July 22, 2024

Eye On Illinois: ’Tis the season for another look at imposing state park fees

Although the summer solstice is a week away, good weekend weather delivered an expected news alert: “Matthiessen State Park reached capacity about 12:30 p.m. Sunday and will be closed to further traffic. Parking lots usually reopen about 3 or 4 p.m. when visitors begin to head home after a day of hiking. Trails close at sunset. Parking along roadways or blocking other vehicles in is not allowed and your vehicle may be subject to being towed or a ticket.”

The information calls to mind a topic I’ve revisited often since a 2016 family vacation to Grand Haven, Michigan: it’s long past time for Illinois to charge a parking fee at outdoor recreation areas.

These proposals always incite negative feedback, and while the Department of Natural Resources isn’t the worst-run state agency, it would unquestionably be in better shape with additional revenue – something that was especially true during the budget stalemate days of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration.

Legislative attempts have failed for various reasons, among them a plan to charge admission fees to cars and pedestrians at only Starved Rock State Park while trying to make carveouts for people who live nearby.

When I first wrote about this in 2017, Wisconsin was charging $11 per day and $38 per year to out-of-state vehicles to park at any state park, forest, recreation area and trailhead. The rate has shockingly not increased, although there are higher daily rate fees for the most popular destinations like Devil’s Lake ($16) and Peninsula and Willow River ($13) state parks. In-state vehicles pay $28 per year or $8 per day. There are different rates for seniors and buses, discounts for multiple household vehicles, etc., but the big picture solution is clear: you pay to enter.

In Indiana, user fees pay for about 91% of state park operations. Nonresidents pay $9 per day or $70 for an annual pass. Hoosiers pay $7 per day or $50 per year, seniors pay $25. As with Wisconsin, there are special fees for popular destinations: Prophetstown, Indiana Dunes and Falls of the Ohio.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, the DNR and Conservation Foundation are running a contest through ilstateparks.org whereby people can “vote” for their favorite state park through financial donations. Each dollar is one vote with a goal of creating winners in each of the four park groups.

“Your donations are crucial to helping us meet the increasing demands of improving and maintaining safe, clean and enjoyable parks,” DNR Director Natalie Phelps Finnie said in a news release, which also noted only seven states have no park admission fees.

There is a way to increase DNR funding without resorting to hope and generosity. Perhaps another season of overcrowded and abused facilities will encourage change.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on X @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

Scott Holland

Scott T. Holland

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