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  • Jeff Gahris

My Goals as Commissioner

In view of the District’s mission, my first priority is supporting preservation and restoration. In acquiring new land, the District prioritizes areas that have some quality natural features, or are adjacent to existing holdings. However, much of the lands that were acquired in the past have been significantly degraded by past human activities, including farming, artificial drainage, and residential or commercial development.

I value the work of District staff to restore areas to become more like they were before people transformed our land and streams. Goals differ by location depending on the quality of the acquired lands, and specific issues such as invasive plants like honeysuckle sand buckthorn. There is established science behind these activities that show, over a period of years, a marked increase in diversity of plants and wildlife, improved water quality, and natural beauty.

Trail access is another priority of mine, as I believe that access to the preserves by the public is a fundamental part of our mission. Preserving and restoring lands to their natural condition, at least in part, is done for the education, pleasure and recreation by the public. This is established by state law, but I am mindful of too many trails, or trails in the wrong places.

Balance must be struck between leaving nature alone and providing trails. Springbrook Prairie on the south side of Naperville, for example, has large areas with formal trails. In fact, some trails are closed during nesting season to limit access by the public to a particularly high quality area that is a breeding area for rare and endangered birds. In my view, preserving this area and limiting human involvement is important.

Other areas have different restoration goals. Spring Brook, that flows through parts of St. James Farm and Blackwell preserves, had been made into a drainage ditch many years ago. Recent efforts have been done to re-meander the stream to flow more naturally, and prairie and wetland plants have been added to create a more natural area. Over the next few years, I anticipate this area to become more spectacular with more diverse wildlife. Restoring our streams, including the removal of unneeded dams, improves water quality, avoids extremely expensive and relative ineffective water treatment plant modifications, and can help with urban flooding downstream.

Regarding buildings on preserve lands, many were acquired when the lands were purchased. Some have historic value, and we need appropriate community engagement regarding the preservation of our historical and natural heritage. Other buildings that have no use have been and will be demolished to return the acquired lands to a more natural state.

The buildings we are keeping need to be properly maintained. As far as maintenance and administrative buildings are concerned, I recently voted in favor of a detailed evaluation of how these buildings can be better utilized, where equipment should be stored, and how staff can best stationed for the work they do. This may include removal of obsolete buildings, installing new ones with better operating efficiency, environmental impact, and worker safety in mind. Going forward, we also need to think of reducing vehicle miles traveled, and converting vehicles to electric as appropriate.

The District’s Master Plan was approved in 2019 with a significant amount of public input. I will continue to use this as guidance, but will critically evaluate it as time goes on. Additionally, I will press for application of solar energy and energy efficiency to minimize our carbon footprint.

Much of what we are doing for natural area restoration reflects what is done in other forest preserve districts and park districts. The Morton Arboretum, The Conservation Foundation and the Nature Conservancy, and other organizations have been working on the science behind this, and are a wonderful resource for preserving our trees and grasslands in the region as we learn to adapt to changing climate. Together we can preserve our natural areas while helping people enjoy and appreciate them.

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