State parks, employees at risk due to slashed budget



By David Mercer

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Conservationists fear that $14 million slashed from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ budget will lead to job cuts that could result in parks curtailing hours or even closing.

The budget cuts, announced earlier this month by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to meet what he says is a $2 billion shortfall in the budget passed by the General Assembly, will take effect Thursday unless lawmakers restore the money.

That’s what the Illinois Environmental Council and other groups want, though they concede the odds are against them. The state Senate would have to agree to restore funding, and Senate President Emil Jones – Blagojevich’s primary ally – says he won’t consider the idea.

Environmental Council spokesman Jonathan Goldman called the cuts shortsighted, given that high gas prices likely make the department’s more than 120 parks, lakes and recreation areas an attractive vacation alternative.

Based on loss projections, Goldman expects DNR will have to lay off about 163 people, or 11.5 percent of its 1,420 employees, which he said could force parks to operate for fewer hours or in some cases close.

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    “We don’t see how they’re going to be able to keep the parks open at the level that they are today,” Goldman said. His group and others held news conferences around the state Tuesday to try to persuade lawmakers to restore DNR’s money.

    Only one location is specified in the cuts, Wildlife Prairie Park near Peoria. The state-funded park, which is operated by a private group, would lose all its funding.

    DNR spokesman Chris McCloud, however, said the agency doesn’t yet know what it will cut to handle the loss of about 7 percent of its $191.1 million budget. That figure excludes $19.1 million just shifted from the agency to the University of Illinois, the Illinois Geological Survey and three other similar offices.

    “Everything’s on the table and nothing’s on the table,” McCloud said. “It’s just too early. No decisions have been made as to what’s going to happen.”

    The DNR has lost hundreds of employees to budget cuts and hiring freezes since 2001. The agency had 1,982 employees in June 2001, according to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Two hundred of those jobs shifted to the University of Illinois with the Geological Survey, but the others were cut.

    Whatever happens, boat-shop owner and park user Mike Miles of Springfield said the decision to cut DNR funding is unwise and doesn’t take into consideration the wide degree to which parks are used.

    “Half of our fishing boat (sales) is people who go to state parks,” said Miles, co-owner of The Boat Dock. Legislators “are starting to think that money is more important than natural resources,” he said.