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Shutdown crimps Ill. region's prized recreation

Published: Friday, Oct. 4, 2013 6:45 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS – For months, Steve O'Neal had set his sights on trolling southern Illinois' Rend Lake for crappies, having never fished that water in any of the angling outings he enjoys once a year with his buddies.

But the federal government's partial shutdown ruined all of that, forcing the closure of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-managed campsite the Kentucky man had reserved for four days.

O'Neal isn't happy about it. Neither are Illinois bow hunters, whose deer season began the same day as the shutdown and who now are officially shut out of tens of thousands of acres of federal lands they annually prowled in search of a prized buck.

All of it is a setback to southern Illinois, an economically challenged region with miles upon miles of scenic splendor that lends itself to recreation and helps feed the local economy.

The fallout may become more pronounced the longer the U.S. government's first shutdown in 17 years drags on. But without question, the ripple effect already is being felt.

"Recreation in Illinois is and always has been very big business," said Chris McCloud, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "People need to understand what kind of impact these things have in Illinois. It's a multibillion-dollar industry."

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey bears some of that out. The agency found that money spent on recreation in Illinois in 2011 included $972 million for fishing activities, $1.2 billion for hunting and $1.9 billion for watching birds and other wildlife. Such payouts run the gamut, from equipment to gas, hotels and meals and anything else that went into the trip.

In addition to land around the sprawling Rend Lake, other Corps-managed federal lands in Illinois include property around Lake Shelbyville, Carlyle Lake and Kaskaskia River. Other federally managed lands include the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge.

O'Neal's case reflects how the local economy loses when those activities are disrupted.

The 43-year-old electrical engineer from Clinton, Ky., had planned to join four friends from near Peoria, his Kentucky brother and a Tennessee pal in fishing Rend Lake, an Army Corps-created reservoir that's among southern Illinois' recreational gems.

"This was gonna be our first trip there, and we were pretty excited," O'Neal said. "The fishing was looking pretty good."

Having usually staged the yearly fishing gathering around Lake Pepin near the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, O'Neal reserved a spot at Rend Lake's South Sandusky campsite. The cost was nearly $100 for a planned four-day stay in his brother's camping trailer.

O'Neal figures the group would have spent $1,000 – perhaps more – on groceries, beer, bait, boat fuel, fishing licenses and a day of guide services.

The adventure, which would have started Wednesday, was foiled the previous day by the federal shutdown.

"It's just not going to happen this year," O'Neal shrugged, having always prized such trips as his yearly outlet from his job. "I wouldn't say the [spoiled vacation] has anything to do with Illinois; it just confirms my lack of faith in our current leadership at the federal level. I see so much goofy crap from those guys."

Clint Taylor, a fishing guide from Mount Vernon who had been set to host O'Neal's group, said he worries the region's economic toll could mount if people lose jobs or are furloughed and cut back on vacations.

"When I first heard about the shutdown, I didn't think it'd really affect me, a little fishing guide on Rend Lake," he said. "But obviously, there's a trickle-down effect."

How much of that involves the state's fledgling bow-hunting season remains to be seen.

Since the shutdown, the Army Corps has barricaded entry points to more than 56,000 acres of federal land in southern Illinois, much of it relished by deer hunters. But that turf isn't fenced off, meaning hunters intent on using the acreage still can find ways to get onto it, said Mike Petersen, a spokesman for the agency's St. Louis district.

Petersen said any use of the closed Corps land by hunters comes at their own risk.

"We literally don't have the staff to enforce the closures," he said.

State-managed campsites, boat ramps and other properties are not affected by the federal shutdown, so sportsmen and vacationers still will have unabated access.

At his bait shop and lodge on Rend Lake's northeast corner, Rick Barth hasn't seen any dramatic shutdown-related fallout on his business – yet. But the prospect of drawn-out restrictions to 19,000-acre Rend Lake – the place Barth calls "one of the primary reasons people come to southern Illinois" – is stoking concerns.

"It's a one-stop shop for anyone who enjoys being on the water, and the shutdown is gonna take its toll," said Barth, owner of Gun Creek Fin, Fur and Feathers Sportsmen's Club near Whittington.

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