Editorial: User fees practical way to help parks

April 03, 2012 at 07:21 AM

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. (http://bit.ly/H9nA52) 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