H.C. "Chuck" Johnson (1928-2016) received the Pugsley Medal in 1989. His life's work was governed by a passion for the environment which started during his boyhood in Clinton, Iowa, a sleepy little town on the Mississippi River surrounded by bluffs and woods. Johnson spent much of his free time as a child fishing in the Mississippi or hiking on the bluffs. He later recalled, "I was a river rat. I loved to be outdoors. It's always been a part of me." When Johnson was nine his father died, so he had to work while going through high school. One day as a child, Johnson was at home suffering from the mumps when he listened to a program on the Iowa State College radio station which featured the head of the forestry program at Iowa State. After listening to him, Johnson decided that was what he wanted to do. Immediately upon graduating from high school in 1946, he enlisted for three years in the U.S. Navy. When he was discharged from the Navy, he entered Iowa State University graduating in 1955 with a B.S. in forestry and a minor in botany.
After university, he worked one and a half years for Edward Hines Lumber Company. After traveling the western states in his role as a forest products trainee, Johnson was transferred back to work at a desk job in the Chicago headquarters, which did not appeal to him. Hence, when he became aware of a position available in the Village of Downers Grove, Illinois as municipal forester, he accepted it. He was in this position for two years and then subsequently served for an additional four years as public works superintendent and forester.
His real interest within the forestry area was in parks, which led to his appointment as the second executive director of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County in 1962. At that time, the district owned 1,354 acres of land, had three employees, and the operating budget was $139,000. When he retired in 1994 after serving almost 32 years as executive director, the district owned 22,319 acres of open space, had a staff of 300 employees, and the operating budget was almost $50 million. The value of forest preserve land at the time of his retirement was estimated to be $1 billion. Johnson foresaw explosive growth in the county's population and the need to preserve land while it was still available and affordable. Hence, he engaged in what was described as "the most aggressive program of land acquisition ever at the local level. "He was a strong zspokesman for the natural environment and was adept at achieving his vision even with changing political climates. Throughout his career, his ethics were recognized by all as being impeccable.
When he joined the Forest Preserve in 1962, Johnson lived in a district house. At that time, the preserve commission had 31 members, and commission meetings were held in Johnson's living room, often on Saturday mornings. "I would have to holler and tell my kids to shut up. Then my wife would yell at me," he recalled later. He lived in the house throughout his tenure, but the district subsequently established a headquarters in Glen Ellyn. His land acquisition program firmly established the "greenbelt" concept of open space which now extends throughout DuPage County along major wateiways and between many communities. This concept brought a forest preserve within a ten-minute drive of every person living in the county, providing access to recreation and a place in which to savor the county's beautiful natural resources.
Aside from land acquisition, Johnson's other major accomplishments included numerous legislative initiatives, the development of recreational improvements and educational facilities, and establishing a multiple-use philosophy for district properties.
Among his legislative initiatives were changes he secured in the state legislature amending the Illinois statutes to provide forest preserves with greater taxing authority and flexibility. These changes authorized increases in a) the Forest Preserve District's non-referendum land acquisition bonding authority; b) its taxing authority limits for operations; c) its taxing authority limits for construction and development; and d) a levy for supporting historic sites and a zoological facility.
The facilities developed in Johnson's tenure included four special education facilities: Danada Equestrian Center near Wheaton; Fullersburg Woods Environmental Education Center and a historic grist mill near Oak Brook; Kline Creek Farm near West Chicago; and Willowbrook Wtldlife Center near Glen Ellyn. In addition, two 18- hole courses and one 9-hole golf course were acquired.
Johnson explained his multiple-use philosophy for district properties in the following terms:
Instead of just going out and buying parcels of land for maybe a picnic area or something like that, we tried to buy land for preservation of natural systems, recreational potential, groundwater reclamation, gravel areas that we could mine to create lakes, flood control and solid waste disposal. The point is that not only do you have natural land and recreational land, but you also have land that people can use whether they set foot on it or not.
His passion for defending the environment and his multiple-use philosophy were manifested in his dealings with the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority. In 1986, this entity began work on the North-South Tollway through DuPage County. Johnson was instrumental in maintaining the district's interests. An original tollway plan called for the loss of 10 acres of forest preserve land with the new roadway. With Johnson's persuasion, theToll Authority agreed to pare down that loss to one-and-a-half acres of wet prairie, which was successfully moved, intact, to another forest preserve site. The tollway agreement also resulted in a buffer of land between the new road and the world-famous Morton Arboretum in Lisle, and an urban plan research grant of $2.5 million.
In addition, an agreement was negotiated whereby the Toll Authority was allowed to excavate needed fill material in exchange for developing 138 acres of wetlands on forest preserve land. These wetlands, which included 65 acres of lakes, provided not only recreational opportunities for county residents, but aided in flood control in areas that had faced growing flooding problems promoted by urban development. The marshland, wet prairie sedge meadow, and open water areas absorbed water runoff from developed areas and further aided in the district's flood control commitment.
Johnson was adamant that the forest preserve lands should preserve nature values and be used primarily for passive recreation and not for other uses. He opposed, but lost, the use of district land for landfills. The political pressures for landfills won out. He developed a prospectus for constructing two naturally-designed landfill hills. Each of the two landfills offered scenic and recreational improvements and had a capacity of 75 million cubic yards of waste material. Each landfill was placed on a 250-acre site. Cover material was excavated from the sites. Contracts were awarded to two major national waste disposal companies. They constructed hills to pre-planned recreational and environmental specifications. Both hills were completed. Royalties paid by the contractors and interest on investments generated approximately $200 million of special use funds for the district.
In 1987, Johnson spearheaded a multi-million dollar land acquisition plan. A subsequent series of bond sales of almost $700 million were among the largest-ever commitments for local park and open space in the United States. It was made possible by the district's A-plus bond rating determined by Standard and Poor's, the highest possible rating for the special purpose level of government.The high rating was a reflection of years of sound financial management under his stewardship. The objectives of the land purchases exemplified Johnson's priorities. They were to expand on the existing preserve sites, to mitigate flood-prone areas, to protect lands containing natural forests, to preserve the flora and fauna, to create interconnected land systems conducive to the preservation of wildlife, and to assist the shaping of urban forms.
Toward the end of his tenure, Johnson persuaded his commission to approve one of the most aggressive ecosystem restoration programs at the local level in the country. The goal of the Natural Areas Management Program was to restore the biological integrity of approximately 8,000 acres of the last remaining high quality areas in DuPage County over a I0-year period at a cost of nearly $11 million. The program was unprecedented in its scope of evaluating, restoring, and managing these prime natural areas. The plan targeted 8,000 acres of the district's most biologically rich areas. Its goal was to restore the county's natural heritage of native plant and animal communities. The 8,000 acres to be biologically restored was comprised of 191 different parcels. Each of these areas fell into either Class III or Class IV environmental classification of lands which characterized them as high native quality. Detailed restoration specifications were designed for each parcel. This required a long-term commitment of manpower, including volunteers, because the restoration process is complex, requiring a variety of management prescriptions that must be phased in through time to be effective.
Johnson led the movement to form the Conservation Foundation of DuPage County in 1972 and was involved in the many other groups it fostered. He had learned of the concept at an AIPE conference and when he discussed it with a friend who was chairman of the board of International Harvester Company, the executive enthusiastically provided the legal counsel and organization to initiate it. Johnson believed such a group could assist the environmental movement, advocate conservation causes, and preserve open lands. Johnson was a pioneer of this concept. In subsequent decades, such organizations became widespread, but in 1972, this was avant-garde thinking.
Johnson was active in many professional organizations. Among his contributions was eight years on the board of the National Society for Park Resources and 12 years on the board of the National Association of County Park and Recreation Officials, including serving as its president in 1973.
Upon his retirement, Johnson said leading the district "was a wonderful thing for me. It's been my vocation and avocation as a stalwart conservationist." He observed, "My professional career has been strongly influenced by a commitment to the stewardship of Space Ship Earth. I have always put a high degree of emphasis on the acquisition and preservation of quality natural areas as well as the energetic restoration and re-creation of such areas." A newspaper editorial commented:
Johnson had the foresight to keep DuPage from becoming more developed than it has by instituting an extremely aggressive land acquisition program. Between 10 and 11% of all the land in the county belongs to the Forest Preserve District, and that is to the credit of Johnson who at times had to squash big-dollar developments and take some people's homes in the process of acquiring the parcels. His efforts helped clean up waterways in the county by creating natural cleaning systems. He created needed and impressive greenbelts along many of the county's waterways.
At the time of Johnson's retirement, a former president of the forest preserve commission wrote:
Sometimes you are lucky enough to cross paths with one who is truly a giant as your life and career progress. Chuck Johnson's stature, both in a physical and in an esthetic sense, has made him a signal leader in his community and his profession. Almost every elected official uses protecting our "quality of life in DuPage County" as the cornerstone of his or her campaign. Our lifestyle is the envy of the nation. This did not happen by accident! It took people of vision and courage to achieve these benefits for all of us, and I truly believe no single person has more indelibly left his mark here than Chuck Johnson. His strong beliefs coupled with well-planned strategy (and, when absolutely necessary -- a devilishly devious way of positioning a commissioner into only being able to vote one way -- Chuck's way) took the district to its position as the finest in the nation.
(1994, Spring). The DuPage Conservationist.