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home : insight & opinion : guest columns
February 16, 2020

1/27/2020 2:04:00 PM
Does Illinois need a national park?
Daily News

There are 61 national parks. California has nine. Illinois has none.

In the past couple of years, the Arch in St. Louis and the Dunes in northwestern Indiana have both been designated as national parks. Illinois had better rattle its tin cup out in D.C., as it appears to be "let's get a park" season.

Do you have any nominees? I do.

Illinois has a 280,000-acre national forest across its southern tip. There are also National Park Service homes and monuments in Illinois, obviously for Abraham Lincoln, and for other sites of historical significance. But no park, with the federal money and visibility to attract tourists that accompany a national park.

I am confident politics played a part in winning the unusual parks sited recently along the Mississippi and Lake Michigan in our neighboring states. Nothing wrong with that. I define politics for my students, roughly, as who gets what. No squeaky wheel, no park.

Illinois state government doesn't have two nickels to rub together for discretionary projects like beefing up our parks. On the other hand, the federal government prints its own money and obviously doesn't care about going into the red for new projects.

Starved Rock State Park along the Illinois River annually draws 2.5 million visitors, more than many national parks. Starved Rock is bursting at the seams, and trails have been closed because of maintenance issues and inadequate funding.

The Illinois Valley was once the home to the largest concentration of American Indians. Legend has it a number of Illinois indians were starved atop the colossal rock above the river. One of their number had killed Ottawa chieftain Pontiac, and his followers exacted revenge. The park is a great place for hiking, relaxing, staying over, but not if the trails are closed.

I have other candidates: The Garden of the Gods is a wilderness area within the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois, referred to above. The rock outcroppings and views are spectacular. The Trail of Tears forced march of the cruelly treated Cherokee also passes nearby.

Northwestern Illinois is the southern tip of the Driftless Region, land bypassed by the last glaciers, which crushed everything in their receding path. This created the rich, flat farmlands where I reside. My old legislative district reached up to Mount Carroll and Savanna, from whence the land rolls and pitches northward through Galena along Old Man River into Wisconsin and Minnesota. Stunning.

There are many other gems hidden in plain sight in Illinois. In 1830, plans were initiated to build a canal from the Illinois River to the Mississippi at the Quad Cities. By the time this 70-mile canal was finished in 1905 or so, it was obsolete, surpassed by the Iron Horse. Several decades ago, the canal became a property of the state Department of Natural Resources. Now there is an unbroken path for walkers for 70 miles, with 30 miles of a feeder canal from Sterling-Rock Falls. The canal is filled with water (unusual for abandoned canals, I'm told), which offers excellent fishing.

There are some delightful canal segments that I walk, near Wyanet and Tiskilwa in Bureau County. Last winter, I walked right under 12 bald eagles that were roosting, if that's what you call it, in two stately trees along the canal. Grudgingly, they lifted off, six-foot wingspans flapping majestically, circling 'round me before settling in trees down the canal. Breathtaking.

A long pencil-thin park like the canal probably wouldn't make the cut for a national park, yet the Gateway Arch did; impressive as it is, I don't think of the Arch as a park.

I wax on about the Hennepin Canal to note for readers that Illinois has many largely undiscovered sites of great natural beauty. I also do so because I need to fill some space here in my column, as I have said my piece in fewer words than typical, which I'm sure you appreciate.

For many years, Jim Nowlan was a senior fellow and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He has worked for three unindicted governors and published a weekly newspaper in central Illinois.

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