October 24, 2021

MCCD feels strain of maintaining land using referendum dollars

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Nodding Trillium is a delicate looking flower with three broad, usually white petals.

It was thought to have vanished from Illinois after being recorded in the 1860s but was rediscovered in the Lind Woods, a section of woodlands now part of the Queen Anne Prairie Conservation Area.

The McHenry County Conservation District has acquired more than 1,000 acres for the Queen Anne Prairie Conservation Area using, in part, funds from a bond issuance approved by voters in 2007, according to an analysis put together by the district for the Northwest Herald.

Those acres account for nearly a quarter of the 4,319 acres the conservation district has
acquired using some of the $73 million in general obligation bonds that voters approved in 2007 – $62.5 million was earmarked for land acquisition – as well as monetary and land donations and state and federal grants.

The district now maintains more than 25,000 acres with 33 sites open to the public. It has more than doubled its acreage over the past decade in the wake of the 2007 referendum and an earlier one in 2001.

However, since 2007, the district has only seen the number of full-time employee equivalents grow to 90.3 from 88.7.

That disparity and a drop in revenue caused by plummeting property values are the main reasons district officials cited when they asked for the district’s maximum tax rate to be raised.

While the bill made it through the Illinois Senate, its chief sponsor in the House, state Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, has declined to bring it to the floor, saying that taxpayers are struggling under current property tax levels.

Facing an estimated loss of $2 million over four years, the McHenry County Conservation District has had to make do – while still maintaining the stretches of land it has acquired.

The concern that available resources won’t be enough to save some of the county’s high quality natural areas has also been there for Ed Collins, the district’s director of land preservation and natural resources.

“I think there are some difficult times ahead for the district, but I think you’ll see some pretty creative solutions,” he said, adding that the district will use every resource at its disposal – plus its dedicated and imaginative staff – to make sure it can do as much as possible.

Queen Anne Prairie Conservation Area

When the first settlers arrived in McHenry County, the Queen Anne Prairie stretched from what is now the northern end of Woodstock almost to the town of Greenwood and then west to about Alden Road.

It was this low area left by the glaciers that was named the Queen Anne Prairie Conservation Area.

The site is made up of nine referendum-fueled acquisitions, according to conservation district documents. One parcel, 29.9 acres acquired in 2008, was a partial gift, a “bargain sale,” from Stewart and Nancy Ellison.

The Lind Woods portion was a private nature preserve until Helen Lind passed away and her heir sold it to the conservation district, Collins said. Two private nature preserves in the area, set up in partnership with the conservation district and the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission in the late 1980s and early 1990s, remain in private ownership but managed by the district.

The conservation work protects high quality woods, something that has been chipped away at as agriculture and then suburbs took over the county; as well as pre-archaeological historic sites; silt-intolerant fish and mussels; and several state and federal endangered or threatened plants.

Collins can’t go into specifics except to say that one is an orchid because sometimes people try to steal the endangered plants – “There’s an illegal plant trade, believe it or not.”

The county has had success in the past with restoring habitats and helping species recover. The sandhill crane, for example, was very rare back in the 1980s in the area.

The Queen Anne Prairie Conservation Area isn’t open to the public, but it may be sometime in the future, Collins said.

“It doesn’t have a time frame right now,” he said. “A lot of sites start not open, and as the district is able to put in improvements, they open.”

Brookdale Conservation Area

The 400-plus acres added on the west and northeast sides of the Brookdale Conservation Area – a spot outside of Woodstock that houses many of the district’s administrative offices – follow the Queen Anne Prairie Conservation Area in terms of the acreage added to a site using referendum dollars.

The site, unlike the Queen Anne Prairie Conservation Area, is open to the public.

A site on the west side of the conservation area, just south of Bunker Hill Road, was where the Brookdale School was located, Collins said, adding that even sites where old buildings have been removed can be treasure troves – especially if archaeologists find the privy where all sorts of items were tossed.

The small settlement was very active in the mid-19th century but disappeared by the early 1900s, according to Collins and the McHenry County Historic Preservation Commission. It even had its own post office, the Deep Cut Post Office, and stage coaches would stop at the nearby 1853 John A. Kennedy House on Route 14 so that women travelers could get a good night’s sleep.

The northern section of the Brookdale Conservation Area protects the North Branch of the Kishwaukee River, and through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant, the district has removed one dam and is researching alternatives to removing the second dam.

The dams were installed in the 1950s or 1960s to create ponds for fishing or to facilitate duck hunting, Collins said. The problem is that dams prevent fish from going upstream to spawn, which means upstream sections of the river are without certain species of fish.

It’s a particular problem for mussels, which use certain species of fish as carriers for their young, he said.

“If you cut off the fish species, it affects the entire ecosystem,” Collins said.

North Branch Conservation Area

The acquisition of 105.5 acres on the southwest end of the North Branch Conservation Area led to another restoration project.

The Monteloma Springs Fen is a wetland home to breeding grassland birds, the most diverse mussel beds in the county and many fish species, according to conservation district documents.

Using grant dollars, district staff removed invasive brush and decades worth of garbage dumped along Broadway Street. Further cleanup of catch basin ponds and tile lines is planned.

The tiles were installed around 1910 to get rid of the springs coming out of the side of the hills, so that cattle could graze there, a common practice on land difficult to farm, Collins said.

The district only pursues projects like this one if the project won’t adversely affect neighboring land, he said. It also has to get the go-ahead from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the county.

Ridgefield Trace

While the vast majority of referendum dollars went to land acquisition, some of the money went toward creating recreational improvements and opening new sites and trails to the public.

The first section of the Ridgefield Trace trail opened in 2009 with the second portion following in 2013, according to district spokeswoman Wendy Kummerer. Both of those phases used referendum dollars.

A third phase, funded through grants, is in the works.

The four-mile, multi-use trail will travel along Route 14 from West Lake Shore Drive in Woodstock to just south of McHenry County College, connecting with the existing two-mile trail that runs within ComEd right-of-way from the college to Veterans Acres Park in Crystal Lake, she said. Its construction is being handled by the Illinois Department of Transportation in conjunction with the widening of Route 14.

“From a planning perspective, the district is focused on being a partner in providing [trail] connections,” said the district’s planning manager, Amy Peters. “Most municipalities don’t own enough land to have a regional impact.”

The district also maintains most of the regional trails, she said.

Trails – in particular the 16-mile, multi-use Prairie Trail that connects the Kane County line in Algonquin and the Wisconsin state border – are very popular, Peters said.

“They’re popular because they’re for all ages, and people generally like to ride bikes,” she said. “It’s a fairly easy recreation. People are cognizant of health and the benefits of getting out. [The trails] are also easier than sidewalks because they’re wider, and they go through prettier parts of the county potentially.”