Of the many mistakes made by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, one of the worst was his pitch to close state historic sites and state parks as a way to save money.
More than 6 years and a new governor later, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has announced its “State Parks, Great Parks” initiative. It uses money from an increased vehicle registration fee to provide a dedicated amount of money for park upkeep and education.
Each year, an estimated 45 million people visit Illinois’ 324 state-owned natural properties, including several state parks in The Pantagraph area: Weldon Springs in DeWitt County; Moraine View near LeRoy; Edward Madigan near Lincoln; and Starved Rock near Utica.
“We were entrusted with new revenues to improve our parks through the passage of the sustainability bill in late 2012, and we are using those funds for the purposes for which they were intended,” IDNR Director Marc Miller said in a statement released last week.
“Illinois has wonderful natural beauty, and this early investment is the beginning of making our state parks great parks,” he said.
As described by IDNR, the money will be used to upgrade campground areas, improve trail maintenance, and enhance the agency’s website for park users.
Bumping the vehicle registration fee by $2, to $101, generates nearly $20 million annually for the parks fund. Approved in 2012, the fee increase was an alternative to charging park user fees. That was one of the many ideas floated and eventually dropped as the state muddled through a budget-balancing act that has never proved successful.
Still, the State Parks, Great Parks program looks like a great first step that probably deserves a fist bump rather than a standing ovation: The state has a long way to go to bring its parks back to first-rank status, with a huge backlog in needed maintenance and repairs. The parks need upgrades to roads, roofs for bathrooms and pavilions, and more attention given to sewage facilities.
The staff of IDNR takes pride in its stewardship of Illinois’ vast amount of land, and State Parks, Great Parks can be an effective way to acknowledge that and to wisely use the money raised from the higher vehicle registration fee.
But we also remind Miller of a statement he made in 2012: “We’re going to have to work to restore [the public’s] faith” in trusting the government to spend dedicated funds appropriately.
We fully expect him to keep his word in implementing State Parks, Great Parks.