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Editorial: Illinois state parks need to charge for admission

Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposal for an Infrastructure Trust passed City Council Tuesday by 41-7 vote.  |  Al Podgorski~Chicago

Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposal for an Infrastructure Trust passed the City Council Tuesday by a 41-7 vote. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: May 28, 2012 8:47AM

In tough times, people need enjoyable — and cheap — places where they can escape from grim economic realities.

Illinois’ state parks long have filled that role. We’re one of only seven states that don’t charge admission fees.

But being cheap isn’t enough. State parks also need to be accessible, well-maintained, safe and enjoyable. After years of steady budget cuts, that’s no longer possible in Illinois without new revenues.

Last month, the Illinois House passed a bill that would allow admission fees to be imposed at 324 state-owned natural sites, including all 122 state parks. The bill is now in the Senate, which has wisely amended it to allow the fee only on each car rather than on each of the 40 million to 45 million visitors to the parks each year. We hope the Senate version, which would raise $7 million to $8 million a year, is approved and goes to Gov. Pat Quinn, who supports it. The state parks need the money.

The Department of Natural Resources estimates the annual in-state admission fee would be $25 to $30, and an in-state daily pass would cost $5 to $7, starting next year.

The state’s budget squeeze in recent years has been tough on the parks. The Office of Land Management, the arm of the DNR that runs the parks, has lost 24 percent of its staff over the last five years. Funding for the office has been cut from $23 million in 2006 to $9 million last year. At some sites, hours have been reduced or particular areas awaiting maintenance have been roped off.

In all, $750 million worth of deferred maintenance and repairs has piled up. After storms moved through Illinois Beach State Park last July, it took more than eight months to reopen the camping area because of a manpower shortage.

“We are in dire straits,” DNR Director Marc Miller says, “and we need help.”

It’s not easy to give up a tradition. Illinois has never charged for state park admission, with the exception of Wildlife Prairie Park near Peoria and some sites with beaches.

For people who are squeezed financially, the free admission may be what makes it possible to enjoy an excursion to a state park. But what good is free admission if budget constraints force park closures? Under Gov. Rod Blagojevich, several parks were shut down. Quinn reopened them when he took office.

Ideally, the DNR would have its own independent revenue stream that’s insulated from the state’s overburdened budget. Missouri’s state parks, for example, have a dedicated share of the state sales tax.

A similar slice of the sales tax isn’t in the cards in Illinois. But admission fees could serve the same purpose, as long as the Legislature ensures they aren’t offset by further cuts in state funding.

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