DNR free to explore park plan

Springfield — Trimming has begun at DNR, and new fees could follow to help the agency endure a proposed 13.5 percent budget cut in the coming year.

Hints of another hike in hunting and fishing permit prices were shared by a few lawmakers last month, but there has been no confirmation or legislative action involving such hikes.

However, the Illinois House did vote to allow DNR to charge admission fees to state parks, a step that has been expected for some time now. The March 26 vote was 81-29 in favor of allowing DNR to “set forth a plan” to charge people visiting Illinois state parks to enter.

The fees could raise  $9 million to $12 million a year, which would be used for park maintenance. Supporters said after the vote that they were just happy to see House Bill 5789 progress after three years of lingering.

“It’s very difficult for members to vote for a fee,” Rep. JoAnn Osmond, R-Antioch, sponsor of the bill, said after the vote. “We want to keep our parks open.”

The bill headed on to the Senate. If passed there, it is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn.

State Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, a co-sponsor of HB 5789, said he hopes the state park fee plan is implemented “sooner than later” because DNR’s expected shortfall is basically imminent.

Details on the fees have not yet been released, as DNR officials put together a plan on what to charge and how to collect the fees. Officials who have commented on the fees have suggested a $25 yearly fee for a sticker to enter a state park. Daily fees could be set at $5 to $10.

Hunters and anglers are mostly in favor of the park fees because it will force other outdoors recreation users in the state to help pay for DNR programs and parks. But many do have reservations about the fee plan because hunters and anglers already pay permit fees. They question whether they should have to also pay a park fee to enter a state site to fish or hunt.

Illinois, which has had the park fee plan on the table for more than three years, is one of only seven states that does not charge some form of admission fee to its park systems.

Neighboring Wisconsin charges state residents a $7 daily fee per vehicle or $25 for a annual pass. Neighbor Indiana charges $5 for a daily in-state pass and $36 for a yearly pass.

Meanwhile, DNR Director Marc Miller and  Mautino went before a House committee on March 22, testifying that DNR expects to exhaust its financial reserves and special funds this fiscal year. As a result, DNR is choosing to follow a number of mandates that require agency funding. Cancelling meetings and conferences, for example, could save “hundreds of thousands of dollars” each year.

DNR’s overall budget has been cut from $279 million two years ago to a proposed $217 million for the upcoming fiscal year. The money raised at Illinois’ 120 state parks and 324 sites and forest and conservation areas would go toward maintenance, DNR has stated.

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