Wildlife Prairie State Park is a place to get young people excited, says Animal Planet's Jeff Corwin
Wildlife Prairie State Park brought some of its critters and a big-name TV host to the Civic Center on Friday to kick off its 30th anniversary celebrations.
Emmy-winning "Animal Planet" host Jeff Corwin spoke after the crowd of more than 450 finished their picnic-themed dishes.
Corwin’s passion for conservation made him a natural fit for the event.
"We can really create a spark and get people connected to the natural world," he said. The park "is a place that can serve as a catalyst for young people to get excited."
He emphasized it’s easier to preserve nature than to try to repair it after it is damaged.
"Everyone has to be accountable, everyone has an impact," he said. "Now we are paying the price as a civilization for not being wise with our natural resources."
The fundraiser kicked off a yearlong program of events to celebrate the park’s 30th anniversary.
The dinner and silent auctions raised about $80,000 for the park. The event was funded by Friends of Wildlife, a group established to assist the future sustainability of the park.
Established in 1978, the 2,000-acre zoological park is owned by the state but operated by the Forest Park Foundation, set up by Wildlife founder William Rutherford.
Rutherford died in 2006, but his son and current Forest Park Foundation President William Rutherford Jr. was in attendance Friday.
Rutherford said the yearlong celebrations are aimed to help build the business side of the park, to ensure long-term sustainability.
"It was my dad’s passion," he said. "And his main activity for the last 30 years of his life."
He said monthly events are attempting to draw people in on a regular and consistent basis.
"We’d like to get more people coming more often," he said. "We need to build attendance at the park for it to be sustainable."
This year, Gov. Rod Blagojevich decided to fund parks from the general budget instead of from a dedicated source within the Department of Natural Resources, prompting some to worry about long-term funding from the state.
"Unfortunately Gov. Blagojevich has taken a lot of money out of the Department of Natural Resources," said Mike Quine, a member of the Forest Park Foundation board of directors. "We are having to do things a bit differently to raise money for the park.
"At the end of the day we hope that the state would continue to fund the operations of the park. But we may be left holding the bag to raise money. It’s likely that there will be some compromise."
To continue the anniversary celebrations, the park will host four to five events every month.
"It gives us a chance to get more people from the Peoria area out to the park," Quine said. "It’s a wonderful family-friendly venue."
Ed McMenamin can be reached at (309) 686-3196 or email@example.com.