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As Starved Rock grows crowded during pandemic, why not expand?

Illinois could quickly add 2,600 scenic acres, easing a crunch without turning people away.

A waterfall on Bailey’s Creek, which flows into the Vermilion River, on land the state has purchased near Starved Rock State Park.
Patrick Frisbie/Sun-Times

The number of visitors who showed up each month this summer at Starved Rock State Park rivaled the totals the park normally saw over an entire year two decades ago.

Many of those visitors had been going a little stir-crazy at home during the pandemic. They were looking to sequester safely in the great outdoors. But in doing so, they put a big strain on the trails and facilities in a park that Condé Nast Traveler in 2018 rated the most beautiful place in all of Illinois.

It would be nice if Illinois could spread all those new visitors over a larger scenic area, easing the crunch while turning no one away. And as it happens, there is an obvious solution.

Two years ago, the state purchased about 2,600 acres — roughly the size of Starved Rock State Park — right next to the iconic park. The newly purchased site is also close to the nearby 1,938-acre Matthiessen State Park and the 234-acre Margery Carlson Nature Preserve.

The scenic land, bisected by the Vermilion River, has trails on it that could be made handicapped-accessible, which most of Starved Rock’s trails are not. It could add to the area’s reputation as a Midwestern jewel of nature. But the land remains closed to the public.

A “Do Not Enter” sign is posted on land the state has purchased near Starved Rock State Park.
Patrick Frisbie/Sun-Times

When the previous owner, Lone Star Industries, ended its mining operations and sold the land, employees there already were using the trails for recreation. The acreage includes a lake, a waterfall, bluffs and the Wildcat Rapids, the state’s only stretch of rafting-suitable whitewater.

People hike their way into the site now, but at the risk of a $195 ticket from a conservation officer.

Right now would be an excellent time for the state, which invested $11 million to buy the land in 2018 through the state’s Open Land Trust, to open at least some of it to the public. When the state announced the land purchase with much fanfare, officials envisioned campgrounds, restored forests, canoe and kayak access, cross country skiing, fishing, wildlife habitat and picnic areas. And the Illinois Department of Natural Resources says it is actively “reviewing and charting” the property.

Yet so far, the whole thing remains off limits.

“After the state acquired the property, it has been curiously quiet about what the plans are,” one conservationist told us.

We get that at a time when the state has big budget problems, it might not be able to open up the 2,600 acres all at once. As the DNR points out, access points for rescue personnel and staff are needed. Signs and guard rails must be installed. Trails must be inspected and perhaps upgraded. Debris must be removed.

But the land can be accessed from existing parking lots, which generally are a major expense for opening public parkland. Existing restrooms also are conveniently situated.

This should make it easier for the state to undertake a “soft opening,” in which visitors would be invited to use those areas that are the safest and most accessible. Other parts of the new parkland that are more remote, require extra safety investment or are in need of major construction, such as campgrounds, could be opened later.

Because the existing parking lots sometimes fill up even now, the combined parks wouldn’t necessarily be able to accommodate many more visitors at the busiest times. But those who do come could really spread out.

The peak of this year’s outdoors season is coming to a close, but expanding the acreage open to the public could be considered by the Legislature when crafting next year’s state budget.

Starved Rock and Matthiessen were temporarily closed for cleanup after heavy storms on Aug. 10. And now, we’re hearing suggestions that, even after the cleanup, some trails need to be closed to allow them to recover from overuse.

That would make it all the harder for people who are eager to a break loose from home confinement during the pandemic to get out and enjoy, safely, the best of nature that Illinois has to offer.

Why not open up more scenic land instead?

Even though it is not open to the public, a bridge over the Vermilion River is a popular hiking destination on land the state owns near Starved Rock State Park that could be used to expand the park area.
Patrick Frisbie/Sun-Times

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