Golf courses or forest preservation

Can golfers take money from the forest preserves? They will, unless people act. The area’s public golf courses are in need of more fertilizer, pesticides and manicuring. Have you walked on a golf course recently? Apparently, they are death traps, because that would be the only reason I would support throwing money there.

According to the Downstate Forest Preserve Act, which authorized Illinois forest preserves, their purpose is to:

“Acquire lands for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora, fauna and scenic beauties and to restore, restock, protect and preserve such lands together with their flora and fauna, as nearly as may be, in their natural state and condition for the purpose of the education, recreation and pleasure of the public.”

Yes, education and recreation are mentioned, but the emphasis is on acquiring and protecting land, flora and fauna.

Golf courses have been part of the district’s offering for decades, and have provided a popular recreational activity that was self-supporting. The Winnebago County Forest Preserve (WCFPD) was also able to acquire and restore some pretty nice land and create a beautiful system of forest preserves along the rivers. I walk through those a lot more than I walk onto a golf course.

Now, the District is financially maxed out. Land acquisition funds are exhausted. The Forest Preserve District board (which is really the Winnebago County Board) should examine its priorities. The Forest Preserve should have a separate governing board. Our current dilemmas are because we have leadership that is not attuned to the Forest Preserve’s mission.

Both the historic purpose and current development pressures in our county, land acquisition and protection is the most important priority now.

Taking money away from preserves or borrowing money that has to be repaid may save a golf course, but it will likely impair the District’s ability to preserve our natural resources, wildlife and landscapes. Golf courses come and go. Once our natural heritage has been lost to pavement and roof tops, it’s gone forever.

The window of opportunity to protect key parcels and corridors is rapidly narrowing as land prices rise and availability declines. All funds need to be prioritized for acquiring the land needed to offset the negative impacts of development. This will benefit all citizens of the county by protecting our drinking water, air and soil, reducing flooding and bolstering our economy.

Golf courses are nice, but serve only a small segment of the taxpayers. I play golf. Disc golf, as opposed to “ball golf.” The disc golf course is at Paige Park and is one of the best in the Midwest. There is no fee, and the Rockford Park District mows the park. But the disc golfers maintain the course equipment.

Ball golf is a bit more complicated (and expensive). One of the major expenses faced at the golf courses is the need to replace the fleet(s) of golf carts. They are old and in disrepair. Replacing all of them could cost over more than $1 million. Of course, the golfers could walk, but other major capital needs and repairs have been deferred for the past several years. There are real needs at all the courses. Either volunteers should step forward and help raise donations for the area’s public golf courses, or fees should be raised. Especially now.

They say the reason we can’t raise fees is because the area is saturated with golf courses. Supply and demand makes the golf business very competitive. The number of rounds played are down nationally and regionally, while the number of courses operating is at an all-time high. They are stuck in a dying business.

The District can’t afford to “do it all” and needs to make tough choices and put its money into what will provide the greatest benefit for the most people. Right now, that is protecting our natural lands. Please urge the Forest Preserve and County Board to preserve the preserves, and get busy on some long-term funding solutions.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

from the March 28-April 3, 2007, issue

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