Smile Politely

This will be the last year for Freedom Fest at Lake of the Woods

A firework explodes over a dark lake.
Champaign County Forest Preserve on Facebook

Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve has been the site of Freedom Fest and the accompanying fireworks for many years, and now the Champaign County Forest Preserve District has made the difficult decision to discontinue the event after this year’s celebration. The biggest reason? The negative impact on the environment. The mission of the CCFPD is “Protect Champaign County’s natural and cultural resources and inspire people to care for, enjoy, and explore their natural world,” and fireworks are extremely distruptive and harmful to those resources, particularly the wildlife living in the preserve. I imagine there will be some that are not very happy with this decision, but it’s awfully hard to argue with the reasoning. The forest preserves are a treasure, as you can gather from our Year of the Park series from a few years back.

Here is the full statement from CCFPD:

Join us at Freedom Fest’s Grand Finale on Friday, June 30th at the Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve with gates opening at 4 p.m. There’s a $2 admission charge and children under five get in free. Visitors can expect all of the usual festivities, including music from Mixx DJ Entertainment, food trucks, and a spectacular fireworks display to cap off the night. It promises to be a fitting send-off for the event.

The Champaign County Forest Preserve District decided to hold the last Freedom Fest this year in recognition of our commitment to environmental responsibility and community well-being. For several years, this event was a cherished part of the district’s summer programming. More recently, we have seen declining attendance and sponsorship, difficulty filling volunteer roles, and increasingly-limited visibility of the fireworks due to growth of surrounding trees. Those challenges, combined with mounting concerns over the impact of fireworks on pollution, wildlife, domestic pets, and individuals with PTSD and autism have led to this difficult decision.

One reason behind discontinuing Freedom Fest is the environmental health impact of fireworks. The beautiful displays come at a cost, emitting pollutants into the air and debris onto nearby grounds and waters to the detriment of humans and resident wildlife alike. Through its 2022 Climate Commitment, the Forest Preserve District pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to a sustainable future.

Fireworks have a significant impact on the very wildlife our mission charges us to protect. The loud noises and bright flashes can cause distress, disorientation, and even physical harm to animals. Wildlife suffer from increased stress levels and may abandon their homes at critical times during their breeding or nesting cycle, leaving young without food and more vulnerable to predators. Litter from firecrackers, bottle rockets and other explosives can be choking hazards for wildlife and may be toxic if ingested.

Many people enjoy the booming sounds and flashing colors of fireworks, but they can be terrifying, overwhelming⁠ and hazardous for both wild and domestic animals. On the Fourth of July, many animals become so frightened by the noise and commotion of fireworks that they run from otherwise familiar environments and people, and sadly become lost. They may also suffer devastating or even fatal health effects from the stress. The sudden bright flashes and sounds can cause wild animals to run into roadways, resulting in more car accidents than normal. By discontinuing Freedom Fest, the Forest Preserve District acknowledges the need to protect and respect the well-being of both our resident wild animals and nearby domestic ones.

The decision to end the event also recognizes the concerns of individuals suffering from PTSD and autism. The loud and sudden noises generated by fireworks can trigger traumatic memories or sensory overload for those with post-traumatic stress disorder or autism spectrum disorder. By discontinuing the event, the Forest Preserve District acknowledges the importance of creating inclusive and supportive spaces that prioritize the mental and emotional well-being of all community members. As we have witnessed, the declining engagement with this event indicates a shift in priorities and interests within the community. It is crucial for the Forest Preserve District to respond to these changing dynamics, ensuring that resources and efforts are directed toward planning activities that resonate more strongly with the community and align with the community’s evolving values.

While bidding farewell to Freedom Fest may evoke a sense of nostalgia and disappointment for some, ending the firework show is a step toward a more sustainable and inclusive future. By supporting the Forest Preserve District’s decision to embrace other forms of summer programming that reflect our growing concerns for the environment and the diverse needs of our community, we can foster a greater sense of harmony between human activities and the natural world.

Managing Editor

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