Proposed referendum would strip DuPage County Forest Preserve Board of its autonomous authority

An Oak Brook Village Board member said a draft referendum has been written asking voters to return control of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County to the DuPage County Board.

“The forest preserve (district) does not need to be a separate level of government,” Trustee Mike Manzo said. “What the referendum is asking is to go back to the way it was so we can deal with the (county board) commissioners, who are much more responsive than commissioners (for) the forest preserve (district) right now.”

The proposed referendum has not yet been submitted to the county board. Forest Preserve District Board President Daniel Hebreard said he was unaware it.

In 2002, the DuPage forest preserve district was granted self-autonomy in an attempt to free it from the conflicting interests that came with being answerable to county board. The decision was approved by the county board in 1994 and the state of Illinois in 1996.

If the referendum is added to an election ballot and approved by voters, the 1994 decision would be rescinded and control restored to the county board.

The move stems from several conflicts the forest preserve district has had in recent years with other governmental groups.

Among them, the 2020 board decision to remove the Graue Mill Dam near the Graue Mill and Museum, a forest preserve attraction in Downers Grove Township on the National Register of Historic Places, and return it to its 1934 operating conditions.

District officials said the dam removal would improve water quality and biodiversity along the Salt Creek stream, but the move was opposed by Graue Mill Museum staff and board members and the Fullersburg Historic Foundation because they feared it would stop the water flow needed to turn the large outdoor mill wheel.

The dam removal is part of the forest preserve district’s greater Salt Creek Restoration plan, which began in 2020 and is led by DuPage River Salt Creek Workgroup, a nonprofit formed in 2007 to monitor water quality and wildlife around the waterway.

Part of the Salt Creek Restoration involves the removal of invasive plant life, including non-native trees, which district officials say are to be replaced with native oak and hickory trees.

“I personally believe too many large trees were taken out,” district board member Linda Painter, District 3, said in an interview. Which trees and how many to remove were decisions made by the district’s Department of Natural Resources, she said.

More recently, district staff decided to stop taking in baby raccoons for rehabilitation.

“We’ve had a lot of residents in front of us upset with the forest preserve (district for) their plans to start euthanizing baby raccoons that are brought into the Willowbrook (Wildlife) Center,” said DuPage County Board member Brian Krajewski, who represents District 3. “They’ve been treating these animals for the last how many years and now they’re going to not be doing that anymore.”

The center could rehab up to 50 raccoons at a time, but the concerns over their spread of disease, the extensive time needed for them to fully mature and their penchant for eating endangered Blanding’s turtle eggs led staff to make the decision, Painter said.

Some community members have told county officials they’ve felt left out of the decision-making process, Krajewski said.

“I think there’s just a lot of strain throughout DuPage County (over) issues that the forest preserve (district) doesn’t seem to be listening to their constituents (about),” Krajewski said.

In February 2023, a washed-away bridge in the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Downers Grove Township was replaced but the forest preserve district did the work without obtaining permits, causing issues with nearby Argonne National Laboratory.

“They knew darn well they had to get a permit and then they just ignored the rules and just went and put a bridge in,” Krajewski said.

A referendum approved by voters could return the forest preserve district to DuPage County Board control, but the change could also be achieved by legislation approved by the General Assembly and signed by the governor.

“One of the reasons for this referendum is because the residents of DuPage County do not appreciate the strong-arm, Chicago-style political tactics from the new forest preserve board,” Manzo said.

George Wiebe is a reporter for Pioneer Press.