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State acquires 547 acres of park land for $2.8M

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois has purchased 547 additional acres of natural landscape for preservation, including some of the nation’s richest deer-hunting territory in the western part of the state and a colossal parcel of wildlife refuge northwest of Chicago, Gov. Pat Quinn announced Wednesday.

The Quinn administration used $2.8 million in capital construction program money to add plots in four Illinois counties to the state’s 500,000-acre inventory of public lands.

The largest chunk is 410 acres, costing $1.8 million, in Pike County in western Illinois, which the Democratic governor called the “national capital for deer hunting,” but which has almost no publicly accessible hunting grounds.

There’s also new forest land in Ogle County, a Vermilion County recreation area expansion and 72 acres to debut the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge in McHenry County, part of 11,000 acres of tallgrass prairies and oak-tree plains dubbed suitable for preservation last year by the federal government.

“We want to make sure we have places in our state of open space and opportunity for people to enjoy hiking and hunting and fishing and just watching,” Quinn said at a Springfield news conference. “It’s very important to understand, not only is this good for the soul, but it’s good for our economy.”

The purchase price comes from Quinn’s $31 billion Illinois Jobs Now construction program of 2009 – money set aside for long-term infrastructure improvements but unavailable for state government operating expenses such as catching up on $9 billion in overdue bills.

The newly acquired park land, once open, will have operating expenses, but Marc Miller, director of the Department of Natural Resources, said a $2 increase in license plate fees that Quinn signed into law in December will produce as much as $25 million a year for park upkeep and repair when receipts start arriving in Springfield later this spring.

And nature preserves by definition don’t call for much concrete, Miller noted.

“We need some parking lots and some facilities, but other than that, we don’t see a huge outlay to make many of these go,” Miller said.

And the 500,000 acres that Natural Resources officials maintain among 324 parks, wildlife refuges, conservation areas and other natural habitats bring in $1 billion a year from tourism, Miller said.

Additionally, federal conservation authorities estimate that $3.9 billion is spent annually in Illinois on fishing, hunting and “wildlife watching,” he said.

Aside from the Pike County land southwest of Pittsfield and about 75 miles west of Springfield, the purchases include:

• $511,000 for 72 acres in the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, McHenry County: The first acquisition of 11,000 acres designated last year as wildlife refuge by the federal government, including wetlands, prairie and forest providing shelter for endangered and threatened species.

• $450,000 for 64 acres to expand the Lowden-Miller State Forest, Ogle County: The land formerly owned by Christmas tree farmers Warren Miller and his late wife Nancy will provide access to the eastern part of the forest which is also named for former Gov. Frank Lowden, who was responsible for planting 500,000 trees.

• $25,000 for just under an acre adjacent to the Kickapoo State Recreation Area in Vermilion County.

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