A one-of-a-kind state park in downstate Illinois could be in danger of closing its gates if its state funding is cut. Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget, unveiled last week, eliminates a big chunk of money heavily relied upon by the Wildlife Prairie State Park, located just outside Peoria.
“The park will close if sufficient community interest and support does not emerge within the next six months,” said William Rutherford, son of the park’s original founders and president of the family’s Forest Park Foundation, the park’s main provider of funds. “Our finances are severely depleted.”
Although the park is operated by a private foundation, it also relies on funding from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for the Senate Republicans Caucus, said the governor proposes to eliminate $790,000 for the park from the 2011 budget’s general revenue funds, although it would still receive approximately $100,000 from other state funds.
“Without the funding, it’s a serious hit on our ability to operate,” said Jeff Rosecrans, executive director of Wildlife Prairie, which attracts 150,000 visitors annually. “It would be a real challenge to stay open.”
Rosecrans said the park costs about $1 million to $1.5 million each year to run. Closing it would be a decision made by him and the board, but “it’s too early in the (budget) process,” he said.
Wildlife Prairie, located about 130 miles southwest of Chicago, is a 2,000-acre zoological park home to more than 150 animals and 50 different species native to Illinois, including wolves, black bears, bobcats, bison, waterfowl, elk, cougar and otters. The park, one of 46 state parks in Illinois, opened in 1978 as the dream of William Rutherford Sr. and his wife, Hazel, who operated it until 2000, when an aging Rutherford deeded it to the state before his death six years later.
His son said the money for the park came from Hazel’s father, W.H. Sommer, who made his fortune owning Keystone Steel in Peoria in the early 20th century. Besides animals, Wildlife Prairie has a fishing hole, walking paths, cabins/cottages, and it even offered skiing in its early years.
Rosecrans said in recent years, state funding has been sketchy. In 2008, the park was given $828,000; in 2009, the park was completely removed from the budget; in 2010, the park was partially funded with $790,000 still owed by the state; and this year, 2011, “We don’t have a clue where we stand,” he said.
The state’s $13 billion deficit is the worst ever seen by longtime political experts, such as Charlie Wheeler, director of the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Wheeler said although he has never seen Illinois in a worse financial crunch, there might be another way for the state to provide park funding.
“My guess is that there is some alternative way to provide money to them,” said Wheeler, who has visited Wildlife Prairie with his family. “I doubt they’ll close it. But I’m not sure where that money might be.”
The state’s Department of Natural Resources has faced both program and employee cuts in recent years. Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, said at the end of June 2001, the DNR had 1,982 staff members, but as of October, there were 1,422 employees, a loss of 560 positions or 28 percent in the last eight years.
The Illinois Environmental Council is “very much concerned,” about program losses at the DNR, said Charles Jackson, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.
“We’re on pins and needles,” said Jackson. “We want the government to be able to maintain these important programs for the future of the environment.”
The only state not seeing any cuts environmental-wise is North Dakota, said Steve Brown, executive director of Environmental Council of the States, which unites heads of state environmental agencies. Brown said Georgia saw a 43 percent loss in funding for environmental programs, Pennsylvania 33 percent, and New York and California are in “very bad shape,” he said.
Meanwhile, back in Illinois, Dr. Rutherford is hoping to keep his parent’s legacy, “a fabulous place,” alive. He said he hopes a new park fundraising and management initiative with local politicians will help raise some badly-needed money.
“If that isn’t successful, we’re going to have to close the place down,” Rutherford said.