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If you are a resident of Champaign County, you and I are co-owners of a marvelous natural treasure. I’ve known this for years, but was reminded this past March when almost every place I enjoy going was shut down by the pandemic.

Having already been in “lockdown” for several weeks due to a hospitalization and its aftermath, I really needed to get out of the house. While I enjoyed and continue to enjoy visiting Urbana’s parks, I wanted to go someplace different as well, someplace out in the country.

Then I remembered that I co-own with you 4,000 acres of nature in six different preserves around Champaign County, hundreds of acres of woods, hundreds more of prairie, 46 miles of hiking trails, 13 lakes and ponds, access to the banks of the Sangamon, Middle Fork and Salt Fork rivers.

I needed to visit that property, which belongs to you and me. Many of you did too. We were strengthened in body by walking those trails. Our bodies need to move. Our senses were stimulated as we walked through woods and grasslands, heard and saw wonderful birds (I spotted a bald eagle) and the sounds of running water, as we smelled spring flowers, as we felt the rough bark of an ancient oak.

Our spirits were lifted just by being outdoors. We need to be outside. Visiting natural places like the Champaign Country Forest Preserves make us healthier, more alive than being cooped up for days at a time.

And it was all free — well, mostly free.

The average homeowner in Champaign County pays $4 a month in property taxes to the Champaign County Forest Preserve District to staff, preserve, maintain and improve those six preserves which belong to us all. Four dollars. What an incredible bargain.

And I haven’t even mentioned the Museum of the Grand Prairie, which preserves and helps us remember our county’s history; the Homer Lake Interpretive Center, which teaches us about its natural history; the natural playscape, which children enjoy splashing in; the Harry L. Swartz Campground; and Illinois’ first and only International Dark Sky Park, the Middle Fork Forest Preserve. For $4 a month.

Unfortunately, that’s not quite enough for the Forest Preserve District to maintain that precious natural and cultural treasure which you and I and every Champaign County resident own. Our forest preserves’ roads, bridges (including the covered bridge at Lake of the Woods), dams, shelters and buildings are all 40 to 60 years old. The backlog for capital projects to repair them is $3.7 million and growing.

The district’s main source of income — our property taxes — was capped in 1996, and that cap cannot be increased except by us, the owners of Champaign County Forest Preserves. Which is why our forest preserve district’s board of commissioners has voted to put a referendum on the November ballot to ask us to raise what is called the limiting rate on our property taxes to help reduce this backlog and continue to maintain what we’ve already invested in.

Is this the best time to propose such a referendum? Of course not. But if we do not address this now, our preserves’ infrastructure will continue to deteriorate and the backlog to take care of them will only grow.

How much will this increase cost us? Brace yourself. The average homeowner will have to pay an additional 70 cents a month in property taxes if we pass this referendum. Seventy cents? Not much at all, when we consider what is at stake.

I’m voting yes to increasing the limiting rate on my property taxes. I hope you will too. These are our treasures, after all.

Urbana Park Board Commissioner Roger Digges chairs the Champaign County Forest Preserve District’s Citizens Advisory Committee.