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.
On a brisk morning last week, Blasen was torn about the idea, remembering how the park was closed at one point but 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 admission 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. The others are Hawaii, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
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.
An estimated 45 million people per year visit Illinois' 324 state-owned natural properties, including state parks, officials say. DNR officials would decide which properties would require admissions, meaning they could adopt a different policy for those hiking the cliffs at popular Starved Rock State Park than for others who just want to use the picnic tables at Channahon State Park.
State funding for the parks had been cut from $23 million in 2006 to $9 million in this year's budget. About a dozen parks were closed because of budget cuts under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, including Weldon Springs State Park, which Blasen recalls with sadness.
Officials estimate the proposed entrance fees would bring in $7-8 million. The permits would give the parks dedicated funds, like hunting and fishing fees do for wildlife areas.
Miller says the department wouldn't install gates or toll booths. The measure would allow the department to set prices for permits that could be displayed in car windows, similar to fishing and hunting licenses. Park personnel would monitor the permits and assess fines for those who don't have them.
"Bottom line is that we need to support state parks," Miller said. "With the pressures on the state budgets, like (state employee) pensions and Medicaid, the department is going to continue to be squeezed out of that revenue pie."
The practice elsewhere has not necessarily been a deterrent to visitors.
Amy Barrett, spokeswoman for the Minnesota DNR's division of parks and trails, said that state's parks have seen an upward trend in sales of their $25 year-round and $5 one-day permits during the recession. Yearly visits have increased since 2008, reflecting how families are looking for affordable vacations during a tough economy, she said.
"Our research shows cost is not the barrier to visiting. It's busy families who don't have time," Barrett said.
The permits would not apply to people merely driving through the park, attending an event like a wedding, or customers at restaurants and lodges on park property, Osmond said.
"Twenty-five dollars a year is not a huge amount of money," Osmond said. "Most people understand we have to maintain (the parks) or they are just not safe."
Adeline Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park — in Osmond's district — was closed after storms tore down hundreds of trees last July, and a lack of funding kept them from being reopened, officials said. It took nine months to clear out the damaged and dangerous branches and trees.
Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, was among those who voted against the proposal. The state can find other ways to care for the parks, like corporate sponsorship, he said, before asking residents to foot another bill.
"I think we're already overtaxed in Illinois," Franks said.
At Gebhard Woods, Gagnon said he believes the fees would result in fewer visitors to the parks. He blames the state's failure to manage its finances — and fund the parks — on politics and politicians, and doesn't believe park users should be paying the price.
"They're supposed to be working for us," Gagnon said. "We're poor towns down here."
The bill is HB5789.
Shannon McFarland can be reached at https://twitter.com/shanmcf
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