Guest Column: Hope for Illinois state parks and great outdoors?

May 30, 2012

By Jack Darin
Director, Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter

Summer is here again, and many of us are looking forward to spending some time in the great outdoors in the months ahead. Will our beautiful state parks be open and in good shape when we’re ready to get outside?

Everyone is aware of the state of Illinois’ budget — it’s a mess, and many important programs, services and state facilities are on the chopping block. Unfortunately for our natural resources, such cuts are nothing new for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). The last decade has been devastating for the professionals charged with protecting our water supply, restoring our natural resources and maintaining our beautiful state parks.

Compared to a decade ago, IDNR’s core budget has been slashed by 55 percent — from $106.8 million in 2002 to $48.9 this year. Ten years ago, the agency had 2,600 professionals protecting our resources. Today, they are down to 1,200. How have they managed to keep parks open and an eye on the environment? Basically, just like you would, they’ve burned through their reserves.

IDNR has been forced to reallocate funds raised and dedicated for specific purposes, such as buying new properties to protect open space, and spend them on staff and day-to-day operations. However, those days are over — the dedicated funds are now gone. IDNR is out of options, and they are at a breaking point.

Now, there is a ray of hope. The IDNR’s crisis has clearly demonstrated to its constituents and to legislators that it can no longer rely on the whims of the legislature, or on the availability of sufficient general state revenues to carry out its many important missions. There is broad awareness now that IDNR needs separate, dedicated, sustainable funding if it is to stay on the job enforcing environmental laws, protecting public safety, monitoring the health of Illinois’ ecosystems, providing quality experiences at our parks, protecting drinking water sources, and so much more.

In recent weeks, there has been an outcry around the state for action in Springfield to save IDNR. Here’s a story about the situation at Giant City State Park near Carbondale:

Treading water in the sea of maintenance issues has finally taken its toll at Giant City State Park.

We do not have the manpower, we do not have an operational budget that we can go in and keep things fixed,” says park supervisor Bob Martin.

He says he has seen his budget slashed year after year and his staff dwindle, to the point where he says needed work is not being done.

Look at our playgrounds, they need wood chips to keep our kids safe,” Martin explains. “The trail maintenance, we’re not able to do that anymore. We just don’t have the staff to. Unfortunately, we may be closing some areas, if funding doesn’t come soon.”

The scene is similar at Peoria-area parks:

We’re at a tipping point,” said Tom Hintz, site superintendent for both Jubilee and the Rock Island Trail. “If we get one more cut or we have one more important machine failure, the level of service that we’re going to be providing to people that want to come out here for recreation purposes is just gonna collapse.”

There is also concern about the impact on local economies and local governments if IDNR can’t maintain state parks. That concern was voiced by advocates for Pere Marquette State Park near Alton recently:

Grafton Mayor Tom Thompson compared property tax and tourism tax revenues received by the city of Grafton to show the importance of the park’s impact on the region. The city receives only 10 percent of property taxes, which was about $100,000. The tourism tax brought the city $200,000.

Our emphasis is on tourism and preservation of our riverfront and getting people to come to Grafton, and Pere Marquette is part of that,” he said.

The state also receives 5 percent of the overnight stay tax.

I look at it as a win-win; it’s in the state’s favor to keep pushing tourism,” Thompson noted.

Now, there is finally a proposal in Springfield to permanently address this problem. A new legislative proposal would generate $32 million annually, dedicated for the department, through a $2 increase in the state vehicle registration fee, increased fees on some of the industries the department regulates, and new state park fees for out-of-state visitors. Illinois residents will continue to enjoy free access to all parks.

House Deputy Majority Leader Frank Mautino is the author of the package, and deserves praise for taking on this critical job at a very difficult time in our state. Mautino worked for months with environmentalists, hunters, anglers, industries, IDNR, and his legislative colleagues to build support for the package. Now, time is running short, and there are other major and difficult issues before the legislature. We need this legislation to pass the House and Senate in the next seven days.

Please take a moment to urge your state representative and state senator to support sustainable funding for IDNR.

From the May 30-June 5, 2012, issue

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