Nearing the end of the George Ryan reign as governor, state wildlife biologists were offered early retirement. Many took the offer, but some believed a Democrat would win the next governors race, so they hung onto their jobs. Their logic was that a Democrat in the governors mansion meant friendlier political attitudes toward Illinois natural environment, thus job security for state biologists.
Well, Democrat Rod Blagojevich became governor, but to the surprise of many, Rod is anything but green. Blagojevich is a Chicago machine Democrat with little compassion for open spaces. Just months ago, he tried to eliminate the Open Land Trust, saying Illinois taxpayers should be unburdened from protecting green space through purchase. But one of the biggest motives behind his move was to free up natural areas to developers like our own land-ravenous First Rockford Group. Our governor meets with developers and Realtors with a frequency approaching bias. Wow, our governor has impeccable timing because Winnebago Countys second wave of sprawl, i.e., unwise development, is about to reach tidal wave size. Natural areas of higher quality are being developed at a pace and size unmatched in our countys history.
Its not that other counties are immune to development; its just that its so prevalent here. Portions of the Rock and Kishwaukee River buffer areas and flood plains are literally war zones. The flood plains and surrounding hills on the Rock River from Machesney Park to Rockton are being stripped of their natural identity for big, new, ugly homes and the deep pockets of the developers that own the land. When I personally viewed these areas on March 21, the two words that came to mind foremost were: strip mining.
Thanks to an outcry from concerned Illinois citizens, Blagojevichs plans to eliminate the Open Land Trust failed. However, he came roaring back axing at the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, which is a state agency founded and directed to find, analyze and protect quality Illinois natural areas.
According to law, the goal of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission is to formally dedicate chosen quality natural areas, whether privately or publicly owned. By the laws deemed by the Commission, the nature preserves must be maintained in their natural condition consistent with a high degree of their presettlement character or have ecological, geological or archaeological features of scientific or educational significance.
Blagojevich started his attack on the INPC with Operation Decapitation (as I call it) in which he fired the Commissions director, Carolyn Grosboll, who had been an excellent INP Commissioner for nine years. At the time, no reason was given for the firing, but some thought it was political because Carolyn was a Republican and a lawyer who had been a political adviser to a past Republican governor. But it wasnt long before Blagojevichs real goal of trashing the whole Commission was surmised. The governor was planning to fire all biologists who worked for the INPC.
Ironically, Illinois bucks the national trend of Democrats being pro-environment. In the last two decades, Republican governors have been much kinder to the Illinois natural environment than the Democrats have.
With weak environmental laws and super-strong developer influence, Winnebago County is sprawling like no other Illinois county. Though they havent controlled the governor singlehandedly, our areas developers have destroyed so much in our county, and now we learn they have had a big hand in the attempted demolition of our state government agencies that protect our besieged green spaces. There seems to be no end to the negative influence of our developers. Nothing escapes their scrutiny.
Protection of Illinois natural areas has deep roots in Rockford. Botanist and naturalist George Fell founded the Natural Land Institute in Rockford. Fell helped put together The Nature Conservancy; in fact, he was its first director. And the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, the first of its kind in any state, was the brainchild of George Fell and a few like him. George was its first commissioner, and it was first headquartered on Rockfords North Main Street.
Our governor talks about balancing the budget, but when he attempts to crush the laws that protect and enhance our natural environment, he is then, as the Native Americans would say, unbalancing lifes order. I am proud of Rockfords legacy in the environmental movement. But who can be proud of the legacy that area developers are shaping? What option do we have but to hang our heads low if we can no longer protect Illinois natural history?
Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associates degree in science and a bachelors in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.