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Illinois' proposal for entry fees at state parks is seen as a sign of the times

Published: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 9:43 a.m. CST • Updated: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 10:30 a.m. CST

(MCT) — At Starved Rock State Park, Wanda Boggs prepared sandwiches Tuesday on a vast lawn in front of the visitor center as two of her grandchildren huddled in sweaters against a cool breeze. Another grandchild checked their fishing poles along the Illinois River, and other young people peered through telescopes at eagles gliding across the sky.

None of the families paid a penny to get into the park, but that could soon change.

Illinois lawmakers, grasping for any ideas that might brighten Illinois' dismal financial picture, are considering a proposal to charge entrance fees to state parks for the first time.

The proposal, which passed the Illinois House on Monday but has drawn strongly mixed reactions, is a sign of the times for a state parks system that supporters say is sometimes unfairly deemed a luxury.

General revenue funding for the agency that runs the state parks, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, has been cut by more than half over the past decade, agency officials say. So now, visitors to the parks might have to pay, just as they do in many other states.

Some park-goers actually don't seem to mind.

"I don't think it's a bad idea," said Boggs, 55, of Sandwich in DeKalb County. "I think that the people who use the parks should help maintain them, rather than raise everyone's taxes to do it."

How much the state would charge has yet to be sorted out — the proposed legislation doesn't include a specific entry fee.

Boggs visits a couple of times each year and suggested that $10 for a daily pass would be fair.

"It's just like the tollways," Boggs said. "People who use them pay with tolls. There's really nice amenities here, and I have to imagine that costs a fortune."

Yet many others who are drawn to state parks more regularly for specific recreational uses bristle at the suggestion that they should have to pay more for access.

Speaking over the gurgle of his minnow tank, Dave Kranz, who owns Dave's Bait Tackle and Taxidermy in Crystal Lake, pointed out that hunters, fishermen and campers already pay permit fees for access to state parks.

"The parks belong to the people of the state," he said. "We're taxed to death the way it is."

Some couples, like Robert and Beth Ellis, of McHenry, said their family likely would avoid admission fees by visiting county forest preserves instead. The two were out hiking the trails at McHenry's Moraine Hills State Park with three children.

"It's one of the things I like about the parks, (that) they're free," Robert Ellis said. "It makes it a lot more accessible for families that are on a budget.

Yet Illinois DNR officials say free access to state parks is a luxury few states can afford. Illinois is among only seven states that don't charge admission to their park systems. Entrance fees are nothing new, and many states have been charging them for years, said Philip McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Districts.

Wisconsin state parks charge in-state residents a $7 daily fee per vehicle or $25 for a yearlong pass. Indiana charges $5 for a daily in-state pass and $36 for a yearly pass.

Some states have tried other solutions. Missouri and Arkansas dedicated a fraction of statewide sales taxes to help pay for their parks, McKnelly said.

California state parks, which attract more visitors than any other state park system, have charged admission fees for years, spokesman Roy Stearns said. Though the state faces budget problems similar to those in Illinois and is facing possible closings of many parks, officials are reluctant to raise fees, he said, because every time they do, they see a drop in attendance.

Illinois DNR Director Marc Miller acknowledged that Illinois residents are used to crossing the border to pay to visit places like Devil's Lake State Park in Wisconsin. But he said Illinois has plenty of wonderful natural resources that justify a reasonable fee.

The agency's overall budget climbed in recent years but has been slashed from $279 million two years ago to a proposed $217 million for the coming fiscal year. Given the state's indebtedness to pension and Medicaid costs, such cuts are expected to continue, and the department can't keep raiding other funds to pay for operating costs, Miller said.

To develop a sustainable funding source, Miller said, "we need to adjust our business model."

The fees proposal follows a well-established state and national tradition of users paying to help operate parks. One notable precedent dates to 75 years ago, Miller said, when federal law levied a tax on guns and ammunition, and proceeds were used to restore wildlife habitats. As a result, Illinois has since seen its once scarce populations of wild turkeys and whitetail deer grow and become hunting attractions.

"Sportsmen and women have been paying for conservation for over 75 years," Miller said. "It's been a great model."

The details haven't been worked out, but the state likely would seek entry fees of $5 to $10 a day and $25 to $35 annually, Miller said. That could generate an estimated $8 million to $9 million annually or more, he said.

The fees likely would be collected at the same Wal-Mart stores and local bait and gun shops that sell hunting and fishing licenses now, and possibly at drop boxes at park entrances. While payment would rely largely on the honor system, park rangers could also issue tickets to violators.

The money raised at 120 state parks and 324 properties overall, including forest and conservation areas, would go toward upkeep of the parks, which has been put off or done on the cheap for years, Miller said.

As an example, he cited Adeline Jay Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, which was largely shut down last summer after two storms knocked out hundreds of trees. Rather than spending $2 million to hire an outside contractor, the park had to close camping and hiking areas while staff took more time to cut down dangerous trees.

Whether there's enough political will in Springfield to enact the entrance fee plan remains unclear. The Senate has until a May 31 legislative deadline to take up the matter.

But fee increases of any kind are often viewed with skepticism — a point made in the House before lawmakers approved the measure.

One leading proponent, Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, said she is unsure what resistance the bill will face in the Senate, but added that the DNR has been hit so hard by budget cuts in recent years that the fees are necessary to protect the state's parks.

Sen. Susan Garrett, chairwoman of the Senate Environment Committee, said she believes parks should be free and doubted she would support the entrance fee.

"Philosophically, I think parks should be open, accessible and available to those who can't afford vacations, luxury vacations," said Garrett, a Democrat from Lake Forest.

The state is facing far-reaching budget problems, and Gov. Pat Quinn's administration is looking for cuts in most agencies that don't deal with education. He has called for major cuts in Medicaid and for ways to scale back the ever-increasing costs of public employee pensions. Quinn supports the proposal, according to an aide.

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