Children seem small in comparison to flathead catfish on display at the fisheries tent. Photo by Chris Young.
Crowds pack Conservation World despite cutbacks
The State Journal-Register
Despite state budget cuts, Conservation World at the 2012 Illinois State Fair pulled in thousands of people to participate in fishing clinics, shoot BB guns and arrows and watch the Whip Guy keep his kids in line.
Conservation World is a 30-acre park on the northwest side of the Illinois State Fairgrounds. It serves as the showcase for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources during the 10-day run of the fair.
Noticeably missing this year were tents, displays and staffers from the DNR divisions of wildlife, natural heritage, forestry and mines and minerals. The French Voyageur canoe also was absent, and hours have been reduced, too, with the park closing at 5 p.m. instead of 7 p.m.
DNR’s law enforcement tent was open, however, and fairgoers could get a free photo taken for their Firearm Owners’ Identification Card.
The division of fisheries was back with a popular display of live fish, including some monster flathead catfish.
“With Lake Springfield down three feet or more, I was able to get down to some really good flathead catfish habitat and got eight to 10 flatheads in the 30- to 50-plus pounds range,” said fisheries biologist Dan Stephenson.
He described crowds as “crazy” over the first weekend, when mild weather boosted overall fair attendance.
“It was packed nearly every minute,” he said of the first weekend in the fisheries tent.
At the entrance to Conservation World, nearly 3,000 kids took the opportunity to touch a fish, crawfish or turtle each day over the weekend.
At last Saturday’s Asian carp promotion, 900 burgers and fritters were given away in just 45 minutes.
“It was incredible,” said DNR spokesman Chris McCloud. “The line was down the sidewalk.”
DNR has been working to convince people Asian carp taste good, despite the stigma of the name.
“I was looking for their reaction,” McCloud said. “People didn’t think it would taste that good.”
McCloud said the agency was working on Conservation World right up until the last minute, trying to decide what to include.
“It definitely forces us to be very frugal,” he said of the state’s budget picture. “And where we can cut, we have to do so.
“I still think we are one of the more visited spots on the fairgrounds,” he said. “By and large, the public probably did not notice too much (that some tents and displays were absent). The main service tents and more popular things are still there.”
One of those popular attractions was Chris Camp, The Whip Guy, who has performed all over, including on “America’s Got Talent.”
He often includes his family in the act. As some members of the family clenched flowers in their teeth, Camp quipped to the audience that he used to have even more kids.
“I think this year was the first year we truly cut back our presence,” McCloud said, though he noted that sportsmen’s groups and other DNR constituents played a larger role.
“In the future we will have some conversations with our constituent groups to see if they want to have a bigger presence.”
Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.