More visitors are making their way to the Byron Forest Preserve District this year as the preserve marks its 40th year of operation.
COVID-19 has brought out three to four times as many visitors out to enjoy outdoor activities in the district’s nearly 2,600 acres that started as 200 acres in 1980.
The district golf course’s playability has improved and it recently added PrairieFire, a year-round golf and grill facility.
“It’s a nice milestone for all,” Executive Director Todd Tucker said. “We’re one of the younger forest preserves and conservation districts. It shows nice stability. We’ve shown good growth, thanks to the nuclear plant. It means a lot to employees and patrons and the community. We help enrich people’s lives. It’s been more evident now.”
Tucker said that during 40 years, the district’s focus hasn’t changed from its mission statement, which is preservation, recreation and education.
In 2017, it added a 380-acre preserve at Bald Hill with the state’s largest tree. This year, PrairieFire was the addition.
The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t change much for the district’s staff. It was able to catch up on some projects while the public wasn’t allowed on the premises. It also caused education to become more streamlined by putting things online.
Additional traffic now has complicated things, but hopefully for the best, Tucker said.
“The preserves are first and foremost for the plants and animals,” Tucker said. “And then recreation. There’s been more trash cleanup and people going off the trails. But people aren’t cooped up. Hopefully we get some people to stick around for good.”
The Byron Nuclear Plant’s announcement of a planned 2021 closure came as tough news for the Byron Forest Preserve District.
The district received nearly $2.35 million in taxes from the plant last year, making up 75-80 percent of its tax base.
Tucker has been with the district since 1995, and he says he’s seen threats of closing before. But he believes the plant is at more of an impasse with the state than ever before.
“We want to maintain all these facilities,” Tucker said. “Don’t run for the hills yet. But the plant is essential for Byron and the surrounding communities. We’d do whatever compromising we have to keep it open. It would be devastating.”
In Tucker’s words, the nuclear plant “birthed” the forest preserve. He believes there wouldn’t have been one without it. Exelon has also been partners with the preserve on a number of projects.
Tucker says he can’t run the district off “what-if” scenarios. But he says the district will be careful going into next year on how far it extends things in case the closure goes through.
“We’ll be prepared to make those cuts,” Tucker said. “You always have to have stuff like that in the back of your head. I can’t put $500,000 away, though. It doesn’t work that way in government. There’s only so much preparation we can do. We will think about minimizing the possible impact going forward.”