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STATE BUDGET | PARKS 'Proud of how we're holding up'

Fee hike expected to help area parks

Even in tough economic times, park districts can rely on a steady stream of property tax revenue.

State parks don't have that advantage, so they've suffered drastic state budget cuts.

When state lawmakers wield the budget ax, the state Department of Natural Resources, which runs the park system, often is a prime target. It has lost more than half its staff over the past decade.

The park system includes Lowden, Castle Rock and White Pines state parks and Lowden-Miller State Forest in Ogle County, the Franklin Creek Natural Area in Lee County, and Morrison-Rockwood and Prophetstown state parks in Whiteside County.

Grant Afflerbaugh, superintendent of Castle Rock, Lowden and Lowden-Miller, said the parks are "barely keeping up" with maintenance. They need new roofs on facilities, new grills at campsites, repaired trail bridges and stairways, and improved trails, among other things, he said.

"We haven't had the staff or money to get these things done," said Afflerbaugh, who started with Castle Rock 35 years ago.

This year, the state increased license plate fees by $2 – money that will go toward parks.

"We have to fight for our money every year at the Legislature," Afflerbaugh said. "With the new fee, we will start to fill positions."

Castle Rock and Lowden-Miller State Forest used to have a staff of five, including Afflerbaugh. Now, it's down to two.

Lowden State Park had three employees years ago. Now, it has one, with Afflerbaugh working there part time as superintendent.

With the new money, Castle Rock and Lowden state parks each will get another position, Afflerbaugh said.

Elmer Stauffer, superintendent of White Pines and Franklin Creek, said he and Afflerbaugh really enjoy what they do. Others, he said, have taken retirement because times are hard in the park system.

"We're determined to the point that we'll work with what we have," said Stauffer, who has worked for nearly 40 years at White Pines. "We have been short on money and manpower. We're proud of how we're holding up."

When he started at White Pines in 1974, the park had a superintendent, two assistant superintendents, a clerical employee, five maintenance employees, and at least seven seasonal workers.

Now, it has a part-time superintendent (Stauffer splits his time between White Pines and Franklin Creek), four maintenance employees, and two seasonal workers.

With the new fee, White Pines is expecting an additional employee.

Historically, Franklin Creek has benefited from the "tremendous" efforts of volunteers, Stauffer said. They developed the natural area in the first place.

In general, Stauffer said, the public can help lessen the effects of budget cuts.

"If people see vandalism and trees down, they can report it. There are things people can do to help us out."

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