NEWS

Shutting down parks could force state to pay back federal funds

Chris Young

Closing 11 state parks at the end of November likely will be more complicated than simply locking the gate and hanging out a sign saying, “No trespassing.”

Making things more difficult is the state’s relationship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal agency is the conduit for funds collected from an excise tax on sporting goods. If federal funds were used to purchase land or make habitat improvements, for example, some of that money may have to go back if parks are shuttered.

“We are still planning to close parks Nov. 30,” says Illinois Department of Natural Resources spokesman Chris McCloud. “We’re still working through a number of those issues and I’m sure we will for the next couple of weeks.”

Jerry Beverlin, a retired DNR administrator, says that in his memory, some park facilities have been closed but the parks themselves remained open for recreation.

“What does closed mean? Does closed mean you can’t go on there? Does closed mean there aren’t any facilities?” he asks. “This is a tough one to put any numbers to because you don’t know what they are going to wind up doing.”

McCloud says the closing of each park will be handled individually.

Beverlin says the state may have to pay money back to the federal government if parks close.

“That’s the case in theory,” says Bob Bryant, recently retired chief of wildlife and sport fish restoration for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The application is the issue.”

Bryant talked about the difficulty of closing parks just before leaving the Fish and Wildlife Service.

He gave the example of a boat ramp constructed 10 years ago with federal funds. For the sake of example, the boat ramp had a life expectancy of 20 years.

“If they closed it to the public and it was no longer used for the use it was constructed for, they would have to pay back half the funds or find a replacement property at DNR’s cost that would serve the same purpose.”

Bryant says it would be necessary to have property appraised and to determine the loss to park users.

“If you close it for six months, it’s different from one month or two years,” he says. “There are different pro-rations.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service also would want to calculate the loss to park users. He says the value of recreation lost would be greater if a waterfowl hunting area purchased with federal funds was closed for two months during waterfowl season, than if a wooded area purchased primarily for turkey hunting would close in mid-winter – outside of hunting season.

“It would be a tall order for us to figure out which grants brought about the federal interest in the property,” he says. “And to determine the effect of the closure.

“We’d have to make the connection between the value of the grant and the value of the objective.”

Efforts by the Illinois General Assembly to reverse budget cuts that led to the announcement that some parks and historic sites would close this fall still are in limbo.

The General Assembly authorized $221 million to be taken from special state funds — including several administered by DNR.

The governor signed that bill into law but has not signed a companion bill authorizing the money to be spent. Revenue projections show money flowing into state coffers short about the same amount authorized to restore budget cuts, meaning they might cancel each other out.

Also confusing is the concern that some funds may be off-limits if they receive federal funds. Several funds administered by IDNR receive money from hunting and fishing licenses, as well as a share of the excise taxes. To receive federal funds, states have to pass a law promising not to spend revenue from license fees on things other than wildlife and fish restoration.

Bryant says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service already denied a $1 million grant to DNR for construction of a boat access area at Pere Marquette State Park near Grafton, because it has been unable to account for the way the agency spent $600,000 in license dollars.

By most accounts, the state risks about $15 million in federal funding if money is taken from funds that receive license fees and federal matching dollars.

The office of Gov. Rod Blagojevich has said there are concerns about whether or not money could be taken from all funds on the list.

Bryant says his office of the Fish and Wildlife Service, located in Fort Snelling, Minn. administers grants to several states in the Midwest.

“We put out $216 million to eight states, and something like this we do not anticipate whatsoever,” he says.

Beverlin says too many questions remain unanswered to predict what will happen with park closure decisions and the future of federal funding for DNR.

“All I know is that if you put yourself in jeopardy of reversion, you lose those federal funds,” he says. “If that’s the case, then there are going to be repercussions coming form several different angles.

“But who knows?” Beverlin says. “All I know is it’s never happened in Illinois — at least in my memory.”

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528 or chris.young@sj-r.com.