By Jamey Dunn
Hikers, hunters, vacationing families and outdoors enthusiasts may soon have to pay a fee for entrance to the state’s parks.
House Bill 5789 would allow the Department of Natural Resources to set fees for people driving and walking into Illinois state parks. A House committee approved the legislation this afternoon.
Jay Curtis, chief of staff for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said the need for new revenue has grown out of a decade of under funding the department.
However, Curtis said he overstated the problem when he recently said that his agency is on the brink of closing its doors. “What I was really saying was that we need to find an alternative funding mechanism for the agency to make it sustainable. We all know the [general revenue funds are] being stretched thin and rightfully so. I mean, there’s a lot of needs all over the state,” he said. “What we’re trying to do this session is find a way to fund this agency outside of [the general revenue fund].”
Curtis said that in the past, DNR has tried to “slow down” bills that would allow entrance fees at state parks, but this year, the department supports the idea. “We’re one of only seven states right now in the United States that does not have an entrance fee [for parks] of some sort.”
The bill does not set specific fee levels, and Curtis said the department is still in the early stages of determining what the fees might be. However, he estimates they could bring in $8 million to $12 million for DNR. Curtis said the department is still working on other ideas to find funding outside of the General Revenue Fund. Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget proposal calls for $45.3 million for DNR, which would be a 13 percent cut from last year’s budget. Curtis says it is years of cuts and fund sweeps, not Quinn’s proposal, that created the need for the fees.
Rep. Mary Flowers, a Chicago Democrat, voiced concern for families who may not be able to afford entry into parks. “These are very difficult times for people across the nation and certainly across the state,” Flowers said at today’s committee hearing. “Sometimes you just need a place to go.”
Rep. JoAnn Osmond, the bill's sponsor, responded, “Unless we can get the money to get them safe, we’re not going to be in position where we can keep our parks open."
Osmond, an Antioch Republican, pointed to the Adeline Jay Geo-Karis Illinois Beach Park in her district. The park, located in Zion, suffered damage during storms last July that knocked over several trees and left many of them leaning. Parts of the park have since been closed because the trees present a safety hazard. Osmond said DNR hopes to reopen all of the park by April 1.
“Our parks are a place where people can go — and especially at a time when there’s such budget problems for people in their homes — to find a place that’s cheap, inexpensive, but good for their family,” Curtis said. “A $5 to $10 fee for entrance, there would be people in the state that it could have an effect on, but by and large, just about everyone could afford that entrance [fee.] It’s still a cheaper option than going to Six Flags or taking the trip to Florida that people can’t afford right now.”
He added, “The alternative is struggling to have a sustainable park system in the future.”
Marc Miller, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, has vowed not to close any state parks.
For more on the deterioration of Illinois' state parks, see Illinois Issues July/August 2011.