State parks, forest preserves may impose annual fees

By Mary Diamond

Illinois residents may soon be paying annual fees to visit state parks and forest preserves.

Passed by the House of Representatives in March, House Bill 5789 (HB 5789) was assigned to the Senate revenue committee last week. The bill would allow state parks to charge annual vehicle sticker fees or daily pedestrian charges. HB 5789 has not yet passed into law.

Illinois’ state park system has suffered from financial difficulties.

“Over the last decade we’ve lost 24 percent of our staff,” said Chris McCloud, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “During that same period, the office of land management has experienced a total reduction in general revenue of 40 percent.”

McCloud said the department currently oversees the maintenance of 500,000 acres of land with a staff of 374 people. He also cited the department’s $750 million backlog of deferred maintenance projects, like fixing bridges, roads, leaky roofs and camping facilities, as a reason the department supports adding a vehicle sticker or parking fee for the parks’ estimated 45 million annual visitors.

“When considering the cost of gas and gear, a fee to enter seems relatively small,” said Phillip Librojo, senior philosophy and communications major. “As long as the fee’s revenue goes to the maintenance and preservation nature’s beauty, the cost to me seems even smaller.”

Admission fees would go directly to the State Parks Fund or Wildlife and Fish fund to assist with maintenance of the state’s 324 sites. Currently, much of this money comes from a general revenue fund that is shared by all state agencies.

Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek, director of marketing for Starved Rock Lodge, wrote an article in the April 12th issue of the Rock River Times newspaper.

According to the article, “Park fees could be considered a way to discriminate against low-income families.”

Illinois is one of only seven states that do not currently charge for admission to state parks. McCloud said the Department of Natural Resources has taken pride in the fact that Illinois does not currently charge admission fees, but pride does not pay the bills. The proposed fees would be one way to relieve some of the pressure from the state’s already shrinking general revenue fund.

“We have to find a way to inject more revenue into the state park system,” McCloud said. “Otherwise, in years to come, there will be some very hard choices to be made.”

Librojo said he and his friends would not be deterred by an annual fee to enter the parks.

“Of course I would still go to Starved Rock,” Librojo said. “I consider trips out to state parks as day trips and these extra costs would just be a part of that trip’s expenses.”

Other state parks that would be affected in the Northern Illinois area are Rock Cut State Park in Rockford, Silver Springs in Little Rock Township and Shabbona Lake in Shabbona.