DANVILLE – Understaffing at state parks is concerning parks officials, who say park visitation is greater than usual and is a challenge for conservation.
Ryan Prehn, chief of parks and recreation at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, says like most of the state and country, the department could use more employees.
Across the state, Prehn says visitation to state parks is greater now than 2019 and 2018, but not as high as during 2020, when lockdown measures and closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic were more prevalent. This led to more people seeking outdoor activities, like those in state parks.
“I would attribute that to the fact that people that maybe weren’t our typical users last year got introduced to our state parks, recreation areas, fish, and wildlife areas, and really enjoyed those experiences,” Prehn says.
At Kickapoo State Recreation Area in Vermillion County, Site Superintendent Tim Edison says he anticipates that visitation numbers will be very similar to last summer in 2020, the most they’ve seen.
Kickapoo had 1.3 million visitors in 2020, according to Edison, which he says was about a 10% increase from the year prior. So far this July, there have been about 160,000 visitors and June had similar numbers.
Edison says it’s hard to say exactly why people are coming to parks more.
“To be truthful, we just hope because it looks nice and we’re catering to everyone’s needs,” he says.
Prehn says the busiest parks in the state are Starved Rock State Park in LaSalle County, its surrounding parks such as Matthiessen State Park, Pere Marquette State Park in Jersey County, Kickapoo State Recreation Area and Illinois Beach State Park in Lake County.
Illinois Newsroom reached out to park staff at Starved Rock State Park for a comment and did not receive a response.
An increase in summer visitors this summer to Illinois state parks follows a country-wide trend as national parks struggle to maintain crowds and littering.
A Senate subcommittee heard testimonies from officials at the National Park Service about the impacts of overcrowding on Wednesday.
Over Memorial Day weekend, Yellowstone National Park saw a 50% increase in vehicle entries compared to the same weekend in 2019.
Edison says the main goal of parks like Kickapoo is to serve people and their needs.
“The primary goal of it is people. And, you know, we want people to be there. We want to provide opportunities,” he says.
When it comes to balancing this need with conservation and preservation of natural areas, Edison says his staff at Kickapoo tries to do their best. But with only four permanent staff and the rest being catch-all volunteers, he says they could “always use more people.”
“I don’t think we ever sit around and say, boy, we don’t have anything to do,” Edison says.
The staff he does have are passionate about keeping the park – which he says is like a small town – looking nice, he says.
“Our goal is to make it enjoyable, nice for everyone,” Edison says. “And my staff really takes that to heart and puts in a lot of effort trying to do that.”
To address some of the staff shortage in the Department of Natural Resources, Prehn says they’re implementing creative management strategies.
Strategies include hiring past seasonal workers on 60-day contracts for the summer, identifying the greatest areas of need and sending staff there and cutting back on mowing areas of sites, he says.
As for what visitors can do, Edison and Prehn say people should keep in mind that the parks are for everyone, which means following park rules.
Littering and staying off unmarked trails are the primary concerns for Prehn.
Prehn also says obeying public health directives is important, especially because the pandemic is such a fluid situation. And there’s the golden rule of only taking out what is brought into the parks – nothing inside should be removed.
“They should keep in mind that many of the other people that are there are looking for a similar experience to what they’re having,” Prehn says. “So, we ask that everybody be courteous and respectful of others.”
Vivian La is a student journalist for Illinois Newsroom. Follow her on Twitter @vivian_la_.