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Our View: Parking fee could provide Starved Rock with the care it needs

Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks are a unique attraction with its canyons, vistas and St. Peter’s sandstone formations in the middle of the farmlands of Illinois, so it’s no wonder many visitors are attracted to its beauty.

An important natural resource and beauty, Starved Rock is a key asset to our region’s economy from the tourism it generates.

Starved Rock has, since 2013, drawn attendance figures that rival the United States’ 10 biggest national parks. Through Sept. 1 of this year, the park was on pace to welcome 2,453,000 visitors. The estimation comes as a result of detecting the number of vehicles entering the park at the west entrance and lodge. Each vehicle is counted as 5.5 people.

Starved Rock attendance figures will move close to 15 million people, cumulatively, over the past five years.

Keep in mind, those visitors spend money in our communities at restaurants, gas stations, hotels, and other attractions geared toward visitors. Entire industries in the region are built around the park’s attraction. That spending also generates sales tax revenue that helps our local governments provide services without having to ask for more property taxes.

In order to best preserve that beauty, however, Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks need a steady maintenance fund.

Earlier this week, Shaw Media reported the trail to Tonti Canyon in Starved Rock has been closed due to a need for repairs and there’s concern other trails are in jeopardy, unless money is pumped back into the park.

Pam Grivetti, president of the Starved Rock Foundation, has sent numerous letters to Springfield asking for the state’s help.

We believe state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Peru, had the right idea when she sponsored a bill earlier this year to charge a $5 parking fee for Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks, as well as options for annual passes, that would be strictly earmarked for the park’s maintenance. After all, 37 other states charge parking and/or admission to their state parks.

That bill fell short because there was an exemption carved out for La Salle County residents, but Rezin isn’t giving up on the bill, knowing it’s too important to let go and knowing it needs some tweaking.

As more visitors learn about the great things this area has to offer, the tourism industry will continue to grow, making it more important to care for Starved Rock — the top attraction.

We believe a parking fee is the best solution, because it asks those who are using the park to be the ones who provide the steady funding. We don’t expect this will be a major deterrent as visitors value the park enough to pay a nominal fee. Nobody is turning around and going home over $5 or $10 after traveling 100 miles, and those attending the park should understand it comes at a cost to keep it the crown jewel that it is.

Make no mistake, the money generated would need to be strictly earmarked for the park to provide for infrastructure upgrades, more maintenance staff and possibly more Illinois Department of Natural Resources officers to enforce park rules.

There’s also something to be said visitors may act differently when there is an admission. Perhaps those who vandalize the canyon formations with graffiti or bring illegal activity to the park will think twice when a value is put on the experience from the outset.

Starved Rock is too valuable of a resource — both naturally and economically — to let it deteriorate in any shape or form.

We encourage Sen. Rezin, as well as state Rep. Lance Yednock, D-Ottawa, to continue their efforts to pass a regular parking fee at Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks, so park officials have the means to take care of the park for us to continue to enjoy and share.

One practical solution to Rezin’s previous exemption for La Salle County residents is to adopt this plan statewide. That way no one is favored, and visitors can buy their annual tag for the IDNR and use it at other state attractions. This can be done and still target the new revenue based on splitting the pot through percentages based on park attendances.

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