Carolyn Finzer at Ottawa Canyon Starved Rock State Park.
Updated: January 3, 2013 6:25AM
Sit down around the campfire with almost any group of people who like to visit state parks, and you’re likely to hear long discourses on how badly Illinois maintains its natural areas.
Trails that need maintenance have been closed. Park buildings are getting shabby. Interior roads are crumbling. Hours have been trimmed back.
A bill that passed the state Senate on Wednesday would tack $2 to the cost of a basic license plate, raising the price to $101, providing the revenue to start fixing some of those problems, including a $750 million maintenance backlog. The bill also would add new fees for off-road recreation on state land and some commercial fishing-related activities. In all, it’s expected to bring in between $30 million and $45 million a year.
Gov. Pat Quinn, who when he took office reopened parks that had been shuttered by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, should sign the legislation. His aides say he plans to do so.
Just about all areas of Illinois government have been getting trims in recent years as unfunded pensions and other costs spiral skyward, but the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has been especially hard hit. The annual budget for its 324 natural areas, including 122 parks, has been cut by more than half, from $100 million in 2002 to $45 million. The number of employees has been cut by a third.
State Rep. Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley), who sponsored the bill in the House, said Quinn has promised not to cut the DNR’s budget elsewhere, which in effect would shift the new revenues to other uses.
This page long has called for charging modest admission fees to the parks, in part because we didn’t think a new revenue stream for the parks was politically feasible in an era of squeezed budgets.
This bill will provide that revenue stream. We won’t be especially happy when our license plate renewals come due, but we’ll be glad when we start seeing improvements to our parks.