Campers arriving at state sites last Friday were treated to an unwelcome surprise. Unbeknownst to many, camping fees had increased without much fanfare. Sites with electrical service cost $5 more. And there's a new $10 fee for premium weekends. If you missed that news you were not alone.
Campers arriving at state sites last Friday were treated to an unwelcome surprise.
Unbeknownst to many, camping fees had increased without much fanfare. Sites with electrical service cost $5 more. And there's a new $10 fee for premium weekends. If you missed that news you were not alone.
Site staff at the Department of Natural Resources' 74 campgrounds were not officially informed of the increases until late last week, either.
Some of that was due to bad timing. On May 20 a legislative committee voted 5-3 to approve Gov. Blagojevich's proposal for a camping fee hike. Three days later people started arriving at state sites for one of the season's biggest camping weekends.
Some blame also falls on DNR. The agency's lone public notice of the change was on its Web site (www.dnr.state.il.us).
Normally a decision of this magnitude would prompt a press release. Not in this case. Hmm, seems almost like someone decided to squelch the news.
"I would not assign motive to what can otherwise be explained by gross incompetence," said Rep. David Leitch, R-Peoria, uttering what to this point is quote of the year regarding the DNR.
Leitch and Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Chenoa voted against the camping fee increases.
Naturally, word eventually got out. Once it did, many unhappy campers griped after learning the cost for sites offering electrical service had doubled to $10. They were even less happy to learn DNR is now charging a $10 "premium fee" for Memorial Day, the Fourth of July weekend (July 2-4) and for Labor Day (Aug. 30-31 and Sept. 1).
Leitch said he received calls from several angry constituents. He empathized.
"The most objectionable thing to me is that, as in the case of Wildlife Prairie State Park, they are taking away general fund appropriations to pay with a far less certain funding source. And that's with these exorbitant fees," Leitch said. "I don't think they should be funding general operations with exorbitant fee increases. They put Wildlife Prairie park and others at risk by doing so."
Fortunately, campers with reservations for last weekend and those who checked in last Thursday did not have to pay the premium fee. Not so in the future. Letters are being sent to campers with reservations to inform them of the changes.
"They will have an option to cancel their reservation if they choose and to get their money back," said Chris McCloud, DNR spokesperson.
Some may seriously consider that option. For campers visiting one of the state's handful of Class AA sites, a prime holiday weekend will now cost $35 per site. That's nearly double the cost prior to this change.
"We realize it's unpopular but necessary for IDNR to recuperate some of the $900,000 it loses annually to provide electricity and water for the campgrounds," said Paris Ervin, the other DNR spokesperson. "Without the increase we simply cannot provide the same services to our campers that we have in the past due to rising utility costs."
That's no doubt true. Given relentless budget slashing under Blagojevich, DNR needs to be as creative as possible in finding funding. The plan is for new fees to bring camping income (previously $1.2 million) up to or above camping expenses ($2.1 million).
So why not explain that to campers before making a change hours before they show up?
And how often can Illinois increase user fees without impacting attendance? This is the second camping increase under King Blago's reign. The last increase was a $4 bump from $11 to $15 and to $20 at premium sites.
McCloud said Illinois camping prices are near or below most neighbors -- particularly when you consider that Illinois is one of eight states that does not charge to get into its parks.
Then again, sources say state park entry fees were discussed but tabled this year. Barring a sudden change of economic fortunes, I'm betting that idea will be revisited during this governor's tenure.
Here's hoping if any change comes, DNR does a better job promoting its actions.
SNAKEDEN CHANGE: In an instance of good judgment by the DNR, anglers will gain an extra 10 days of fishing at Snakeden Hollow if a proposed rule change is approved.
Instead of halting fishing on Oct. 1, the new plan is to end fishing two weeks prior to the start of duck season. This year that means the last day for fishing would be Oct. 10 (so long as the Central Zone duck season starts Oct. 25, as planned).
That will be good news for muskie anglers at Snakeden, who have for years complained about missing some of the year's best fishing.
But there's potentially bad news for goose hunters. Spring is coming late to Hudson Bay, breeding grounds for the flock of migratory Canada geese that frequents Illinois. As a result, gosling numbers are expected to be below average.
Et cetera: Pheasants Forever chapters in Illinois have spent more than $10.5 million on local wildlife habitat and education programs since the first chapter formed in 1985. . . . Woodchuck hunting and trapping season opens at sunrise Sunday. . . . Blind builders at Rice Lake will have until May 1 to remove duck blinds following waterfowl season if a DNR rule proposal is approved.
Jeff Lampe can be reached at (309) 686-3212 or firstname.lastname@example.org.