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Budget-starved DNR May Close Some State Parks

By Chris Bentley in News on Jun 22, 2012 7:20PM

2012_6_22_DNR_small.jpg Never mind climate change — budget woes are the biggest threat to Illinois’ state parks. Less than one percent of the Prairie State remains natural prairie land, and that sliver is composed of more than 300 parks, forests and natural areas. Now just three years after he reopened seven state parks closed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Gov. Pat Quinn faces a similar situation as his predecessor.

The state Department of Natural Resources gets its money mainly from state general revenue. Lawmakers slashed that funding from $106 million in 2002 to just $45.4 million under the plan sent to Quinn last month.

That’s a drop in the well, given DNR’s estimated $750 million in deferred maintenance projects. Those projects are a tall order for an understaffed agency. DNR has seen its workforce drop from 2,400 employees in 2002 to about 1,100 today, as a result of a decade-long hiring freeze. And looming pension reforms have some of them looking to bow out — more than 200 employees are eligible for retirement this year.

As park infrastructure decays, a sort of vicious cycle perpetuates declining tourism revenues and budget shortfalls. One plan is to charge admission fees for park users, while a bill that failed to pass the Illinois Senate would have added a $2 fee on license plates to help fund park upkeep.

In California, a wealthy businessman helped save the state's second-biggest state park with a hefty private donation. The move was a godsend for the park’s patrons, but it also raised concerns about whether philanthropy could be part of a viable long-term model for conservation.

Illinois DNR remains focused simply on keeping existing parks open in the face of a grim outlook for the summer tourist season.