While Giant City State Park is in dire need of more staff and new equipment, the office coordinator for the park says it’s not likely the park will close anytime soon.
Giant City is not the only state park affected by state budget cuts since 2002. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources takes in funding and is in charge of allocating it to each park. The department’s budget has been cut by 55 percent in the past decade, though, from $106.8 million in 2002 to $48.9 million this year, according to the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter webpage.
Michelle Cralley, office coordinator for Giant City, Trail of Tears and Lake Murphysboro, said if the budget doesn’t turn around, she doesn’t think all of the 324 parks under the organization’s umbrella will be able to stay open.
“They’ll start closing the smaller parks,” Cralley said. “Giant City is one of the bigger parks, so I don’t see that being attacked at this time.”
Parks that could be in danger of closure include Trail of Tears, Lake Murphysboro and Tunnel Hill, she said, because the budget cuts are affecting the upkeep of the parks.
Trail of Tears just had windshield wipers repaired for a truck, but the truck has no four-wheel drive. Roofs over toilets leak and need repair, and vandalism is spreading over the park with trail and camping signs disappearing and visitors stealing copper flashing, which is between a stone chimney and roof to keep the structure from leaking.
Multiple calls to Tunnel Hill and Lake Murphysboro were not returned for comment.
Chris McCloud, communications director for IDNR, said there really aren’t any grants the agency can apply for. The pot of money shared between parks is shrinking because of Medicaid and pension issues.
Pat Quinn announced June 23 a grant of $12.3 million for the Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development program, but McCloud said the grant is strictly for local units of government such as park districts and cities to build parks. It’s a matching program, so the city has to match the amount of the grant for a park, and it’s not for state facility use.
One possible solution was Senate Bill 1566 authored by House Deputy Majority Leader Frank Mautino. The bill would call for a $2 increase in state vehicle registration fees and would raise about $32 million a year to be used toward park maintenance.
However, the bill was just a few votes short of passing through legislation in late May.
McCloud said he hopes there will be another chance to bring the bill back before state legislator at some point, but he doesn’t know when that will be.
“I think what we hope that people will understand and realize is that we are working hard to keep the core services at state parks and other facilities, and we ask for their patience and understanding,” he said. “Hopefully sometime in the future we’ll get a sustainable funding package to help turn the agency around the way it was a decade ago.”
Calls to the Benton office of IDNR were not returned by press time Monday.
While Giant City might stay open, it’s still in very bad shape, Cralley said.
There are three John Deere tractors, a Cavalier and a Gator four-wheeler that need new tires, as well as an eight-year-old request for a new Batmower to mow more accurately around hills and ponds for fishing, she said.
In 2002, Giant City had 13 employees, but now, Cralley said, the park has two site technicians, an acting superintendent and herself taking care of 5,044 acres.
It’s very dangerous having only one site technician working at a time, she said, because if there’s an emergency such as a tree falling in the road, legally the worker cannot operate a chainsaw on his own in case of an accident.
Despite the loss in funding, the amount of visitors remains steady, Cralley said, but the conditions make the park barely usable. She said one staff member only has time to pick up trash and clean the restrooms on Saturdays and Sundays, and Red Cedar Hiking Trail and the Post Oak Trail are still closed from the Feb. 29 tornado.
The park does accept volunteers, though, and a group of 75 is expected to come in August to help clean up. Cralley said the volunteers can clean fire grills and pick up sticks, but they won’t have a vehicle to drive and can’t use the park’s chainsaw.
If it were an option to charge park goers for their visits, Cralley said she’s not sure how well it would work.
“People have gotten used to being taken care of and wanting everything for nothing,” she said.
Mike Hatfield and Jessica Hatfield, of Makanda, bring their daughter to the park about every two weeks to play. They said they would be willing to pay higher taxes to keep the park open, as long as it doesn’t become a slush fund, or a fund where the money is stolen by the government and used for other purposes.