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10.4 million visitors – in just 4 years

LaSalle News Tribune

Monday, April 16, 2018  |  Article  |  

Budget--State (8) , Natural resources (23) , Parks, Recreation Rezin, Sue--State Senate 38

Kerry Novak recently conducted a trails inspection and saw deep grooves in some of Starved Rock’s most-visited paths. It looked as if the park’s workers had dug trenches with spades.

To be sure, the grooves were man-made, but not with a shovel. The gullies were formed by human feet. Curious, Novak sat down one day and crunched a few numbers. How many people had visited Starved Rock State Park since attendance began surging?

Answer: 10.4 million since Jan. 1, 2014.

“I, too, was astonished at the numbers over a couple of years,” said Novak, complex superintendent for Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks.

“Five years ago, 10 years ago, you would not have seen this,” he said. “There was no vegetation growing on the trails, but there was no trenching, either.”

Starved Rock is approaching a tipping point. The park’s facilities, especially the trails, are simply not capable of handling such continual punishment. Novak said Starved Rock needs to limit the number of visitors or increase its revenues, maybe both.

And with 206 days until Election Day, Novak is among those waiting to see how Springfield addresses its budget woes and where the Department of Natural Resources stands among the state’s budget priorities.

“It’s very difficult to keep up with everything,” Novak said. “There are 200 parks that IDNR manages and generally Starved Rock State Park is kind of cornering the market on what they need for money, manpower, vehicles and things like that.”

Though Starved Rock is coming off a comparatively slow first-quarter, thanks to adverse winter weather and early flooding, few in the Utica area doubt the park will fall short of 2.6 million visitors. That’s the yearly average since 2013, when Starved Rock’s yearly attendance last fell short of 2 million.

State Rep. Jerry Long (R-Streator) is among those who took note when last year’s record total approached 3 million visitors — a figure reached only by the country’s 10 largest national parks. Long agreed that funds are needed and he feels a sense of urgency to address it as the state wrestles with ongoing fiscal problems.

“If we want to continue to host all of its visitors, we need proper funding for trail maintenance and, potentially, full-time trail crews,” he said. “We also cannot forget Matthiessen State Park, which found its share of visitors during Starved Rock’s closures last summer. It only has one full-time employee to service the almost half a million visitors that will pass through its gates this year. We must preserve the natural beauty of the Illinois Valley by investing in these parks.”

Long is correct. Matthiessen remains dwarfed by its larger sister park but also is surging in popularity. Matthiessen attendance exceeded 500,000 in the past two years, toppling eight monthly attendance marks in the past six quarters.

Big crowds translate into big bills for Novak’s workers, who are busy enough dealing with Mother Nature. This week, crews were dispatched to remove a striking volume of tree limbs and branches washed ashore by recent floods.

Novak said he was taken aback by the size of the job. He thinks last year’s tornado must have felled many trees on the Illinois River islands. These apparently floated away the last time the river flooded.

“People who’ve been here 20 years cannot remember this much junk being dumped on us,” Novak said.

While the $2-per-car surcharge directed to IDNR — remember when yearly registration climbed from $99 to $101? — has helped Starved Rock, more money from Springfield is sorely needed.

State Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris) said many of her legislative colleagues have visited Starved Rock — a happy consequence of the park’s popularity — and therefore have at least some grasp of the park’s needs.

“Starved Rock is a gem but creates a unique set of challenges because of the high volume of traffic,” Rezin said. That’s a concept that’s commonly understood in Springfield.

On the other hand, it’s too soon to predict what, if any, funds can be procured this early in the budget process and with Election Day looming.

That presents a second option: Limiting the number of cars or visitors.

Utica fire chief Ben Brown has his hands full with Starved Rock, as his first-responders are frequently called to falls and trail accidents and his emergency vehicles must navigate around traffic that at times paralyzes Utica.

“I don’t know if I could put a number to curb attendance,” Brown allowed. “Obviously, statistically the more people there are, the more calls we will experience. There is a point when traffic is at gridlock and it becomes extremely difficult to maneuver through delaying response times.

“I would say when the over flow lots are full is when you shut it down.”