Smile Politely

It’s time to properly fund our forest preserves

Clint Smith, author and writer at The Atlantic, recently took to Twitter to reinforce the importance of outdoor spaces:

“I’ve spent more time just walking outside in the past 5 months than I have in my entire life and one thing that I feel more certain about than ever is how important it is to have free public parks, playgrounds, and outdoor green spaces accessible to all people in all communities.”

Does that statement resonate with you? It certainly hits home for us. These past several months have brought into stark reality the value of the outdoors. Places — particularly those that are indoors — we used to frequent without a thought now require a thorough risk assessment. As citizens who utilize the outdoor spaces in C-U and throughout Champaign County, we need to do our part to preserve them with our dollars and our behaviors.

Sure, we’ve drawn pleasure and even solace from spending time outside pre-pandemic. Outside has always been vital to our existence. It’s truly our most shared space as a community. Now, it’s even more essential for creating safer social interactions, dining experiences, and entertainment, as we’ve learned the role that ventilation plays in spreading COVID-19. Open air spaces have become directly connected to our health and safety. 

When Governor Pritzker issued the stay-at-home order in March, outdoor activities such as hiking, running, and biking remained “essential”. As we fired off daily announcements of closings and cancellations, this announcement from the Champaign County Forest Preserve District was a relief to see. The six forest preserves have remained accessible since the beginning, and they’ve been a lifeline for so many: a place to exercise, fish, kayak, perhaps view a comet, all while managing to stay relatively far away from other people. 

As we noted previously, Mary Ellen Wuellner, Executive Director of CCFPD, said park and preserve usage is up anywhere between 25% to 50% just this year alone. In that same announcement, CCFPD requested a property tax increase on the November ballot. Those additional funds would be used towards the completion of capital projects throughout the district and to add staff to execute them. Since the formation of the district in 1948, no tax increases have been approved. The last one failed in 2008. The time for an increase is well overdue;  we have an opportunity here to remedy that. But… a tax increase? During a pandemic? During the worst economic downturn since the recession? Yes, we support this request. Using the handy calculator on the CCFPD website, you can see that for a home valued at $150,000 will pay an additional eight dollars per year should the referendum pass. Eight dollars.

If the referendum doesn’t pass this time around, here are the consequences, according to the CCFPD:

  • Deterioration of some facilities and infrastructure will continue because the capital budget is inadequate to address more than a few projects each year. With deferred maintenance comes increasing replacement costs, which means that some projects may never be addressed and those facilities may need to be shut down. 

  • Services, events, or programs will also have to be cut, and facility and user fees increased. 

In other words, we will pay more to have less. We must say yes to these small increases, especially when the sacrifice is negligible compared to the benefit. Even if you don’t visit the forest preserves very often, their existence is beneficial to the residents of Champaign County as a whole. 

So, when you see the Champaign County Forest Preserve question on your ballot, fill in that “yes” bubble. These spaces are vital to our mental health as a community, especially during a pandemic where outside is essential

Now that you’ve committed to paying a few extra dollars a year, here’s an additional commitment to take care of our outdoor spaces. Park utilization has increased throughout the summer as restrictions have been lifted. More people are using playgrounds and tennis courts, and groups are gathering in pavilions. People who don’t typically use parks often are now using them more than ever. 

Empty bottles and other garbage sits on a picnic table at Clark Park in Champaign. There are a number of empty bottles underneath the table. Photo by Jessica Hammie.

Photo by Jessica Hammie.

Unfortunately, this increased use has led to more trash, which shouldn’t come as a surprise.

We think the blame for this lies in two places. First: Take care of your trash, people. Is it really necessary for you to leave your empty soda bottles, half eaten Pop-Tart and/or wet diaper on at the park? No, it’s not. And it’s unsanitary and disgusting.

Two metal trash cans are overflowing with trash. There is trash all over the ground as well. A picnic table and grassy area is in the background. Photo by Magic M. Wade.

Photo by Magic M. Wade.

Second: There needs to be some responsibility taken by the park districts. The particular examples we’ve seen have been in Champaign parks, so that’s who we’re speaking to here. If the trash cans are completely overflowing and not emptied regularly enough, it doesn’t leave park goers with much of an option other than taking trash with them, which not everyone is going or able to do. More receptacles could be added to high traffic parks such as Hessel and West Side Park, if they don’t have the ability to empty the current ones on a more regular basis. Champaign Park District recently hired “park ambassadors” to monitor and break up large groups that are meeting without a permit. Perhaps they could monitor and manage the trash situation as well. 

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve heard a lot of “we’re all in this together.” Are we? It’s going to take more buy-in to hold onto these pieces of the community that we value. And right now, the continued care and preservation of our outdoor spaces should be of the highest priority,  not just during this pandemic, but into the future as well. 

The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.

Top photo by Addison McClure.

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