Study Finds IL Far Behind in Open Space Protection

March 1, 2007: Illinois ranked in the bottom third of states in spending for open space, and dead last by a wide margin in the Midwest in state-owned protected land, according to Illinois State Land Conservation Funding, a report released today. Illinois has gone from spending an average of nearly $50 million a year on open space acquisition in the early 2000s to averaging less than $10 million annually over the last few years.(Report attached as PDF for download at the bottom of this page.)

To begin to address an estimated need of $3 billion to protect and maintain Illinois’ natural areas and parks, the Partners for Parks and Wildlife (PPW) calls for at least $100 million in new funding annually by the state and a commitment to fully fund existing programs at approximately $50 million a year.

“Illinois has not invested sufficiently in protecting open space for parks and natural areas. The state needs to make a commitment to save our open land and preserve our natural heritage for Illinois’ future generations,” said Jonathan Goldman, the Executive Director of the Illinois Environmental Council Education Fund (IECEF), which authored the report in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land.

The report documents the results of underfunding open space in Illinois:

  • Illinois has lost more than 90 percent of its original wetlands, 99.99 percent of its original prairie, and currently has 424 state and 24 federally listed threatened and endangered species within its boundaries.
  • Illinois ranks last by a wide margin among Midwestern states in acres protected per capita, with only 1 percent of its land owned by the state.
  • Illinois spent $2.67 per resident on open space annually during its peak years of investment, while Ohio spent $4.36, Minnesota spent $5.76 and Wisconsin spent $9.80. Funding in Illinois has since dropped by about 80 percent.

Parcels of open land are getting more expensive as real estate values rise, and many are lost to development. The report shows that rural farmland real estate prices have risen 68 percent statewide from 2000 to 2006, and in places like Chicago’s collar counties, development is happening at a ferocious rate. Kendall County, for example, is the third fastest growing county in the nation. With reliable state funding, Illinois can begin the process of acquiring important parcels of land before the cost becomes prohibitive or the opportunities are gone.

Illinois’ drop in funding is the result of the end of a four-year program to protect open space and diversions of funds from two long-term programs, the Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development Fund (OSLAD) and the Natural Areas Acquisition Fund (NAAF). Both OSLAD and NAAF are supported by dedicated funding from the Illinois’ Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT). “But while that revenue has increased with the real estate boom, the state has taken away millions of dollars slated for parks and natural spaces through budgetary procedures. In fiscal year 2006 alone, more than $35 million was diverted,” noted Lenore Beyer-Clow, Policy Director from Openlands.

“When the laws were written, funding for these open space programs was tied to the real estate market, so that when land starts being increasingly developed, more resources are available to create parks and save habitat. This was well-crafted legislation based upon sound public policy. We need to restore our commitment in Illinois to using these funds only for protecting natural areas and creating new parks and playgrounds,” said Beth White, Chicago Area Director, The Trust for Public Land.

Partners for Parks and Wildlife is calling for new state investments of $100 million per year to protect open space. “The report lists a menu of options for Illinois to consider to create a dedicated funding stream, including new land acquisition funding in any capital spending plan for Illinois and increasing the RETT,” said Ted Flickinger, the CEO and President of the Illinois Association of Park Districts.

PPW also calls for this year’s state budget to fully fund OSLAD and NAAF and to appropriate the RETT funds from past years that haven’t been spent for other purposes. The total would be $63 million this year ($35 million for OSLAD and $28 million for NAAF). “Our calculations show that in the years ahead, the RETT will generate more than $50 million annually for open space. Allocating adequate funds for conservation will facilitate the steady support needed to preserve these special places for recreational opportunity and to conserve our natural heritage,” said Michael Reuter, acting State Director of The Nature Conservancy in Illinois.

Partners for Parks and Wildlife is a grassroots coalition working to secure and increase funding for open space and park acquisition, natural area preservation, wildlife habitat protection and recreational opportunities in Illinois. PPW was created in 2004 when more than 130 organizations came together to advocate against state funding cuts for open space.

The Illinois State Land Conservation Funding report was prepared with the generous support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.