As the McHenry County Conservation District marks 50 years of serving McHenry County, district and county leaders are looking back on what it has done and looking for ways it can improve in the future.
A place for residents to enjoy nature, the district has been the source of controversy and debate over the appropriate use of property taxes. While battles over spending take place in meetings, Executive Director Elizabeth Kessler said the district does more than maintain hiking trails and plays a critical role in the county.
“All those things that are related to tourism and a place for economic viability, the district has been right there in that,” Kessler said.
The conservation district was founded in 1971 after McHenry County voters approved a referendum to create a conservation district to protect land from development. An environmental movement was sweeping the nation at the time, which Kessler said created an appetite among county residents to set aside land for conservation.
That mission has not changed, Kessler said, even as the environmental movement has shifted to focus more on climate change. She said the district plays a role in working to limit the impacts of every day severe weather events, such as the drought the county has dealt with this year.
“McHenry County is very dependent on ground water, so protecting wetlands is vitally critical to all of us,” she said, adding that protecting drinking water is one of the district’s most important roles.
Over the conservation district’s 50 years, Kessler said, it has engaged in projects that have become models for others involved in conservation and preservation throughout the region and country. That includes partnering with other agencies to create the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, which is mostly located in McHenry County.
The conservation district works with a foundation to get funding for projects, but it is also a taxing body. In 2001 and 2007, county voters approved a referendum giving the district the ability to issue bonds and generate revenue for land purchases. The district used the revenue in 2014 to buy more than 1,000 acres of new land.
County Board member Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, is on the McHenry County Conservation Foundation’s Board of Directors and said the district’s partnership with the foundation helps it use the money it receives through property taxes in the most effective way.
“When you look at your property tax bill and you see your very small portion go to the conservation district, you need to know that a foundation exists to raise more money to maintain current operations and ensure future preservation, ground water availability and historical building preservation and all the other amenities residents of McHenry County expect and deserve from their local government,” she said.
McHenry County Board Chairman Mike Buehler, R-Crystal Lake, said he believes the district has managed its budget well, noting it received an award last year from the county board for fiscal responsibility.
The McHenry County Conservation District maintains 25,623 acres of land and water, according to its website. Officials planned to spend about $25.6 million this year while taking in $23.9 million, according to the district’s fiscal 2022 budget. For comparison, the Lake County Forest Preserve is about 31,000 acres in size with a current annual budget of $65.7 million.
Former McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks, a Democrat, often was a vocal critic of the district’s spending plans. He opposed proposed property tax increases to finance the district’s budget, which was a hot topic of debate in 2019. Ultimately, the county board approved a budget for the district that did not include a property tax increase.
“We in McHenry County pay some of the highest property taxes in the entire nation,” he said. “We have a special obligation that we keep our property taxes down.”
Franks said the conservation district’s budget process “really highlighted the fact that there’s so little oversight” even though it uses a significant amount of taxpayer dollars. The conservation district takes about 2% of a person’s property tax bill, according to the district.
The district’s board should be elected because of the size of its budget, Franks said. He said he also would like to see officials be more creative with how the district uses land in the future, including more recreational opportunities.
“Perhaps they should ask the citizens if they’d like to see more recreation,” he said. “I think after 50 years, it’s time to refine the mission and tune it up. What started 50 years ago may not be what everyone wants now.”
Franks also said unused farmland the district owns should be sold back to farmers.
Despite its large size and additions of large amounts of land in the last 20 years, Althoff said there is still ample agricultural space that is privately owned that could be sold for development.
One way the district is embracing new things residents want is through technology and the internet.
“We are increasing our understanding with new technologies and the needs of the community and ensuring the district is adapting to those kinds of trends,” Kessler said. “We’ve provided some opportunities for geocaching and being on a trail site and scanning things to use technology to connect to nature.”
“The other piece I think is really important is we’re also working with volunteers,” Kessler said. “We have over 400 individuals giving back their personal time. That’s something I think is really unique is the amount of community support in support of the work we do.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the amount of money the conservation district spends and receives. The Northwest Herald regrets the error.