At the beginning of the 20th century, a group of farsighted people had the novel idea to create the Cook County Forest Preserves system, the first of its kind in the country. It was a daunting task to plan, persuade people, and get laws through the legislature. Only then did the real work begin of purchasing and managing vast acreage, developing public programs, and conserving biodiversity while catering to humans.

None of this was easy. Starting with an initial purchase of 500 acres in 1916, today the FPDCC comprises 70,000 acres of natural and recreational areas stretching from Lake-Cook Road south to Steger Road. Consequently, Cook County, home to over 5 million people, can also boast that it’s the most biodiverse county in the state.

In this time of global warming, environmental degradation, and biodiversity loss, these lands do more than provide scenery as we drive by. They help clean our air, filter our water, prevent flooding, shelter hundreds of species of wild animals and plants (including over 100 that are threatened or endangered) and, all the while, entice us out to enjoy nature, with its known health benefits, any day we choose — no admission charged!

Those woods, savannas, prairies, wetlands, waterways, picnic pavilions, hiking and biking trails, recreation areas, and nature centers, not to mention the Chicago Botanic Garden and Brookfield Zoo, don’t just self-perpetuate. They are the result of constant efforts by elected officials, paid employees, and dedicated volunteers across the generations.

Thatcher Woods (Michael Romain/Staff)

But in its second century, the FPDCC is not content to rest on past accomplishments. The district has improved management and maintenance of existing lands, structures, and programs, while plans call for acquiring and protecting almost 3,000 more acres and upgrading amenities to better serve us all. In addition, the FPDCC proposes taking on long-deferred maintenance projects, adding staffing to better support its army of volunteers, and closing the pension gap.

To achieve all this, voters are asked to approve a property tax increase of 0.025%, the first raise since the 1930s. The added annual cost of around $20 — less than one fast food meal for a family of four — is an incredible bargain, considering the environmental, recreational, and educational benefits the preserves provide all year round, for all of us.

When I was a child, my family couldn’t afford much in the way of extras, but we always could, and did, hike the preserves and visit nature centers, including Trailside, and we were richer for the experiences. Later, I made sure my kids did the same.

Improved funding will ensure that coming generations will have what so many of us take for granted: a world-class, one-of-a-kind forest preserve system, open to the public, right in our neighborhood. Please vote Yes for clean air, clean water, and wildlife — for ourselves and everyone else.

If you haven’t visited a preserve lately, I invite you to give yourself a treat. And don’t forget to bring the kids.

Adrian Ayres Fisher serves on the board of West Cook Wild Ones and as volunteer site steward for National Grove Forest Preserve in North Riverside.

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