"People are pushing their limits" at state parks

All state parks, fish and wildlife areas, recreational areas closed

State parks are closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19, but some people are "pushing their limits" and being ticketed or getting their vehicles towed.

“People are pushing their limits and not listening to the governor’s order,” said Illinois Department of Natural Resources Conservation Police Sgt. Phillip Wire, who works in District 6, which covers La Salle, Bureau, Putnam, DeKalb, Winnebago and Boone counties. 

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources in accordance with Illinois’ stay-at-home order, has closed all state parks, fish and wildlife areas, recreational areas and historic sites.

“We’ve had lots of people who are out – not just Starved Rock and Matthiessen [state parks], but all areas of state parks that are closed,” Wire said. 

Conservation officers often have found people at Blackball Mines Nature Preserve in North Utica as well as "all over the place" along the Illinois and Michigan and Hennepin canals which are closed, Wire said.

Although many people maintain social distancing, not everyone will, Wire said. 

In years past on warm weekends, people are shoulder-to-shoulder all the way to Wildcat Canyon at Starved Rock, Wire said. By the end of 2019, Starved Rock State Park saw more than 2.4 million visitors that year, making 2019 the fourth-busiest year on record.

Last week, conservation officers towed two cars illegally parked on Route 71 east of the campground road along the south edge of Starved Rock State Park, Wire said. 

Recently, a family came to Starved Rock and found it was closed, and then the family found a closed nature preserve and still went past the signs marked "closed," Wire said. 

“The ones I deal with have definitely known it was closed,” Wire said about the parks during the stay-at-home order.  

Those who choose to disobey the order face a $195 ticket and can have their vehicle towed. 

As the weather starts to warm up, John Laskowski, assistant superintendent of the Moraine Hills and McHenry Dam state parks in McHenry, is expecting more people to begin visiting the parks. For the first few days of the order, there were quite a few people pulling up to the parks, not realizing they were closed when the order just started, he said.

But since then, the number of people showing up has been fairly nonexistent, he said. 

State parks also are being vandalized, and some signs have been torn down, Wire said about Winnebago County. Keeping “Closed” signs at entrances for Moraine Hills State Park near McHenry has been a problem, too.

“They have a lot of markings,” said conservation police Sgt. Eric Schreiber. “Unfortunately, a lot of the public tend to tear down the COVID-19 signs about as fast as we put them up there. It’s well-marked, most of them know. It’s difficult. People want to get out and walk. Unfortunately, there’s not other places here to access besides the county forest preserves.”

Those areas, which fall under the McHenry County Conservation District, have open trails. Jacob Shurpit, acting site manager for Moraine Hills State Park and Volo Bog State Natural Area, was the only staff member on-site during the early part of the parks being closed.

“I put notices in all public entryways,” Shurpit said. “However, there was and has been a lot of signs and notices stolen and vandalized. I made every attempt to replace the signs as I found them missing. This past week, I have encountered less tampering with these signs. I believe this is due to the general public taking the situation more seriously.”

Recently, Shurpit’s maintenance staff members have returned, and they are better able to keep up with issues. Schreiber said residents often park in subdivisions and walk into the state park areas to hike or fish.

“We’re trying to get out there and let them know that parks are technically still closed,” Schreiber said. “The forest preserves still have their trails open. We basically run people out. We’re not writing tickets unless we get repeat offenders. We’re trying to educate the public. Hopefully they will look at that at some point and make some recommendations and get the trails opened up.”

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, state Sen. Chuck Weaver, R-Peoria, whose district includes parts of the Hennepin Canal State Parkway in Bureau County, asked Gov. JB Pritzker, when it is prudent, to allow citizens to use the expansive outdoor trail systems offered by Illinois state parks, “especially now that the governor has announced his intention to keep nonessential businesses and schools closed for another month.”

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