Discouraging visits to Starved Rock State Park and surrounding attractions was not one of the suggested solutions to overcrowding and other issues in a report released last week.
Instead, in seeking solutions for one of America’s busiest state or national parks, research specialists indicated the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Starved Rock Lodge and surrounding communities should follow some examples from other parts of the United States.
“The underlying strategy is that Illinois can draw on proven ideas from elsewhere and anticipated future recreation interests of Illinois residents to create a balanced solution for Starved Rock,” said Mim Evans, a Northern Illinois University-based research specialist who worked with IDNR and Starved Rock Lodge. Other NIU-based specialists conducting the study were Andy Blanke, Abigail Evans and Norm Walzer.
To address overcrowding and other issues, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Starved Rock Lodge turned to NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies. They asked CGS to research ways to improve the visitor experience, protect natural resources and work with nearby communities that provide services to park and lodge visitors.
Suggestions from the research findings include new ways to manage visitors, Evans said.
• “Reservation systems like one used at Enchanted Rock State Park in Fredericksburg, Texas, seem to work by controlling access, allowing for flexibility and data gathering, redirecting visitors to low visitation days, delivering pre-visit education, and collecting fees,” she said.
• Creating broad-based public support for Starved Rock State Park and Lodge will make it easier to sustain and improve both over the long run. Adding a variety of new large- or small-scale facilities is a possible strategy for broadening support, the research shows.
• Large-scale facilities such as treetop rope and zip line courses, expanded museums and education centers, and water play areas can bring in new visitors while possibly diverting some visitors from overcrowded trails, creating a better experience for everyone. These kinds of facilities also can make a state park more of an overnight attraction, growing the local economy.
• Private-public partnerships can make these projects affordable to build and manage. Small-scale improvements such as disc golf and dog parks are relatively inexpensive to install and operate, and they can generate revenue that more than supports their maintenance.
“It may seem odd to suggest attracting more visitors as a way to address overcrowding at Starved Rock, but with the right mix of facilities and management, and given the acreage added to the park and yet to be developed, more visitors can be part of an overall strategy. For Starved Rock, it’s all about finding the right balance,” Evans said.
“Critical are ways to enhance the visitor experience, preserve the natural resources, find funding sources, and build support from the surrounding communities by providing opportunities to grow the local economy.”
The CGS noted that Starved Rock State Park attracts as many visitors as major national parks.
“As the state’s most popular park, it has struggled with overcrowding certain days, necessitating closing the gates when parking lots fill, as occurred over Labor Day weekend,” CGS noted.
The research findings are contained in “Starved Rock State Park & Lodge: Options for the Future,” a report recently released to IDNR and Lodge management.
The report includes recommendations regarding parking shortages, managing large crowds, adding new facilities and lodging options, social media usage, and ways for the park, lodge and surrounding communities to work together.
The NIU Center noted that the completion of the CGS report is particularly timely with the recent addition of 2,629 acres to the west side of Starved Rock State Park and Matthiessen State Park adjacent to Oglesby. It’s also timely, CGS said, because of legislative consideration of charging entry fees to generate additional funding.
In developing the report for Starved Rock, Evans and the CGS team drew from actual projects and successful experiences at State and National parks across the nation.
Evans said certain questions needed to be answered for Starved Rock: Who visits the park? What is the relationship between the park and the surrounding area? Are there trends in demographics and interests that should be considered? Do other states have effective strategies for their most popular parks?
As they worked to answer those questions, CGS researchers followed a methodology that included learning from IDNR, park and lodge management; surveying visitors, states, businesses, and agencies; researching trends; and interviewing management at parks in other states. The economic impact of the park and lodge also was considered.
Contact IDNR for more information about Starved Rock State Park and Lodge or to request a copy of the report, or visit https://www.dnr.illinois.gov/Parks/Pages/StarvedRock.aspx or https://www.starvedrockstatepark.org/.
For more information about resources available at NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies, visit https://www.cgs.niu.edu/.