Two years after closures, state parks on the rise
LEROY, Ill. (AP) - Leon Gibson flips giant pancakes on the griddle at the concession building at Moraine View State Park as a gentle breeze ripples the surface of Dawson Lake.
He cuts star shapes from the middle of the stack to hold hot maple syrup from the caldron on the table beside the counter. Judy Gibson, his wife, takes orders from the people in line and makes change at the cash register. Kids from area high schools cook, bus tables and wash dishes. Stuffed fish stare down from the walls.
The front door swings wide as fishermen, bicyclists, kayakers, nature viewers, horseback riders and hunters stop in for a hearty meal. Treated like family, regular customers are on a first-name basis with the Gibsons, who are wrapping up their 11th year as concessionaires at the restaurant and bait shop.
The scene is far removed from the dark times when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich ordered Moraine View closed at the end of September 2008. The popular d estination near LeRoy was one of seven state parks and 25 state historic sites shuttered by Blagojevich to trim the state budget. The Gibsons faced an end to their business. Weldon Springs State Park near Clinton also was among the parks that closed.
Public reaction was swift.
Sign-carrying crowds rallied at both parks. About 1,000 people showed up one Saturday morning at Moraine View to protest.
Eventually, the General Assembly impeached Blagojevich, and Gov. Pat Quinn, a longtime friend of parks and conservation, moved fast to reopen the parks and historic sites. He appointed Marc Miller, a longtime conservationist and environmental activist, to head the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Two years later on the brink of a busy Labor Day weekend, the parks have returned to normal perhaps even better in some ways. The regular crowd at the Gibsons’ business is growing, said Judy Gibson.
“It seems we add more and more the fishermen, the cam pers, the cyclists, the motorcyclists. They all like the baked oatmeal and the pancakes,” she said. “We enjoy seeing young people, old people enjoy it without having to spend mucho bucks. It all flows. It’s part of our (America’s) heritage.”
But Bruce Howes, Moraine View State Park’s superintendent, said the IDNR staff remains shorthanded. The park had eight full-time staffers when Blagojevich took office. Today, there are only four who are supported by a temporary staff of summer workers.
“We have all of our programs and do the best we can with the staff we have,” Howes said.
IDNR figures show about 280,000 visited Moraine View in 2009, up from 254,000 in 2008. Figures aren’t available for this year. But 2010 attendance may turn out nearly as high as last year, judging by traffic at the concession stand and the campground. The current problem has been Mother Nature.
“This year started with a bang, then the heat wave came,” said Judy
Gibson. “But I don’t think it has hurt. There are still the campers and people who fish.”
And, fishing is very good for walleyes, saugeye, bluegills and crappie, Leon Gibson said. Largemouth bass have been just fair.
Howes expects the campground to be busy over Labor Day and again during a late-season rush over Columbus Day in October. The Gibsons think at least some folks are unaware the park has reopened. Surprisingly, they still run into people from nearby Bloomington-Normal who don’t know Moraine View exists.
Dave Herzog, IDNR superintendent at Weldon Springs, blamed the economy and tornado damage in 2009, rather than the temporary closing, for an attendance dip there from 332,000 visitors in 2008 to 317,000 last year. He thinks the number of visitors has risen a bit in 2010, but he still sees negative effects from the recession and the hot summer.
The Gibsons worry ongoing problems with state finances might spill over to the parks again. Quinn already has c ut about $800,000 from the budget for Wildlife Prairie State Park west of Peoria.
Leon Gibson thinks any cut to recreation and tourism is counter-productive.
“The parks generate tax dollars,” he said. “It really helps the state to keep them open.”
Judy Gibson thinks the value of parks should rise when the economy struggles. Parks provide free fun to cash-strapped families, she said. The idea to add user fees for parking at state parks remains in the talking stages.
“People need the parks. They need recreation. People are looking for a more reasonable way to enjoy themselves. Lots of single parents come, lots of families come,” she said, describing a recent conversation she had with a woman from Chicago who brought six kids and her husband for five days camping, fishing and hiking at Moraine View.
“She was just looking at the trees. She said, ‘I can’t believe it’s so quiet.’ Schools use it (Moraine View) for nature studies. Nursing homes come. I can’t imagine what it would be like if there were no parks,” she said.