“This is beyond an emergency,” said Jack Darin head of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club. What he was referring to is the condition of many of the state run parks.
As summer officially arrives and families head out to enjoy nature there is deep concern about the negative effect the Springfield budget battle is having on some of the state’s most precious resources.
The beauty and serenity of the parks, Darin said, is being sorely tested by the lack of state funding over past years. “When you see facilities that aren’t open or broken, vehicles that are falling apart, vacant jobs that people aren’t there,” he said in an interview, “they are supposed to be protecting and restoring nature so we can enjoy it, this has to end.”
More than 37-million visitors came to Illinois state parks last year, places like the Kankakee River State Park, where the namesake river provides the chance to fish and bike and picnic.
But while the Potawonamie campground there, according to the state website, is closed for improvements, , the Chippewa campsite is filled with downed trees, un-mowed grass and vacant picnic tables and swings and is closed for the entire season.
Some park restrooms are closed and on the day we visited the concession stand was boarded and locked.
It is those types of things that break Brent Manning’s heart. He headed the state park system from 1991 to 2003 under governors Jim Edgar and George Ryan.
“The locked bathrooms, the un-kept trails,” he said are a few of the things that greatly disturb him. “Unfortunately the equipment has not been upgraded, personnel is lagging far behind.”
The decline in the park system began under governor Rod Blagojevich, according to Manning, and continues.
The Department of Natural Resources 15 years ago had 2600 employees. As of the end of May 2017, according to the state, here were 1027 full time employees.
The budget for the IDNR dropped from $950-million in fiscal 2015 to $378-million this year.
In response the state said despite the budget impasse the parks remain popular with millions of visitors but that a balanced budget would quote “ensure the long term stability of our treasured parks and natural resources.”
A few miles north of Kankakee River State Park is the Des Plaines Fish and Wildlife Area.
In 2012, when we last checked a campground near the river was closed for the year. It was shrouded in weeds, with a children’s playground a ghostly symbol of then state cutbacks.
Guess what? Five years later and nothing has changed at the overgrown and unused campsite. And the nearby bathroom doors that were locked then, are locked now.
One solution to improving the parks, says Manning, is to start charging user fees to enter, an idea supported by environmentalists, if the money stays with the parks and not distributed to other state agencies.
The parks have always been special retreats for families. Lisa Gebo of Bradley has been coming to Kankakee State Park since she was a girl.
“I came when I was young, I brought my kids when they were young and now I’m bringing my grandkids out here,” she said as they enjoyed a picnic lunch.
“The parks are a place where every family should be able to get away, “ said Darin of the Sierra Club.
But he adds, “When you think about all the different ways that the state of Illinois is in a downward spiral our parks certainly reflect that.”