A Look Back at the 2012 Brunner Study
In March 2012, The League of Women Voters of the Elgin Area released a two-year study of Potential Gravel Mining in the Brunner Forest Preserve of Kane County. The study was undertaken after strong local reaction to quiet discussions by the Kane County Forest Preserve District of the possibility of mining for gravel in the newly purchased $40 million preserve. The way in which the idea of gravel mining in Brunner Forest Preserve came to public attention in early 2010 was a strong indicator of how the story would unfold. It was not put out for public discussion as an economic or land use question. It leaked out. It came out in bits and pieces, with information and misinformation, accusations and denials, and above all, anger. Like a juicy bit of gossip, it spread through the grapevine. The very people who had worked with the Forest Preserve District to pass referendums to acquire and preserve natural areas, who had volunteered for work days to restore and improve the preserves, and who had been its most vocal supporters, now felt angry and betrayed. The Elgin Area LWV Brunner Study examined the facts and the record to complete the first phase of the study, which concluded that gravel mining is inappropriate in Brunner Forest Preserve or any other forest preserve. Indeed, the extraction and sale of natural resources, whether gravel, coal, timber, natural gas or water, is inconsistent with the mission of the forest preserve. It also concluded that certain land use decisions by the Kane County Forest Preserve District raise questions of “mission drift” from the stated goal of preserving and restoring the nature of Kane County.
In order to purchase the Brunner Farm, The Kane County Forest Preserve District obtained a $1.46 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and a $750,000 grant from the Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development Program (OSLAD). The balance of the $40 million purchase price came from the remaining 2007 referendum funds. In the grant applications, the District stated that the preservation of the Brunner Farm and associated fen was their top priority, and that there was a need to act quickly to save this 700+ acre parcel from development threats. There was widespread celebration when the District finally purchased the Brunner property in October of 2008. Everyone who had planned and labored so long to see the Brunner Farm preserved forever for the benefit of the environment and for public enjoyment exhaled and applauded the hard work and perseverance of the Forest Preserve District commissioners and staff. But, as the public found out more than a year later, there were other plans being discussed.
In the November 7, 2008 minutes of the KCFPD Executive Committee, only weeks after the purchase closed, “Executive Director Meyers commented that the committee toured the Brunner property, visiting the structures along with the layout of the property. Presently Staff is working with the Transportation Department and the Dundee Township Park District on the land transfers. Staff is also looking at mining the gravel on the property; they will present a report in the coming months.” A December 2011 Freedom of Information (FOIA) request for that report, along with any supporting documentation, received the following response from then Director of Finance Robert Quinlan: “Monica Meyers, Executive Director, assured me that no such report was ever commissioned or written. After that meeting, President Hoscheit directed her not to start such a report. Therefore, no such report was created, so none can be supplied to you.” It would be odd for staff to have initiated a gravel mining report without being directed to do so. And it would be odder still for Hoscheit to have directed her to stop after the meeting, rather than during the meeting where it would be reflected in the minutes. Nevertheless, the official response of the KCFPD was to deny the existence of any study or report in contradiction to their own meeting minutes.
On April 1, 2009, the Forest Preserve Executive Committee approved an Intergovernmental Agreement with Kane County for the Longmeadow Parkway. It included a land swap for the road right of way, detention pond and 10-acre tract conveyed to the Dundee Township Park District as mitigation of property previously acquired by the County. Kane County agreed to pay the Forest Preserve District $54,000 per acre for the 41.1 acres needed for the parkway. At the May 1, 2009 meeting of the Forest Preserve Executive Committee, Executive Director Monica Meyers presented a request from Dundee Township Park District for a license agreement on a portion of the Brunner Forest Preserve. They wanted to lease approximately 34 acres of property adjoining the 10-acre parcel they had already received. The 34 acres included the house and buildings to be used for recreational programs and 26 acres for athletic fields and parking. Some commissioners hesitated, saying that the District had just acquired the property and still needed to develop a master plan, that this might be moving too quickly. Others felt that this was a fine example of intergovernmental cooperation. The agreement was signed in July, giving the Dundee Township Park District the exclusive right to use the property for 50 years for monetary consideration of $1.00. In short order, the KCFPD had sold or leased more than 84 of the 741 acres, and discussed mining for gravel, all before creating a master plan for this large and expensive preserve.
Not until January 2010, when the KCFPD Land Acquisition and Planning and Utilization Committees met at the McGraw Wildlife facility to tour the gravel excavation and lakes being developed at the quarry, did the first mention of a revenue producing plan emerge. President Hoscheit presented information from Lake County’s Independence Grove Forest Preserve, which was created from a gravel quarry. Admission to the preserve is free, but parking, swimming, fishing licenses, canoe rentals, and cafe vending produce income. And, of course, significant revenue was derived from selling the gravel from the pre-existing quarry. Concerns were raised about the process of how and where to proceed with the concept of mining a preserve, as well as the ecological effects to the area. It was agreed that all steps in this possible multi-year project would need to be publicly recorded and attended.
Up to this point, the public was largely unaware that gravel mining was being discussed, or that opening a new gravel mining operation – as opposed to purchasing an existing gravel quarry — was even legal in a forest preserve. The reaction was widespread and overwhelmingly negative. In response to public criticism, President Hoscheit put out a “To Whom It May Concern” letter on February 9, 2010 in which he attempted to clear up the “misinformation” and “inaccuracies” being circulated. The KCFPD is “focused on improving our preserves by incorporating amenities that would benefit preserve users and wildlife. One such enhancement would be the creation of lakes and fishing habitats. Our focus is not on starting a gravel mining operation, but instead is to convert existing cornfields to lakes. The District is investigating options to create lake and water habitats on a few of its properties.” The letter did not mention Brunner Forest Preserve at all, although it did point out previous reclamations of existing gravel mines at Big Rock and Grunwald Farms Forest Preserves in Kane County, and Independence Grove in Lake County as success stories. Nor did it explain why fishing lakes would be needed next to the Fox River.
As to their intentions, Hoscheit continued, “If we were to create such a lake, it would have to be in an area that is appropriate. It would not, for example, make sense in a heavily forested area nor in an area ecologically sensitive or pristine, where creation of a lake would dramatically, negatively impact the flora and fauna. Again, this would involve the conversion of cropland.” “One significant benefit of extracting sand and gravel is that the process would generate millions of dollars in revenue which would be reinvested in acquiring additional land.” “Currently, no site has been selected for such a project. The Forest Preserve Commission is merely evaluating this possible opportunity for future consideration.” No mention was made of any staff report on mining for gravel in the Brunner Forest Preserve, or that preliminary soil studies done by Kane County for the Longmeadow Parkway had identified extensive gravel deposits on the site.
The attempt to make the whole Brunner/gravel mining issue go away was not successful. For one thing, Commissioner Phil Lewis had already been quoted in a 2-10-10 Daily Herald article as saying that since the Longmeadow Parkway was going to be built on an easement through the Brunner Preserve anyway, and “there’s gravel on the Brunner property, then from a citizen’s standpoint in Kane County, I’d be pretty hard-pressed to explain to my constituents why I spent several million more dollars hauling gravel to the site where there exists gravel, particularly when we can build such a nice recreational feature in the form of this lake. It’s very prudent to investigate this. My motives are clear – to improve the forest preserve and utilize the assets that we have at our control.” The public was not mollified, and the issue continued to be a contentious one.
As more information became available, the public outcry grew. The Kane County Forest Preserve Commissioners circled the wagons and tried to wait it out. But the story did not go away. It became a 2010 election issue for board members up for re-election. Within the Dundee-Carpentersville area, it became a litmus test for candidates: Do you support mining for gravel or “creating fishing lakes,” as President John Hoscheit called it, in Brunner Forest Preserve? Whatever their opinions had been – if they even had an opinion – it was clear that taking the pledge was the only way to get elected. And every candidate in the area did so; they would not support mining in Brunner.
By that time, it was no doubt clear to President Hoscheit that this particular issue was dead, at least for the immediate future. Support for it on the board had mostly evaporated in the harsh glare of publicity. Worse still, the anger and mistrust generated by the controversy put at risk the success of the $30,000,000 Forest Preserve referendum on the April 2011 ballot. It was time for some fence mending. Hoscheit met first with a small group of people in the office of Dundee Township Supervisor Sue Harney, one of the most outspoken critics of the idea. Then he agreed to address the public meeting of the LWV Brunner/Gravel Mining Study group in March 2011. Asked to put on record his position, Hoscheit denied that gravel mining had ever been more than a fleeting idea, and conceded that there was no support for continuing. He then gave a strong presentation in favor of the referendum and why the timing was right in a down market to purchase additional property. Whatever mistrust lingered in the public mind, they voted to pass the referendum in 2011.
But a number of environmentalists had begun to discuss changes to Illinois law to prevent gravel mining in forest preserves. Geoff Petzel, Executive Director of Friends of the Fox River, drafted an amendment to the Downstate Forest Preserve Act that would prohibit the development of any new sand, gravel, or other mining operation on land owned by a forest preserve district, while exempting current or previous gravel mines. On May 26, 2011, State Senator Michael Noland (22nd District) introduced that amendment to the Illinois General Assembly as SB 2484. It was assigned to the Local Government Committee, but did not advance after some opposition.
The League of Women Voters of the Elgin Area approached the Study of Potential Gravel Mining in Brunner Forest Preserve by asking what were the economic, environmental, and social policy issues? The answer, based on research and common sense, was that mining for gravel on Forest Preserve land acquired for a record $40,000,000 would be a very bad decision from every perspective. It did not make economic sense, given the risk posed to the public water supply, the uncertainty of the gravel market and timeline, the costs of the reclamation, and the loss of public use for decades. It did not make sense from an environmental point of view, given the negative impact on air and water quality, habitat destruction, and the difficulties of reclamation and restoration. It raised issues of public trust and transparency, with far-reaching implications. And the mere discussion of gravel mining cast a shadow on future funding by putting the credibility of the Kane County Forest Preserve in doubt.
The Brunner/Gravel Study revealed some interesting facts and figures. Even more interesting, however, were the facts and figures that were not revealed, or even available. The Forest Preserve District Commissioners, charged with acquiring and protecting natural lands in Kane County, apparently indulged in a collective flight of fancy concerning the possible millions of dollars to be made by mining for gravel in a conveniently located preserve. In light of their claims that no studies were ever undertaken to determine the location and value of gravel on the property, or to weigh the environmental impact of such a gravel mine, then it is even more difficult to understand how an idea so contrary to the mission of the Forest Preserve could have been entertained even momentarily.
Based on the findings of this study, the Elgin Area League of Women Voters took the position that:
- Gravel mining is inappropriate in Brunner Forest Preserve or any other forest preserve.
- The extraction and sale of natural resources, whether gravel, coal, timber, natural gas, or water, is inconsistent with the mission of the forest preserves.
- The Downstate Forest Preserve Act should be amended to prohibit the extraction and sale of such natural resources.
- Certain land use decisions by the Kane County Forest Preserve raise questions of “mission drift” from the stated goal of preserving and restoring the nature of Kane County.
- Public access and transparency issues continue to be problematical at the Kane County Forest Preserve District.
The full text of the 2012 Study of Potential Gravel Mining in Brunner Forest Preserve (Kane County Forest Preserve District) can be found at http://lwvelginarea.org/2012/05/01study-of-potential-gravel-mining-in-the-brunner-forest-preserve-kane-county/.