Starved Rock Land, Staff Crumbling Under Visitors

You can't hike into Tonti Canyon anymore. The trails are so badly eroded that officials at Starved Rock State Park decided they're unsafe to tread.

Pam Grivetti fears the park's remaining major trails also are on borrowed time. She decided somebody needed to get Springfield's attention and pump some money into the state park — and fast.

Grivetti is president of the Starved Rock Foundation, and she went on a letter-writing blitz to Springfield. She wants every lawmaker and state agency attached to Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks to know: Starved Rock is headed for a tipping point and desperately needs help.

"The No. 1 goal of the Department of Natural Resources is to preserve and protect the resources of the state of Illinois," Grivetti wrote. "The DNR has been losing the battle at the busiest park in the state and one of the busiest state parks in the nation.

"Yes, all state parks are compromised, but Starved Rock is in crisis," she added later. "Holiday weekends are nightmares of a sea of humanity and regular weekends May through October are not much better."

Statistically, Grivetti is correct. Starved Rock has, since 2013, drawn attendance figures that rival only the United States' 10 biggest national parks. And while not many attendance records have fallen this year (exception: August was the park's sixth biggest month ever) Starved Rock's yearly totals haven't leveled off much since a record-shattering 2.8 million visitors stormed the park in 2017.

Through Sept. 1 of this year, the park was on pace to welcome 2,453,000 visitors. If realized, it would be the fourth busiest year in park history with a shot at third-busiest if the fall colors bring in above-average crowds.

A big finish this year means 15 million people will, cumulatively, have visited Starved Rock over the past five years. And the relentless pairs of feet are subjecting Starved Rock to a level of punishment it cannot withstand — not without upkeep that simply isn't happening.

State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, is listening.

"I absolutely share the same concerns," Rezin said. "It's a real issue. We need to have a bill to address this or to get additional funds in the capital bill."

How much would Springfield need to stave off the decay and erosion? Neither Rezin nor park staff had a hard-and-fast answer to the question, but the backlog of deferred maintenance projects was estimated at not less than $6 million, and perhaps more.

"We've got some major problems at Matthiessen this year, too," said Kerry Novak, complex superintendent for the two parks.

"By the time you put all the Starved Rock and Matthiessen projects together, that figure is probably about right."

Novak further noted many of the parks' need-items are manual jobs that can only be completed by hand, putting the onus on Springfield to allocate big bucks for personnel.

"You don't get anything done cheaply anymore, I'm afraid."

Atop Grivetti's list of posts to be filled are Conservation Police officers. DNR currently has six officers in charge of six counties plus all of the rivers and natural areas not located within the confines of Starved Rock and Matthiessen.

"Staff is spread so thin they are only able to respond if an emergency arises," Grivetti wrote. "The public is on a rampage to do as they please with disregard for the park, their own safety and the safety of others.

"Until there is a visible Conservation Police presence in this park and staff available to repair bridges and trails the destruction will continue."

Conservation Police Sgt. Phil Wire doesn't disagree, though he pointed out there are cadets in the pipeline and there are several new officers coming his way.

"We are scheduled to gain three more officers by year's end to the district," he said. "The department is aware we could use more officers."

Some relief is on the way for Utica, too, which has long complained about the backup created on Route 178 during the busiest weekends. On Labor Day weekend, Mayor David Stewart said he saw traffic pushed back to a dead stop on Interstate 80, as motorists sat waiting to exit the freeway and turn south onto Route 178.

"We hadn't seen that in quite a while," Stewart said, acknowledging a notably large (85,000) crowd at Starved Rock.

Stewart said he's eager to see the state replace the stop lights at U.S. 6 and Route 178 — "Stop lights have helped, in my opinion" — with the planned roundabout and eliminate backup once and for all.

What to do about the crowds and lack of funding? Grivetti told Springfield the solution is to charge for parking, pointing out that 37 states currently charge parking and/or admission to their state parks.

That's an idea that Springfield has kicked around already, so far without success. Rezin championed a bill to charge a $5 parking fee, with funds allocated for infrastructure and safety. Senate Bill 1310 stalled, however, over a fee exemption for La Salle County residents. Rezin said recently she plans to reintroduce the measure in 2020, though not in the veto session beginning Oct. 28.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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