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No free parking?

Admission for state parks a tough sell

Published: Friday, April 6, 2012 3:00 p.m. CST

There are two hard-and-fast facts that would be very difficult to find anyone to argue against.

The first is that Illinois’s state parks are valuable assets that need to be preserved. The second is that Illinois is in desperate financial straits that are making it difficult for it to preserve these valuable natural resources.

What is arguable, however, is whether the best way to ensure Illinois continues to have state parks is to begin charging admission fees to those using these parks. Such a plan was approved late last month by the Illinois House, but has yet to be taken up by the Senate. Gov. Quinn, through a representative, has indicated he is in favor of the plan.

We at the Morris Daily Herald can see both sides of the argument regarding the fees and, to be quite honest, are divided on whether to support a fee for everyone, for only out-of-state users of the parks or for no one at all. The thing we can agree on is that the proposal as it stands now has not been thought through thoroughly enough and should not be enacted until, at the very least, it is clear the fees will achieve their ultimate goal of providing necessary funding to maintain the parks.

The first problem we see with the proposal as it stands is that, in the version of the legislation the House approved by an 81-29 tally, there are no specific fees set down. Saying the details haven’t been worked out, Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Marc Miller guesstimated the fees would be $5 or $10 per day, with an annual pass available for $25 or $35.

These fees are in line with what other states charge — Wisconsin charges state residents $7 a day or $25 for an annual pass — but there seemingly has been no study done to determine what level of fees will fill the gaps in the IDNR’s budget, which has been cut by some $60 million in recent years. Part of the problem is that there is really no accurate count to how many people use Illinois’ state parks each year and no real idea how much that usage would drop if the parks were no longer free.

Another problem with the plan is the fact there is currently no mechanism in place to collect the fees — the proposals, in some ways, are tantamount to putting a collection box in the parking lot of each state park next to a sign indicating a “suggested” donation amount. People will pay if they want to, but the majority, to be honest, will not.

According to a Chicago Tribune article carried on www.morrisdailyherald.com in late March, the fee likely would be collected in the same places that currently sell hunting and fishing licenses or via drop boxes at park entrances. Payment, Miller admitted, would rely largely on the honor system, although park rangers could issue tickets to violators.

Clearly there are problems with this plan. Without the drop boxes, law-abiding park guests — especially those from out of state — might not even be aware of where to purchase the required passes or how to get there from the park. With the drop boxes, paying fees would be more convenient, but far from compulsory. And, to be honest, theft has a likelihood of being high, especially considering the remote nature of many of Illinois’ nature preserves.

The alternative, of course, would be manned booths at the entrances to each state park where a smiling individual in a ranger’s uniform could greet guests and collect their user fees. This is the system used in Michigan’s state parks.

Of course, in adopting such a system, Illinois would not be filling the gap in IDNR’s budget, it would be driving up the department’s expenses by an unknown percentage. With manned gates come, of course, the need to build the gates and booths and then to hire people to man them. Most of Illinois’s state parks do not currently have that type of manpower on staff. To reach the necessary manpower would require a significant increase in employees.

Another problem with enforcement comes with the fact that limiting access to the parks would be difficult. Stratton Park and its nearby neighbor Gebhard Woods State Park in Morris — and, we are confident, many others around the state — have numerous ways they can be accessed.

Gebhard Woods may have one vehicle entrance where a gate and booth could be erected, but there are also access points along the Illinois and Michigan Canal towpath. If the state decides to charge fees per car, there is nothing to stop people from parking in downtown Morris and walking into the park.

If the state chooses to charge fees per person, then it would seemingly have to erect and staff toll booths on the tow path as well as at the main entrance. This, of course, would create a need for even more employees and, therefore, drive up IDNR’s costs even further.

Given our economy, we are pretty sure the state does not want to add more personnel and more costs to an area, which means the honor system and sporadic enforcement is probably the best system the state can achieve. The question is whether that will really be enough to achieve what the state hopes to achieve and whether it can find a way to guarantee it will actually go for upkeep of the parks as proposed.

Our position is that Illinois better find out for sure before it adds yet another tax and takes away another affordable option for families.

The Morris Daily Herald Editorial Board is led by Publisher Gerry Burke and editors Patrick Graziano and Mark Malone. It makes its editorial decisions in consultation with other members of the Herald staff.

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