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Vehicle fees at Starved Rock State Park? Updated, and a qualified OK by me

A fall view of Plum Island from the top of Starved Rock at Starved Rock State Park, where vehicle fees are being proposed.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

I feel like I’m caught between a rock and an idealistic place.

On Feb. 7, Illinois state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, introduced SB1310. Its original format would have allowed the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to ‘‘implement an annual vehicle admission fee and daily access fee for entrance into Starved Rock State Park’’ and ‘‘a daily access fee to pedestrians and owners of vehicles who do not have a current annual vehicle sticker.’’

If passed, it would take effect Jan. 1, 2020. SB1310 was assigned to the Environment and Conservation Committee on Feb. 13.

On Thursday, Rezin spokeswoman Ellie Leonard gave this update: They are working with the IDNR on an amendment to clarify that it will be a vehicle fee only, either daily or annual. That amendment should be ready by the end of this week. To be plain, this would apply only at Starved Rock SP, not at other state parks.

The other thing being worked on is to ensure that the fees would go solely to fund safety and maintenance, not for general hiring.

‘‘This is a very minimal parking fee to keep the park clean and safe,’’ Leonard said. ‘‘It is a beautiful park, and we need to take care of it.’’

Rezin likes to point out that if Starved Rock SP was a national park, it would rank 11th in visitors. Depending on the year and weather, Starved Rock SP averages about 2.5 million visitors. The three major warm-weather holiday weekends are so jammed that the IDNR sets up social-media and general media alerts to notify when access is closed because parking capacity has been reached.

Now a personal take.

Starved Rock SP is the closest of Illinois’ public sites to my heart. My wife and I were married there on a steamy June Saturday in front of family and friends by a fire-and-brimstone preacher from Streator. Once or twice a year, I hike up Starved Rock, stand there and remember that day while looking down on Plum Island. When the kids were little, we made the occasional stay or visit for eagle-watching.

That’s my idealist place. The reality is that Rezin’s bill makes sense, especially if its language is tightened up and there are strict assurances that the fees are restricted for maintenance and safety.

Because of its crush of visitors, Starved Rock SP is a unique situation. But Rezin’s bill should restart the conversation about state-park fees. Part of me likes that Illinois has free access to parks, but another part of me looks at paying generally for access in Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana and wonders why Illinois is different.

The trick to gaining public support in Illinois is a guarantee that the fees will be protected and earmarked for specific needs, not just used as revenue so monies can be moved to the General Fund.

Unfortunately, I fully understand those who don’t trust our elected officials to ensure that.

Starved Rock State Park’s southern entrance. | Photo from Starved Rock State Park’s online gallery.
Starved Rock State Park’s southern entrance. | Photo from Starved Rock State Park’s online gallery.
Photo from Starved Rock State Park’s online gallery.