Editorial: Pummeling Illinois' park system

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

As of today the Illinois Department of Natural Resources will sustain a $14 million blow to its budget. That's the amount Gov. Rod Blagojevich sliced from DNR's funding as part of larger cuts to the state's 2009 spending plan. Blagojevich's ally in Springfield, Senate President Emil Jones, wouldn't go along with the House this month in trying to restore some of the money.

So, absent a miracle - or a concerted legislative effort to try again, come the fall veto session - it may be curtains for certain parks services, along with dozens of employees. Also on the chopping block is Wildlife Prairie State Park's entire state operating appropriation, more than $800,000. It's a devastating blow.

In one respect we can't fault Blagojevich for doing what the Legislature didn't, which was to craft a solvent spending plan. Illinois is bound by its constitution to pass a balanced budget. The one that landed on the governor's desk was an indefensible $2 billion in the red. House Speaker Michael Madigan pretty much punted, then practically dared the guv, his political rival, to do the hard work for him. That Blagojevich did.

Meanwhile, Illinois' parks weren't the only casualty of his $1.4 billion total cuts; health care programs and social services lost big, too. No doubt these were difficult choices. No doubt proponents of each slashed program could offer compelling arguments to restore their funding.

Nonetheless, perhaps no department has been as consistent a target under the Blagojevich administration as DNR. It's as though the agency is sporting a bull's-eye.

Staff-wise, in 2001 Illinois had nearly 2,000 people working under the natural resources umbrella, including 172 conservation police officers. Now it has about 1,400 employees and 133 conservation officers, thanks in part to hiring freezes and budget cuts. The most recent round would shave another 163 workers off DNR's payroll, including more than a dozen officers. Suppose the agency's personnel matters don't much trouble the governor: DNR doesn't even have a permanent director installed some 2 1/2 years after former chief Joel Brunsvold resigned.

Money-wise, DNR's current $191 million budget is down from $211 million just four fiscal years ago. Over the years millions more dollars have been swept from DNR-related special funds to pad the state's general revenue.

"It's been cut to the point that the agency's being decimated," said local conservation advocate Joyce Blumenshine, who was at DNR's Springfield headquarters on Wednesday. She described the mood there as "somber." We can see why.

Wildlife Prairie Park's is a particularly cruel cut, since local lawmakers had fought Blagojevich this spring to keep the Peoria-area nature preserve properly funded. Slashing and burning its operating dollars is an affront to the memory of founder Bill Rutherford, who'd entrusted the state to maintain his creation for all to enjoy. Already, Wildlife Prairie has seen its state funding fall from $962,000 before Blagojevich to the current $828,000. Now that's apparently gone, too. Is the park expected to make up the money by jacking fees, as other DNR facilities were recently required to do?

As a Chicago native, perhaps Blagojevich doesn't value Illinois' vast and vibrant natural areas as much as, say, ex-Gov. Jim Edgar did. The current executive should get out of the city more and take in what the Land of Lincoln has to offer - and soon. With fewer staff and safety officers, reduced services, less maintenance and higher fees, there may not be much to see.

Peoria Journal Star