How DuPage forest preserve candidates would address trails, open space

Construction projects and regional trail networks have become defining issues in DuPage County Forest Preserve elections.

Democrats swept three of the six seats on the forest preserve board to gain control of the panel in 2020. Democrats used their new majority to advance a five-year list of habitat restoration, infrastructure and capital projects. The district borrowed $41.5 million to fund the work.

Republican challengers argue the plan is too expensive and generally support more aggressive preservation of open space.

With every seat up for election, voters will determine the political balance of power. Here's a look at the candidates and their platforms.

District 1

Two-decade incumbent Marsha Murphy faces Democratic challenger Michael Murray in a district covering northeast DuPage.

Murphy and other Republicans want to focus on acquiring more land. Over the last four years, the forest preserve system has added roughly 55 acres, records show.

"In my district, we don't have a whole bunch of acres together, so we look for property that adjoins our preserves, and whenever one comes up, we've been fortunate to be able to purchase it," said Murphy, who is supportive of purchasing larger tracts in other areas of the county.

Murray is a former school board member in Roselle Elementary District 12. If elected Murray would look to broaden participation in forest preserve programs, suggesting that the district could benefit from a "fresh face."

District 2

Tina Tyson-Dunne is vying for a second term against Republican Don Krause in a district that stretches from Lisle to Elmhurst.

Tyson-Dunne is chief of staff for state Rep. Deb Conroy, who's running for DuPage County Board chair. She also is a certified master naturalist through the University of Illinois Extension.

Tyson-Dunne has called attention to some of the district's marquee projects: the restoration of the century-old, Tudor Revival-style Mayslake Hall and a redesign of Willowbrook Wildlife Center.

"We are going to have one of the largest net-zero buildings in DuPage County," the Lombard Democrat said. That means the new animal clinic will be designed to produce as much energy as it consumes.

In a recent candidate questionnaire, Krause, who is retired from a career in marketing, said the current board has been moving too slowly to improve accessibility.

"You should be able to leave your house and ride your bike or walk to get to a forest preserve," he said at a League of Women Voters event.

District 3

In southeast DuPage, Willowbrook Republican Linda Painter is running for reelection against Westmont Democrat Marybeth Carlson.

Painter is a retired nurse who has served on the board since 2008. She advocates for establishing a tranquility garden at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve.

"We need to focus a lot more on people with disabilities and our seniors because there's limited opportunities for them," Painter said.

Carlson is a retired farm adviser who said she has expertise in native planting. She ranks the removal of invasive plant and tree species as the most important issue in the district.

"I firmly believe that our forest preserves are the last bastions of what we have lost and a reminder of what we can do if it's cared for correctly," Carlson said.

District 4

In central DuPage, first-term incumbent Jeff Gahris is trying to fend off a spirited challenge from Republican Tim Elliott, a former county board member and Glen Ellyn trustee.

Gahris, a Wheaton Democrat, said his engineering and environmental science background differentiates him from his opponent. Gahris "insisted on sustainability features" in the overhaul of Willowbrook Wildlife Center. The existing clinic, Gahris said, doesn't meet veterinary standards.

"We've been getting some good work done without raising taxes," Gahris said.

Elliott has criticized the district for what he called "unprecedented investment in bricks and mortar and concrete over the last two years." He would invest in more open space, though he dislikes condemnation of property.

"You're not going to find big tracts of land in Elmhurst or Hinsdale," Elliott, an attorney, said. "But you can find smaller-acre parcels and build connectivity with those among trails, but they don't even have a plan to do that."

Among his stated priorities, Elliott would shepherd the development of the East Branch DuPage River Trail.

"Building a trail requires building a broad coalition and getting support," said Elliott, who touts mayoral endorsements. "I've actually built that on the northern part of the trail and can do it again on the southern part of the trail."

Multiple proposals have been discussed for the route south of Roosevelt Road, including putting a path along Route 53. Elliott has argued for a trail system along the greenway.

"Studies have shown that the space is feasible. There needs to be political will to push this forward," Elliott said.

While he's broadly in favor of the regional trail, Gahris urged caution. He called the idea of making the forest preserve district colead of the project an "interesting one."

"One thing we have to be careful of is if we're going to tell the county where to put a trail, they're going to tell us where to put our trails when we have lead, so it's a balance," Gahris said. "We have to maintain relationships with other parties."

Gahris said it will "take a number of years" to get trail segments off the drawing board.

"One issue might be just getting an underpass under the Union Pacific Railroad," he said.

"That is a huge engineering challenge right there."

District 5

Democrat Barbara O'Meara seeks a second term against Republican challenger Elizabeth Folk Van Arsdell in a district anchored in Naperville.

O'Meara is an environmental health supervisor for the Illinois Department of Public Health. She counts woodland restoration projects at Herrick Lake, Hickory Grove and Egermann Woods as successes.

"A lot of those were neglected for 40 and 50 years," O'Meara said.

Van Arsdell, a retired accountant, has campaigned as a fiscal hawk. She said the district should have asked voters before borrowing the money for master-plan projects.

"I think that there has been a reluctance on the part of the board to ask the public what they want," Van Arsdell said.

O'Meara countered that the district was able to secure a 1.3% interest rate on the bond loan. "We'd have tripled our cost, maybe quadrupled our cost, if we waited till November," she said.

District 6

Republican incumbent Al Murphy is squaring off against former Winfield Village President Erik Spande in a district situated in northwestern DuPage.

Murphy is a former West Chicago alderman and hardware store owner who was first elected to the forest preserve board in 2014. He has pushed for the "most-needed piece" of the West Branch DuPage River Trail: a proposed bridge over Roosevelt Road.

"There are many other trail connections that we need to work on, but we also need to acquire land," Murphy said. "And it's great that we're doing all of this restoration work. But in my opinion, we're not planting enough trees."

Spande is an environmental scientist and president of the Illinois Prairie Path nonprofit corporation who highlights his experience with wetland remediation and surveys.

Spande wants to see the forest preserve develop an infrastructure plan that would track and control costs. Spande rolled out a similar plan in Winfield to schedule maintenance and inspections of bridges and roads.

The forest preserve district has 87 bridges in various states of repair, according to the master plan.

"The forest preserve in the last couple of years has gone from 4 million visitors to 6 million visitors," Spande said.

"There is no way that we can stop investment in the facilities."

Marsha Murphy and Michael Murray
Don Krause and Tina Tyson-Dunne
Marybeth Carlson, left, and Linda Painter
Elizabeth Folk Van Arsdell, left, and Barbara O'Meara
Al Murphy, left, and Erik Spande
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