(Michael Romain/Staff)

A referendum question will appear on the ballot in November that is as unassuming as the wetlands and prairies and woodlands many commuters pass by without so much as a nod.

The Nov. 8 ballot measure will ask voters if they’d be willing to increase their property taxes so that the Forest Preserve District of Cook County — which is tasked with protecting nearly 70,000 acres of natural and recreational land across the county — might bring in another $43.5 million a year in revenue.

More than 300 miles of trail, 40 lakes and ponds, 274 picnic groves, 10 golf courses, the Chicago Botanic Garden and Brookfield Zoo are located on the district’s property.

If the referendum passes, the average homeowner would pay an additional $1.50 per month toward the Forest Preserve, according to informational material the district has created ahead of the referendum. 

Homeowners already pay an average of $3 to $4 a month toward the district. According to the Forest Preserve’s 2021 budget documents, the owner of a median-priced home pays $35 to $45 a year toward the Forest Preserve, depending on the municipality they live in. Less than 1% of a homeowner’s property tax bill goes to the Forest Preserve District.  

The referendum question comes as the district’s staffers have noticed an unprecedented number of visitors to their various properties, mostly due to COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders implemented in 2020 that made access to the outdoors much more critical.

“Trail Watch volunteers reported nearly twice as many trail users in 2020 from March through August than in 2019,” according to Forest Preserve District budget documents.

The increased demand for the outdoors is also happening as the Forest Preserve shoulders a heavy pension obligation and a laundry list of deferred maintenance projects.

If the referendum passes, about 21% of the anticipated $43.5 million of additional revenue would go toward paying pension obligations, 17% will go toward acquiring new natural open land to protect and 14% will go toward ecological restoration, among other areas.

Brookfield Zoo will get 9%, or an extra $4 million a year, to fund urgent capital work, such as building and stormwater repairs.

Benjamin Cox, the executive director of the Friends of the Forest Preserves, a nonprofit that advocates for forest preserves in Cook County, said there’s a coalition of roughly 170 institutions, including museums and nonprofits like his, that are educating the public about the referendum, which could be the most significant since the one in 1914 that created the Forest Preserve District.

“If these lands are to survive we’ve got to make them as healthy as possible,” Cox said. “The more we can do to get invasive species out and native species in and ecosystems thriving the better. And when they’re healthier they do a better job of cooling and cleaning the air, cooling and cleaning water, and slowing water down.”

Cox said the additional funds will be a serious shot in the arm for the Forest Preserve District, whose total budget last year was about $130 million, with about $63 million going toward general operating expenses. 

Cox said the coalition and other referendum advocates have bought ad spots on TV and radio. The Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune have endorsed the ballot measure, which has garnered largely bipartisan support. The Cook County Board of Commissioners, which also comprises the Forest Preserve District board, voted unanimously last year to place the referendum on the ballot.

But despite the publicity, the forest preserves’ growing popularity and the largely uncontroversial nature of the proposal, the referendum question has still managed to escape the awareness of even frequent forest preserve visitors like Shelley K. (who requested that we not use her last name).

Shelley and her husband Dan strolled through Thatcher Woods in River Forest on Saturday with their 5-year-old daughter. The couple said they were not aware of the referendum until asked about it that day, but would likely support it.

“It takes a lot of money to keep these kinds of things going,” Shelley said, referencing the nearby Trailside Museum of Natural History, which the Forest Preserves also operates.

“My daughter says, ‘This is my forest,’” Shelley said. “You gotta have a forest growing up. You gotta have woods.”

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