different interests raise the question of reuniting the two boards. Advocates for a single board have cited the Downstate Forest Preserve Act as a legislative guarantee that the county’s nearly 26,000 acres of open spaces would remain undeveloped. But as history has demonstrated, that wouldn’t necessarily be the case.
As surveys continue to emphasize residents’ expectations that forest preserve land remain undeveloped for future generations, a board with a continued dedicated focus on making those open spaces the best they can be will ensure the Forest Preserve District remains equipped to preserve the county’s woodlands, prairies and wetlands for the next 100 years.