A hunting you can go...in Matthiessen State Park

More land bought from Buzzi slated for opening summer 2022

Curt Martin of Oglesby will have his bow and shotgun ready to bag a deer as he does each autumn. This fall, however, you might find him stalking some new territory: The new annex at Matthiessen State Park.

Martin was all ears after the Illinois Department of Natural Resources announced deer hunting will be allowed in the southern portion of Matthiessen, one of the areas annexed three years ago when the state acquired more than 2,600 acres from Buzzi Unicem.

Martin had warily stalked prey near the state parks before, worried that a stray shot might veer toward a hiker. That won’t be an issue here: the area in question remains restricted to all but hunters.

“I think it’s a better idea all around,” Martin said, “having deer hunting in a more secluded area.”

Opening some of the old Buzzi land to hunters is the first major development since 2018. Then, the state spent $11 million acquiring 2,629 acres adjoining Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks – the two abruptly grew a combined 55% – but then warned it’d be years before the land was deemed safe for hiking, hunting and fishing.

There has been some real progress since then. Hunters will get a glimpse of the Matthiessen annex this fall and non-hunters should listen for a big announcement in 2022. State Rep. Lance Yednock (D-Ottawa) said an area near Route 71 is loosely targeted for public access when the current school year ends.

Yednock said he toured the northern acres of the Matthiessen annex considered closest to being ready for public access. There, IDNR plans to install an aggregate roadway, 30-vehicle parking lot plus a looping trail and bank fishing.

The space wild and overgrown – “We pretty much needed a machete to get through some areas” – and Yednock well understood why IDNR needed years to open that portion of the annex to the public.

“At best they could have that open next summer,” Yednock said. “It’s a very, very vast space and, of course, their apprehension of opening it too fast is they’re worried about safety: Where there are mine holes and where first responders would have access.

“You could just tell it’s going to need some time to get it where it will be safe for people to explore, camp and ride horseback.”

And how about the acres to the south, where hunting will be permitted this fall? Permanently opening that space, Yednock said, is much further down the line.

Of course, the state never promised to swiftly open the Buzzi property. When then-Gov. Bruce Rauner announced the Buzzi acquisition, IDNR immediately told would-be visitors to cool their heels. Site technicians would be needed to analyze the wildlife, flora and fauna, marine life and even the reptiles. At the top of the list, however, was safety: No visitors could be permitted until IDNR identified all potential hazards.

Alvin Harper, complex superintendent for Starved Rock and Matthiessen, said they’re getting there.

“The IDNR in cooperation with the Illinois Natural History Survey are in year two of a three-year study of the acquisition along with updating their records for Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks,” Harper said. “Like a lot of things last year COVID limited some of the study’s field work.”

Not all the new acreage is approaching a point where the gates can be opened. The northern portion of the annex described by Yednock is decidedly closer than the southern portion tabbed for hunting this fall.

“There are some proposed access routes from Route 71 into the northern part of the annex,” Harper explained. “A southern access point is further in the future and will require more planning with (Illinois Department of Transportation) and La Salle County.”

Once the studies are complete, a big hurdle awaits: Getting money from the Illinois General Assembly to develop trails and install tourist infrastructure.

Yednock and state Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris) are optimistic they’ll be able to make that happen when the time comes, noting they’ve already pressed for improvements at the developed areas of the parks. Both lawmakers have requested roughly $29 million from the capital budget for the DNR units in and around La Salle County.

“We need to get caught up on the deferred maintenance,” Yednock said. “We’re working very hard to do this.”

Rezin acknowledged it may be another year or two before they can allocate funds to begin developing the Buzzi annex. When they do, Rezin said a top priority will be installing a trail that’s accessible to people with disabilities.

“It’s a project that’s incredibly important to me,” Rezin said. “Certainly, as the park progresses I’ll be personally involved.”

It might not be a tough sell. Springfield is well aware of the tourist surge that has overwhelmed Starved Rock, where average yearly attendance has surged from 1.9 million to 2.4 million in less than a decade. Trails have eroded and IDNR needs more staff, more parking and more land in the annexed areas.

“(The annexation) would hopefully alleviate the stress of all the visitors going to Starved Rock,” Harper agreed. “Last year, the park completed two parking lots that added 350 additional spaces to the park. These new lots were created as being the final buffer amount the park needed to keep from closures every weekend.

“Last year, with record weekends and busy season crowds it was not enough. The plan appears to be working this year. The park is not having to close nearly as much this year.”