Opinion | Voice of The Southern: Rauner still short on answers

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Gov. Bruce Rauner made a cameo appearance Wednesday in Southern Illinois, appearing at a hastily-called, bizarre press availability at Sahara Woods State Fish and Wildlife Area near Carrier Mills.

Rauner appeared with Wayne Rosenthal, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, to announce the construction of an all-terrain vehicle track at the park. The proposed 26-mile track is something that no one has been clamoring for.

Assembled media members fired questions at Rauner after the announcement. His response, or lack thereof, was reminiscent of an absentee father bringing elaborately wrapped gifts to his child’s birthday party, but having absolutely no idea what was inside the packages.

It wouldn’t have taken much thought to anticipate the first two questions — how many jobs will be created by this project and when will ground be broken. Yet, Rauner didn’t have these most basic answers.

Instead, he looked to Rosenthal for assistance. Come on. That’s like punting on first down.

Unfortunately, Rosenthal was unable to provide much more information.

The number of jobs will be determined when construction plans are finalized. And, no timetable for construction was announced, although Rauner did say he hopes it will open in the first half of 2019.

Yet, the governor assured us that the track would be an economic engine for the area.

Pardon us if we’re skeptical.

There are two similar commercial operations nearby — Little Egypt Off Road, located in Williamson County, and Williams Hill Pass, which is southeast of Harrisburg. While both contribute to the financial health of the region, calling the two entities economic engines would seem to be a stretch.

In light of the dearth of details, the governor seems to be overplaying his hand a bit.

And, there are concerns about the IDNR getting into the ATV trail business. The agency’s mission statement is “to manage, conserve and protect Illinois’ natural, recreational and cultural resources, further the public’s understanding and appreciation of those resources, and promote the education, science and public safety of Illinois’ natural resources for present and future generations.”

Building trails for motorized vehicles doesn’t seem to fit, especially not in a park designed to provide habitat for birds and critters.

Sahara Woods is a 4,100-acre tract that is a reclaimed coal mine. There is a variety of wildlife habitat — woods, lakes and lots of grassland. Amazingly, grassland habitat is in short supply in Illinois. Most flatlands are in agricultural production.

Environmentalists have already expressed concerns about the degradation and noise pollution that would be created by the trails.

A spokesperson for ABATE Illinois, a nonprofit motorcycle rights organization dismissed the environmental concerns, saying the park is big enough for off-road vehicles, hikers, hunters and birders.

On the other hand, with 26 miles of trail on just 4,100 acres, it’s difficult to imagine most of the park won’t be affected in some way.

Finally, there is the financial consideration.

The bulk of the project, $1.3 million, will be funded by grants from the Federal Highway Administration Recreational Trails Program. However, the IDNR is also committing $300,000.

That’s a consideration commitment from an agency that is woefully understaffed. Many Southern Illinois state parks or fish and wildlife areas lack site superintendents. Some parks have no full-time employees. Most Conservation Police Officers cover several counties. Numerous fisheries and wildlife biologists have retired in the past decade and have not been replaced.

And, let’s not forget the IDNR had a state park, South Shore State Park at Carlyle Lake, repossessed last year because the agency lacked funds for basic maintenance.

It makes more sense to repair roads and trails, replace biologists and staff state parks than to build an off-road amusement park.

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