Where Hebreard, Schillerstrom stand on land purchases for DuPage forest preserves

Robert Schillerstrom began his political career fighting to preserve open space in Naperville during the boom years of the 1980s.

A Republican fixture in DuPage County, Schillerstrom is echoing that theme as he runs for forest preserve board president against Democratic incumbent Daniel Hebreard.

Schillerstrom argues the district should step up efforts to acquire land.

But with so few large open tracts left in DuPage, Hebreard contends the district has been limited in how much property it can buy. Forest preserves already cover 26,000 acres, or about 13% of the land in the county.

During a Daily Herald forum ahead of the Nov. 8 election, Schillerstrom said voters should be asked for permission to increase forest preserve holdings. “My focus would be different than what the board is currently doing,” he said. “I think that they are more focused on bricks and mortar than they are on the natural environment.”

The district issued $41.5 million in bonds last year to fund an extensive overhaul of Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn, renovations of the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook and other projects outlined in a master plan adopted in 2019.

Hebreard touted the five-year master plan, calling it a bipartisan, “very ambitious list of projects and initiatives.” The district “timed the market so well” that it secured a 1.3% interest rate on the bond loan.

“We do have funding, and we're able to do that without raising taxes, so we're incredibly proud of that,” Hebreard said.

Open space issues have long been a Schillerstrom campaign staple. He pushed to obtain land for parks and trails as a Naperville Park District commissioner decades ago. When he led the Conservation Foundation, Schillerstrom supported a voter-approved $75 million request in 1997 to buy open space throughout the county.

The Naperville attorney went on to three terms as county board chairman and a brief gubernatorial campaign. He's now a trustee at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

“The large parcels are no longer really available. They've all been developed,” Schillerstrom said. “But we need land to hook our forest preserves together, so we have corridors for animals, so that we can build trails and certainly up and down our rivers.”

Schillerstrom's campaign has criticized the $41.5 million bond issue it says came without “any type of plan to acquire land.”

District officials acknowledged that a land acquisition plan had “not started” during an update to the forest preserve commission in May.

“I think that the master plan that they have is misguided,” Schillerstrom said. “It has land acquisition as a secondary pursuit.”

Hebreard countered that the district would be able to use bond proceeds to acquire land should it become available. During his tenure, the district has added roughly 55 acres, records show.

“We continue to aggressively pursue land purchases,” he said. “There were times when I don't have the support. And so we might have already had more, but I am proud to say that we continue to look at land acquisition, that we do it smartly and wisely. We don't need a random 10 acres here and a random 10 acres there.”

Hebreard began working for the district as a ranger in 2005. He was first elected president in 2018 and pledged to concentrate on existing recreational and natural areas.

“We should be focusing on making what we currently have the best we can offer and not always looking just to add more,” Hebreard said four years ago.

He highlighted a 550-acre habitat restoration project to remove invasive trees and shrubs at Herrick Lake Forest Preserve near Wheaton. As part of a $29.2 million project at Willowbrook, the district will go “net zero” in developing a new wildlife clinic, meaning it's intended to produce as much energy as it consumes.

“We'll hopefully have about one-third of that $30 million price tag come from partner money, from federal, state and private donations,” Hebreard said.

Built 40 years ago, the existing clinic has become overwhelmed by admissions of injured and orphaned wildlife, he said.

“I'm not going to sit around and tell you that it's not important to improve our facilities,” Hebreard said. “And so I took action, and that project is moving forward. ”

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