State Parks’ Cash Crunch: $720 Million For Repairs
Illinois’ inability to fix or upgrade hundreds of basic projects threatens the environment and pubic safety, according to a BGA Rescuing Illinois investigation.
Hundreds of state park renovations, costing over half a billion dollars and ranging from fixing trails to replacing dams, are on indefinite hold with seemingly no relief in sight because of Illinois’ ongoing financial crisis, according to a BGA Rescuing Illinois investigation.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the state agency that manages parks and recreation, has deferred so much maintenance going back at least 10 years that the work is projected to cost more than $720 million if everything is completed by 2020, according to data the Better Government Association obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
The agency’s "to-do" list includes approximately 735 projects at about 135 different sites throughout Illinois, the BGA found.
The extended delays disturb regular park users, campers, environmentalists and nature-lovers, who fear Illinois’ public facilities are deteriorating at an accelerated pace.
Public safety, they say, will inevitably be compromised should walking and bike trails, campgrounds and other heavily used facilities be neglected much longer. At the very least, taxpayers will end up paying much more if these projects are left to rot, they add.
"As bad as things are, they are only going to get worse," said Jerry Adelmann, executive director of Openlands, an organization devoted to land and water protection in the Chicago area.
DNR, which for years has been under budgetary pressure, acknowledges it does not have enough money to keep up with current maintenance demands. The agency is being forced to continually make hard choices, including: closing some facilities to the public; cutting staff and fixing areas heavily used by visitors while putting significant infrastructure repair work on the back-burner.
"At some point you have to rate which things are the most dire and which things have to wait even if you don't want them to wait," said Chris Young, a DNR spokesman. "A lot of these things have been put off for a decade or more already."
Based on the BGA’s review of DNR records as of April 2015, the $720 million tally -- which is more than double the agency’s operating budget last year – includes:
- Lodges, concessions and office buildings: $248 million.
- Campground facilities: $104 million.
- Trails: $85.8 million.
- Bridge and road replacement: $44.2 million.
- Water and waste facilities: $32.2 million
- Watershed and wetland improvements: $30.3 million.
- Dam safety and levee rehabilitation: $29.2 million.
- Playground equipment and safety: $3.6 million
- For park visitors, patience is starting to wear thin as they cope with the consequences of the massive slowdown in repairs, according to volunteer groups familiar with the facilities.
For example, the Rock Island Trail, a 26-mile hiking and bike path near Peoria, contains a washout that has blocked the road for years around the 13-mile mark, essentially cutting the trail in half.
"There’s a 20-foot section that has been closed and un-crossable … with no sign of ever being repaired," said Tim McGrath, president of the Peoria Area Mountain Bike Association. "If you get to the washout and you don’t want to take a two-mile detour to get around it, basically your only option is to turn around, unless you want to hike around, which is not safe to do."
In another part of the trail, there’s an approximately 20-foot high embankment along the Spoon River that is eroding – and taking the trail along with it.
While that section is technically closed, people can easily maneuver around the barriers, according to Mike Rucker, president of Friends of the Rock Island Trail.
"It’s dangerous right now," Rucker said. "You could have a child or a biker come along and all of a sudden veer to the right, or, it could it collapse and you would tumble down."
Sections of the Hennepin Canal State Trail as well as the Illinois and Michigan Canal have also seen persistent closures from flood damage and a slow DNR response, according to park users. The I&M Canal, which is a national historic landmark, has 30 rehab projects in the waiting while the Hennepin Canal has 11 -- three of which are priced at more than $3 million apiece, according to a BGA review of the maintenance list.
"It’s sad when you know you have an asset that can’t be used, and it’s even sadder when you know it’s going to cost a lot more when there’s nothing being done now. It’s just in time," Rucker said.
Even the state’s most popular public parks, such as Starved Rock near Utica and Illinois Beach near Zion, are not immune to delayed maintenance issues. Starved Rock has 14 projects on the docket and three of them are among DNR’s highest priorities while Illinois Beach has erosion along the lakefront that has largely been ignored, the BGA found.
"It used to be an alternative swimming beach," said Don Wilson, a volunteer site steward with Illinois Beach. "There is no beach there any more. We’ve probably lost 500 feet of beach."
Downstate parks are also feeling the pain.
With more than 8,000 acres, Pere Marquette is one of the largest state parks in Illinois. Despite frequent visitors, some of its campgrounds and trails are in sad shape, according to Anita Rose, treasurer of the Friends of Pere Marquette organization.
"The camps are just deteriorating, and they are full all the time," she said. "There are so many kids and church groups and Boy Scout groups that come out. It's so sad."
Staffing at the park has dropped from 22 workers to six, and now the visitor center is closed every Sunday, despite being one of its busiest days in the week. That means the public does not have access to bathrooms in the building or information on the trails and activities in the park.
At Kickapoo State Recreation Area near Danville, Site Superintendent John Hott said his staff grew to five workers plus a part-time secretary for the summer, but the team is spread out over two additional state parks besides Kickapoo.
"With the lack of staff, you have to pull in and make your priorities where your most people are," Hott said.
As a result, restrooms, campgrounds and picnic shelters get the most attention while hiking trails that are harder to access fall to the wayside.
"They are mainly foot trails so they are not wide enough to take a big piece of equipment on," Hott said. "That’s where you start slipping because you just don’t have the manpower to dedicate to walking 15 miles."
Environmental concerns crop up when projects are pushed aside, including managing invasive species, which are plants that are not native to the area and spread quickly, often threatening natural plant and animal habitats.
Many have noted that it’s a common problem throughout the state park system.
"The state can’t keep its own land under control," said Tom Clay, executive director of the Illinois Audubon Society, a conservation group that focuses on birds as well as wildlife habitat. "That should be the last place you go and find invasive species. But it’s there. It becomes prolific and takes out everything else."
Experts warn that financial cuts today on conservation and wildlife restoration could lead to unintended consequences and a lasting impact on the state's ecosystem.
"The difficulty is in this political climate with our huge deficit here, for any dime that appears, any politician is going to try and find a way to grab that dime," said Bob Fisher with the Bird Conservation Network. "They’ve got to fix it. They’ve got to find a way. But there are fundamental things about our state that they are harming."
What’s more, many fear the situation will only become more dire because additional financial cuts may be on the way if Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed operating budget of $243 million for DNR is passed by the General Assembly. That’s down from $259 million last year.
"You’re taking an agency that is already bare bones, at best, and stripping it further," Adelmann said.
Additionally, Young said via email that the department has received "very little" in capital funding over the past decade – about $1 million a year. Most of the deferred maintenance projects are paid for with capital funds.
However, the agency does have about $10 million available for capital projects stemming from 2012 legislation that added a $2 fee on license plates.
But "these funds are inaccessible until a capital appropriation bill is passed out the legislature and signed by the governor," Young wrote.
DNR declined to comment further on funding matters, citing the state’s unresolved budget dispute.
In years past, the agency "experienced the kind of cuts that (other state) departments are facing now," said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group.
"It's hard to imagine how they could take any significant cuts and not close state parks."
Staffing at DNR has dropped 40 percent since 2000, according to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, the union that represents DNR workers.
"Nearly every agency has been slashed in the last decade-plus and is struggling to maintain services as a result – but the percentage cut to DNR is among the worst," Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME, said via email.