Governor using Illinois DNR in game of chicken

August 28, 2008 at 07:08 PM

The ongoing game of chicken over the Illinois budget raced closer to an ugly crash Thursday.

Faced with drastic budget cuts, the Department of Natural Resources announced it will close 11 state parks and lay off 39 workers.

“The sites will close their doors on Nov. 1,” said Chris McCloud, a DNR spokesman. “This is a very tough day for everyone.”

Parks to be closed are:

  • Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park, Sheffield
  • Illini State Park, Marseilles
  • Wolf Creek State Park, Windsor
  • Castle Rock State Park, Oregon
  • Lowden State Park, Oregon
  • Hidden Springs State Forest, Strasburg
  • Channahon Parkway State Park, Channahon
  • Gebhard Woods State Park, Morris
  • Kickapoo State Park, Oakwood
  • Moraine View State Park, Leroy
  • Weldon Springs State Park, Clinton.

Many, including me, assume this is yet another attempt by Gov. Blagojevich to force the General Assembly to act on his demands.

Because there’s no doubt threatening to close parks during hunting season will generate a response. So will cutting 304 workers in the Department of Children and Family Services, 73 staffers in the Department of Human Services, and 34 employees in the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

And people should be upset by the latest proposal, which Jonathan Goldman of the Illinois Environmental Council called “shameful.” Actually, that sums up Blagojevich’s overall treatment of DNR.

Yes these are tough financial times. But Blagojevich has treated the DNR as his whipping boy for six years. That the governor has not bothered to appoint a director for DNR underlines how little he cares for the agency.

That’s not lost on outdoors enthusiasts. Unrest is at an all-time high. I predict legislators will be flooded with irate calls and letters in the next week.

That’s why part of me says the parks will not close in November and those DNR workers will keep their jobs.

But another part of me says things are bad enough right now that we might actually see closures — if only until legislators gather in Springfield Nov. 5 for the annual veto session.

“I think it’s important to understand these are not decisions we wanted to make,” McCloud said. “We knew this was a possibility at DNR. The budget the governor got was $2.1 billion underfunded.”

McCloud said legislators also failed to approve plans to generate more money for DNR. One such plan was a fee increase for put-and-take pheasant hunting.  Another tabled item was an entrance fee for state parks, an idea whose time has come.

Even so, it’s curious that on Wednesday the DNR posted a new job position in the office of Sam Flood, acting director. Does hiring make sense given that layoffs are in the works?

It’s also curious that Rice Lake appeared on the first list of sites slated for closure. McCloud said that was a mistake. 

And why are no parks in southern Illinois closing? Think Flood, who is from southwestern Illinois, had anything to do with that?

McCloud said the decision was based on careful analysis.

“After looking at some studies and talking with some convention and visitors folks, it’s obvious southern Illinois relies in some cases almost exclusively on tourism dollars,” McCloud said. “We wanted to minimize the impact on those areas.”

Threatening to close parks is not a novel idea, mind you. Gov. Edgar did the same thing. On Aug. 28, 1992 he announced that DNR was facing 67 layoffs and that 40 parks were going to be impacted.

Public outcry was so loud that only two parks (Lincoln Trail Homestead and Peabody River King) were closed until funding improved in the mid-1990s.

Here’s hoping something similar happens again.