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EYE ON ILLINOIS: Time to seriously consider statewide IDNR admission fee — with no exemptions

Saturday was lovely. After morning storms rolled through we piled into the car, dog included, and headed north to spend the afternoon and evening at a Wisconsin state recreation area. We paid our $1.40 at the Waukegan toll plaza and, upon arrival, displayed on the dashboard a printed email proving our purchase of the $38 annual Wisconsin State Park System vehicle admission sticker.

By contrast, every visit we’ve made to state parks in Illinois — Illinois Beach, Buffalo Rock, Morrison-Rockwood, Giant City, Apple River Canyon, Ferne Clyffe, Mississippi Palisades, Moraine Hills and other treasures — has come with no admission fee. Not just by virtue of our Illinois license plates, but because the Department of Natural Resources doesn’t charge anyone.

In 2019, legislation allowing the DNR to charge admission fees at Starved Rock State Park passed the Senate and Environment Conservation Committee. Though the actual structure wasn’t written, Senate Bill 1310 allocated 80 percent of revenue to park infrastructure and 20 percent toward public safety.

The proposal failed twice in the Senate — each time by one vote — and probably would’ve passed but for state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, insisting on exempting La Salle County residents.

Rezin floated a $5 daily fee and the option for annual passes, a fairly modest figure given what neighboring states charge. It also was a narrow approach to float this idea only for Starved Rock. Unquestionably the jewel of the state park system and close enough to draw thousands from the Chicago area, even Starved Rock’s busiest years see it accounting for about 8 percent of more than 44 million IDNR parks visitors.

In other words, the way to really revolutionize revenue streams for IDNR is to take after Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan and adopt a statewide parking and day use fee structure. Those states all charge residents less than out-of-state visitors and make a variety of concessions for seniors, veterans, school groups and so forth.

If passed, SB 1310 surely would inspire copycat legislation for some of the state’s other parks, resulting in a patchwork, ZIP code-based fee exemption system. That’s far more complicated than is needed, especially given the easier approach of just copying nearby states that successfully fund conservation budgets in large part through park fees.

The IDNR’s $41 million budget includes revenue from things like hunting and fishing licenses, so it’s not all on the backs of Illinois income taxpayers. But the key word is state: all Illinoisans own the facilities equally. Rezin overcame her objections to the recent capital bill because she hopes it will provide millions toward Starved Rock upkeep.

The push to charge state park fees will and should continue, but only if it applies equally regardless of address.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at [ ]

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