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Editorial: User fees practical way to help parks

April 03, 2012 at 07:21 AM

The State Journal-Register

For years, we’ve bristled when the prospect of charging admission to Illinois state parks has arisen.

That’s partly because it just feels a bit odd to charge people to enjoy nature, especially when use of state parks always has been free (with fees only for special uses like camping, fishing and hunting).

The bigger issue, though, was a deep skepticism that fees collected at state parks actually would be used to maintain and improve the parks. Not only did the administration of Rod Blagojevich neglect and slash the Department of Natural Resources, but it generally saw any special funds maintained by any part of state government as part of its own treasure chest.

With Blagojevich now long gone and state parks suffering from nearly a decade of deferred maintenance estimated to cost $750 million, it’s time for Illinois to join the many other states across the country that charge fees for access to its natural treasures.

We’ve always appreciated that day access to our state parks is free. For families, there probably is no better place to spend quality time at no cost. And, as noted earlier, there is something strangely counterintuitive to charging people to hike in the woods and appreciate nature. But the parks became popular destinations because historically they were well maintained. Considering the state’s current budget troubles and the maintenance backlog that already exists, a user fee system is the only fair and practical means of addressing years of neglect and ensuring proper care going forward.

Keeping the parks affordable for those who use them the most and employing the most practical, least obtrusive method of collecting user fees must be priorities if Illinois adopts a plan (HB 5789) approved overwhelmingly last week by the Illinois House.

“This will likely be part of the point-of-sale system that we already have in place. You could pay online or go into the park office,” DNR spokesman Chris McCloud told State Journal-Register outdoors writer Chris Young. “This isn’t going to be like national parks, where you stop at a gate and pay money before going into the park. That is not how this is going to work.”

Illinois is not blazing a new trail here, and there are many models it can study as it designs its fee system. ( Many states offer vehicle stickers available online and at the parks and other locations that grant unlimited use of the parks. That seems like a good place to start.

Most of all, the state needs to make sure that any fees collected for the parks go back into the parks.

Breakdown of maintenance needs

Source: Illinois Department of Natural Resources

Illinois hunting and fishing

Your CommentsComments :: Terms :: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

I understand the the state is in trouble but so are a lot of people.  I have watched hunting license fees go up, gas taxes go up, state taxes go up, and still more is needed from us? My pay along with many other citizens have not seen the increases that the state has seen.  This should not be done on the reasoning that other states do it so we should too.

This may seem like a rant but I have always used the state park systems.  When I was young my parents didn’t have a lot of money.  My childhood memories are full of inexpensive weekends camping with my family. 

As I mentioned earlier I have watched hunting and fishing go from a poor man’s sport to a sport many want to keep for the elite.  I really would hate for the same thing to happen to our parks.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/03 at 05:27 PM

So now I start to wonder -if it is a vehicle sticker type of permit, does that mean I will have to buy TWO?
Because odds are just as great that I will be alone in my vehicle when I visit a state park, as the odds that I will be driving my wife’s vehicle with my family in-tow.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/03 at 07:36 PM

Illinois needs money.  We are broke.  I understand this.  I don’t understand 750 million in deferred maintenance.  Strip the parks down to nothing.  We don’t need the extras, just woods, wildlife and water.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/03 at 10:18 PM

Raptor: I e-mailed your question to DNR spokesman Chris McCloud and he wrote back that he didn’t believe that would be the case, but that all details are not yet worked out.

Raisingafamily: Extras include roads, bridges, trails, roofs on buildings, campgrounds and more. I’m attaching the breakdown DNR shared. It is from last summer, but DNR is still using the same figure for maintenance that has been delayed.

Posted by Chris Young on 04/03 at 10:42 PM

Chris: Thanks for adding the list. The main heartburn for all of us of course is the potential for the funds to be diverted again or general revenue cuts that make it a break even only. But the list does show why the hook and bullet crowd is upset. All of the fish hatchery, wildlife propagation, wildlife and wetland habitat projects combined, come in over 10 million dollars BEHIND biking and hiking!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/04 at 07:15 AM

Colonel: You make an important point about diversion. As we have seen over the past decade or so, even if one account is protected, the General Assembly can and will take from another account. I try to tell everyone that $1 = $1. If they can’t take it from the WIldlife and Fish Fund, they will get it from GRF. DNR’s GRF share has been cut in half over 10 years or more, causing the agency to rely more and more on licenses, permits and fees.

Posted by Chris Young on 04/04 at 08:38 AM

It would be nice to see a waiver of the fee for Illinois residents whom have Sporting Series License Plates. From the State website “By purchasing a set of these plates you will contribute to the Illinois Habitat Fund for the protection, maintenance and acquisition of quality wildlife habitats in Illinois.” ” Random-Number Sporting Series License Plates
Annual renewal - $126 ($99 registration fee + $27 Sporting Series license plates fee)”
I have had these plates on both my car and truck for many years.
Given our states track record in raiding funds I have to wonder how much of the funds from these sporting series plates actually end up where they were intended ?

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/04 at 12:19 PM

I watched this House Bill debated live on the General Assembly floor,and the topic of the funds being swept to pay for something else came up….Of course it was stated that if the funds were swept to pay for something else it must be put back….If anyone thinks that this money will actually go for what it’s intended for ,your very naive…It might go for park maintenance the first year but,eventually it will go to something else….

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/04 at 05:08 PM

Will the DNR be in better shape if this fee passes…probably not.  As has been stated, the legislature or the gov will probably just reduce DNR’s share of the General Revenue (GR) by that amount.  Hey, they may cut funding more anyway.  I look at this fee as another step to having DNR weaned off GR, which would be a good thing…if the politicians would leave license money alone. 
Sadly, as I look at the state of DNR, I am totally convinced that unless something is done it will be eliminated as an agency within 2-3 years.  If that happens, our public lands will most likely be taken over by Central Management Services(CMS).  Then, WATCH OUT!, because that public land will no longer be open to the public.  (If you’ve ever had the misfortune of dealing with CMS, you know what I’m talking about.)
If the people who buy the licenses and use the parks and f&w areas don’t complain to their legilators and the governor about the sweeping of funds, lack of field staff, etc, there won’t be a DNR in a few years.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/05 at 08:37 AM

Chase: Money generated by sporting series license plates is supposed to be deposited in the Habitat Fund, which also receives money from the Habitat Stamp hunters purchase. Because you are required to buy a Habitat Stamp, it is considered to be a license, and the fund cannot be legally swept. Gov. Blagojevich tried to sweep the Habitat Fund (back when Joel Brunsvold was director) but was forced to put the money back. Long story short, it is my understanding the Habitat Fund is a protected fund.

Posted by Chris Young on 04/05 at 10:47 AM

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