Illinois Governor Closes 11 State Parks

Gebhard Woods is a little bit of paradise in Morris, just about an hour southwest of Chicago. At Gebhard Woods, you can fish in Nettle Creek, ride your bike along the old Illinois Michigan Canal, paddle your canoe over 15 miles of open water to Channahon State Park, or pitch a tent and sleep blissfully under the stars. In spring, you can walk the trails and listen to the songbirds. In summer, you can relax and enjoy the Dulcimer Festival. And in winter, you can cross-country ski.

Or rather, you used to be able to do all of these things. On November 30, the State of Illinois will lock the gates to Gebhard Woods until further notice, along with 11 other Illinois state parks and 13 historic sites. If you try to get in, you could be arrested for trespassing . . . on public lands you've been supporting with your tax dollars all these years.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich is closing the parks and historic sites to help balance the state budget. Never mind that some of the parks he is closing actually make money. Never mind that all of them bring in substantial tourist revenues that create and support jobs in nearby towns. Never mind that millions of visitors each year enjoy our Illinois parks.

Never mind that people all across America are getting ready to celebrate Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday on February 12th of next year. Anyone planning to visit the Lincoln Log Cabin on Goosenest Prairie near Charleston, the last home of Lincoln's parents, or the Vandalia Statehouse, where Lincoln served as a state legislator, will be locked out, too. Those potential visitors will have to find something else to do - along with the 450 employees whose jobs are being axed because of Blagojevich's budget cuts.

Of course, not everything is closing. The tollways will remain open, so tourists who would have vacationed in Illinois can zoom by on their way to more welcoming states. And the shopping malls and video game shops will still be open, providing pricey, indoor recreation options to families who can no longer enjoy the affordable beauty of our state parks.

It is our children who will ultimately pay the price for the governor's decision to put his own political agenda ahead of our state's great legacy of natural beauty. I guess the governor has never encountered Richard Louv's thought-provoking book, The Last Child in the Woods, which introduced the concept of "Nature Deficit Disorder." Louv started a national conversation about the growing disconnect between children and the natural world and how nature deprivation has impacted children's emotional and learning needs.

Despite the governor's many news conferences on the importance of education, he's apparently unaware of the connection between spending time exploring the outdoor world and finding success in the classroom. Perhaps he hasn't heard about educators like the Louisiana principal who made environmental education the centerpiece of his elementary school -- and saw test scores jump.

Thanks to proven results like these, the U.S. House of Representatives recently approved the No Child Left Inside Act of 2008 by a vote of 293 to 109, providing additional funding for environmental education in schools nationwide. It is disturbing that, while a bipartisan group of federal legislators has agreed to provide funds to send American children outdoors to learn, our governor is locking our children out of our state parks, perhaps for years to come.

The governor himself is unlikely to experience a sense of loss when these sites close, since he has yet to visit any of them. It will be the visitors who enjoy the parks and the employees who work to keep them in good condition who will be hurt by the closings. I guess the governor doesn't realize that there are some things you can't really put a price on.

Illinois has Land of Lincoln emblazoned on its license plates and is proud to call itself The Prairie State, even though we only have one one-hundredth of 1 percent of high-quality prairie left in the state. Maybe it's time we put our money where our slogans are.