Committee discusses staffing issues, tourism concerns at Illinois state parks

State parks saw more visitors in 2020 despite pandemic

SPRINGFIELD – As Illinois begins its official reopening and residents flock to state parks this summer, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources faces a severe staffing shortage, IDNR chief of staff Kristin DiCenso said.

“It’s very, very difficult to manage,” DiCenso said. “We get a lot of complaints from not only the general public but also from legislators about staffing at sites.”

DiCenso testified Thursday before the state Senate Tourism and Hospitality Committee at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. The Senate committee hearing was for discussion only, and no committee action was taken.

DiCenso said the agency’s headcount back in 2003 was more than 1,700, compared with about 1,170 today.

Although the number of employees decreased by the hundreds, the agency has since gained responsibility of about 100 additional sites through the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which was absorbed by the IDNR in 2017.

DiCenso said the agency would ideally have 2,500 employees, staffing levels the agency has not seen since before 2003.

“We have to ensure the best service to our constituents, and right now we’re not doing that,” she said. “Where we are now is, it’s a struggle. It’s a daily struggle. If someone gets sick, sometimes a park doesn’t get opened for the day. That’s completely, completely unacceptable. But that’s where we are.”

DiCenso said the IDNR closed its public areas early on during the COVID-19 pandemic but began reopening most of them by May 29, 2020.

Citing attendance records, DiCenso said Illinois state parks, fish and wildlife recreational areas and historic sites saw 26.7 million visitors from June through December in 2019, compared with 28.4 million visitors during the same time period in 2020.

“We actually increased our visitors last year,” she said. “We also saw an increase in camping across the state, surpassing what we’ve seen in the past. This proves how much Illinoisans value their public lands.

DiCenso said camping reservations for this year already are “through the roof, so we’re looking forward to a very active and busy season.”

She said the IDNR could address its staffing shortage and improve its service with increased state funding. The amount of state general revenue funding to the IDNR for the upcoming fiscal year is unchanged from the previous year at about $40.3 million.

The committee also heard from downstate industry officials and business owners who worry local tourism spending will not quickly return to pre-pandemic levels.

Cory Jobe, president and CEO of the Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau, said the tourism industry in southern Illinois was booming before the pandemic hit.

In 2018 and 2019 combined, visitors spent more than $1.4 billion in the six-county region that the tourism bureau promotes, and they generated almost $80 million in state and local tax revenue. The six-county region covers Madison, Macoupin, Montgomery, Jersey, Calhoun and Greene counties in southwest Illinois.

“The impacts of COVID-19 were drastic and devastating,” Jobe said. “Losses were deep and will take time to recover to pre-pandemic levels, especially for the meetings market and the sports tourism market. The recovery has been uncertain and slow at times.”

Jobe suggested the General Assembly consider greater state investment in natural resources and byways as one way to spur local tourism.

“There are millions and millions of dollars in unfunded projects that, if they were funded, could be year-round destinations for visitors to come from all over the country in the Midwest to enjoy,” Jobe said.

He also proposed using federal recovery funds to create outdoor recreation investment zones, starting with Illinois state parks.

“Our state parks are critical to the economic success of many of our regions,” Jobe said.

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