CLINTON, Ill. – Melissa Blasen doesn’t think twice about crossing into property owned and managed by the State of Illinois when she heads out for her usual two-mile loop walk. She’s been coming to Weldon Springs State Park for years, to exercise or enjoy the outdoors with her two young grandchildren.
But Blasen and other Illinoisans may soon face a choice – watch the state’s parks fall further into disrepair or chip in a few dollars for their upkeep.
With the state deeply in debt, lawmakers in Springfield are mulling a proposal to charge admission fees for the first time to the state’s hundreds of recreational properties. The money, proponents say, would be used to close a $750 million backlog in park maintenance and repairs due to years of shrinking budgets.
Blasen is torn about the idea, worried that state officials could scare off visitors who regularly fill Weldon Springs’ parking lot. “If [the fee] was annual, that might not be so bad,” she said.
Three counties to the north, Bob Gagnon had a stronger reaction as he waited for a fish to bite at Gebhard Woods State Park near Morris. On his mind was Illinois’ reputation for crooked politics and failed budget management, and how people already are straining with the sluggish economy.
“Our taxes pay for state parks. How much more do they want from us?” said the retired Teamster from Coal City.
If the legislature approves it, a bill sponsored by Rep. JoAnn Osmond (R-Antioch) would allow state officials to charge visitors an annual or daily fee to enter state parks. An annual fee would be no more than $25 and a daily pass around $5 to $8.
The House approved Osmond’s measure by 81-29 in March, and it is now moving through the Senate. The original bill would charge fees to anyone who entered the parks, but Osmond said the Senate may amend the bill to affect only car visitors.
Illinois is among only seven states that do not charge state-park admissions.
Marc Miller, director of the state Department of Natural Resources, said the idea isn’t merely keeping the park’s buildings looking nice. It’s about the health and safety of the parks and visitors. He said the biggest costs looming over the parks are roads, roofs of buildings like bathrooms or picnic pavilions, and sewage treatment to keep lakes and rivers clean.