Children from the Kids Development Institute in Danville float down the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. Photos by Chris Young.
State parks soldier on with more visitors, less staff
The State Journal-Register
Floating down the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River (the state’s only National Scenic River), the financial troubles of the state of Illinois, and particularly its state parks, must seem very far away.
“Business is very good this summer. We are having a very good year so far,” says Todd Alcorn, general manager of Kickapoo Landing, a concession operating at Kickapoo State Recreation Area near Danville.
Kickapoo Landing rents canoes and kayaks, offers a dockside cafe with live music and provides other services to visitors to the state site.
Kickapoo State Recreation Area offers a little of everything, from fishing, hiking and camping to scuba diving in deep, clear lakes.
It can be hard to visualize, but the park was reclaimed from a strip mining operation that scarred the landscape more than 100 years ago.
Now, advocates of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and its state parks are hoping to help the agency reclaim its footing after decades of budget cuts and staff losses.
But a bill that would have added $2 to the cost of a $99 license plate renewal to provide some money for the upkeep of state parks failed in the waning hours of the Illinois General Assembly’s spring session.
The bill didn’t come up for a vote until after midnight on the last day of the session, requiring a 60 percent majority to pass.
It came up three votes short.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources says without a new source of revenue, it could be $25 million in the red next year.
A stairway from the bluff to the Sangamon River at Lincoln Homestead Trail State Memorial near Decatur is closed for repairs.
Couple that with a wave of impending retirements, including several park superintendents, and a backlog of maintenance pegged at $750 million, and the state park system is under increasing stress.
The bill could come up again in a summer special session or during the fall veto session.
“We believe we will get another opportunity,” says DNR spokesman Chris McCloud.
More visitors, less staff
But out on the river, summer keeps on rolling.
About 30 kids from the Kid Development Institute in Danville helped load
colorful yellow, orange and blue inner tubes into one of Kickapoo Landing’s buses in anticipation of a two-mile float down the Middle Fork.
The institute works to help children develop character using the discipline of martial arts, but during summer camp, the idea is to get them outside on bikes, hiking in the woods or getting wet in the river.
Each week of camp has a theme, such as Water Week or Wilderness Week.
“We had a Wilderness Week, and the idea is to just get the kids out and away from the PlayStations, X-Box and Gameboys,” says Ron Sillings, martial arts instructor with the institute. “We went to every state park around here, and we even (explored woods) behind our school, catching crawfish and just playing in nature. It’s been a great time.”
With the Independence Day holiday just over the next rise, remaining park staff and concessionaires are busy taking care of visitors seeking time outdoors.
That’s been a tougher and tougher job with fewer hands to do the work.
“It’s a struggle for them, to be honest with you,” says Terry Cross, president and chief executive officer of Starved Rock Lodge at Starved Rock State Park near Utica, between LaSalle and Ottawa in north-central Illinois.
“Our visitations are going up and (park) staff is going down. And the park’s superintendent and assistant superintendent retired, and that is a major concern for everyone.”
The numbers tell the story.
“Here is (a parks division) that lost 24 percent of its staff,” McCloud says. “And DNR’s budget lost 60 percent of the general revenue funds that helped operate state parks.
“We have fewer than 350 people managing 500,000 acres of public land,” he says. “At some point you reach a breaking point.”
Cross says the idea to add $2 to license plate renewals, instead of charging an entrance fee, was a positive step.
The original bill to charge a park entrance fee turned out to be more complicated to implement than first thought. Among the concerns: Hunters and anglers wanted a break since they already pay for hunting and fishing licenses and other fees.
People would buy a park pass the same way they purchase hunting and fishing licenses, but that would rely on Illinois Conservation Police Officers to enforce.
Alcorn just wants to be sure that any new fees don’t end up hurting park attendance or the concessionaires who run lodges, canoe rentals and horse stables or provide other services.
Those who just want to have dinner at a park lodge might balk at paying an entrance fee, too.
“People aren’t going to pay an extra five dollars a person to come out here and eat dinner,” he said.
That’s one reason for the proposal to add $2 to the annual license plate renewal.
“Your license plate would be your entrance fee to state parks for the year,” McCloud says.
The extra $2 eventually could bring in $32 million for DNR.
Canoeists explore Clear Lake at the Kickapoo State Recreation Area.
Cross says the economic impact of state parks often is overlooked during funding debates.
According to DNR, the state’s 324 sites receive 45 million visits a year. Park visitors spend $1 billion a year.
“The state parks provide an economic impact not only for the parks, but the communities that surround them,” he says. “And most people would support a fee if there is a sensible way to assess it and then not let it drift or be swept or be borrowed somewhere else.
“If they can show money is going where it was intended, I think it would benefit all the citizens.”
Cross says the state may have to prioritize state parks, depending on their level of use.
Starved Rock is the state’s most visited park, being located strategically between Chicago, Rockford, Peoria and Bloomington.
“Put the people where the people are,” he says.
No one at the parks wants to return to the time when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich closed seven state parks in a cost-saving move. Gov. Pat Quinn reopened the shuttered parks in February 2009, shortly after he took office following Blagojevich’s impeachment.
“We want to keep our parks open,” Alcorn says. “These parks have been part of people’s lives for a long time.
“There are a whole lot of reasons to keep our parks open.”
Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.