Although the final touches are still being made to the governor’s latest spending proposal, officials acknowledge they’ve considered imposing entrance fees at state parks as a way to balance the budget in tough financial times.
Details of what those fees might be were not available Monday and it’s not clear whether they would affect users of all of the state’s more than 100 state parks, forests and natural areas, most of which are located in downstate Illinois.
That may not actually be a bad thing, depending on the details.
Our system of state parks and historic sites are in crisis. Staffing levels at the various sites are at the lowest levels in decades. The Historic Sites Division of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has lost around 40 percent of its staff in the last six or seven years. A number of sites are simply mothballed and barricaded off from the public.
I understand the desire of keeping free admissions so that everyone can participate regardless of income, but it's becoming increasingly clear that free access equals no access when there's no money.
In Southern Illinois in the counties along the Ohio River there are five IHPA sites and absolutely no state employees.
The Department of Natural Resources faces similar struggles with state parks though not as severe.
Like the current proposals from the U.S. Forest Service for fees on the Shawnee National Forest it's not the overall concept that's worrisome, it will be in the details.
I made this argument a decade ago and have repeated it ever since now through three governors: It's ridiculous to take a site such as the Old Slave House (which was once privately operated with admissions) and keep it closed because there's no money for staffing yet while there's enough interest to draw large crowds that would pay to enter the facility.
The same admission price wouldn't work for all sites. A market driven approach based on interest and operating costs much like California's approach should be used. There it costs much more to visit major sites such as the 115-room Hearst Castle ($20 to $30 for adults depending on the tour and the season) than it does to visit the Gold Rush museum at Sutter's Fort historic site ($4 for adults).
In Illinois there could be one price for Lincoln sites in Springfield, or one ticket for parks and sites in other tightly knit areas.
If the governor moves forward with this it's also time to look at merging the Historic Sites Division of IHPA with the Division of Land Management in DNR as well as the state museums into one site-based agency.
This may be brought about due to budgetary constraints, but there's larger problems out there that could be solved at this time if a big picture approach was taken.
Maybe we'll be surprised Wednesday. I just hope the issues of parks and historic sites will finally be addressed.
Cross posted on the Illinoize politics and public policy blog at over at Capitol Fax and the Williamson County Tourism News blog.