A new report takes Kane County Forest Preserve officials to task for decisions in recent years that the authors claim stray from the district's core mission to preserve open space and restore land to its natural state.
The district's president, John Hoscheit, balks at the study by the Elgin Area League of Women Voters. In a story last week by reporter James Fuller, Hoscheit called the report biased and asserted that most residents would disagree with it,
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The reality of the situation likely lies somewhere between the two positions, but the League's complaint emphasizes fundamental questions for Kane and other forest preserve officials to consider. What direction should the district be taking? Do decisions match goals? And, more broadly, what are forest preserves for?
Kane's website prominently displays its avowed mission, stating the district aims "to acquire, hold and maintain lands within Kane County which contribute to the preservation of natural or historic resources ... for the education, recreation and pleasure of all its citizens." That would imply its amenities like hiking trails, picnic sites, camping and fishing areas, and school and Scout programs are synced with district goals.
But the Kane forest district is unique in that it also owns and operates Fifth Third Bank Stadium, the minor league baseball home of the Kane County Cougars. Nearby sits the Fox Valley Ice Arena, a building the district purchased five years ago to house its headquarters in addition to hosting hockey games. Last year the board considered proposals for a concert venue and mountain bike trails in neighboring Fabyan Woods. Both failed to move forward when opposition surfaced.
Are such enterprises evidence of "mission drift," as the League's study suggests? That depends, at least in part, on how one defines recreation. To some, a night outdoors with the kids at the ballpark may be the kind of recreation they're seeking from their forest preserve. Others would rather find refuge from crowds by walking on secluded nature trails that are only a few minutes' drive from their homes.
Both desires can be met. It's a matter of balance. The question goes back to why forest preserve districts were created, starting with Cook County's 100 years ago. The state's Forest Preserve District Act of 1913 includes much of the wording seen today in Kane County's mission statement.
One of the hallmarks of suburban life is never being too far from natural areas. Another, though, is the access to a wide variety of recreational opportunities. A forest preserve district can manage both types of land use.
Whether the public agrees with the assertions of the League's report remains to be seen. Kane voters have generally been favorable toward land purchases, and future referendums will indicate whether they support the district's current direction. Leaders also could use other tools to gauge residents' attitudes, such as surveys or public meetings. In the meantime, Kane forest preserve commissioners should be certain their actions achieve that key balancing point within their established idea of what a forest preserve should be.