Starved for Funding Part 2: Starved Rock park guests, rescuers at risk

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LASALLE COUNTY, Ill. —  A surge in visitors, but a lack of funding: Illinois’ number one attraction Starved Rock State Park is facing a number of problems.

These include a drop in staff members and a spike in emergency calls, and it is putting first responders in dangerous situations.

Clipped into a network of orange ropes, peeking through the treetops, and inside Illinois Canyon, rescuers rappel over sandstone cliffs from top to ground in a matter of seconds. This time it is only practice for a potential disaster.

With agencies from across the state, converging to train in the wilderness of Starved Rock. Here, they test faux scenarios, but all too often, local rescuers face the real deal.

Utica Fire Chief Ben Brown said this is happening more and more often.

“Higher volume of people coming in means more calls for us,” Brown explained.

Utica firefighters, all volunteers, race to rescue lost hikers, hurt hikers, or people who have put themselves in danger by wandering off the trails. An already prevalent problem, but now compounded by the park’s financial problems.

Starved Rock Foundation president Pam Grivetti says they are reducing the number of park staff and forcing trail closures. This leaves areas of the park largely unmonitored.

“[…] If we do have an issue here, they can only respond to an emergency,” Grivetti said. “We don’t really have their presence on the trails.”

Grivetti says more hikers than ever are ignoring the signs to stay on paths. And climbing and swimming in a park, where neither is allowed, is fast-forwarding erosion and amplifying emergencies.

“You are literally destroying the rocks that you are climbing,” Grivetti said. “You are destroying the vegetation that is on it, and you are putting your life in jeopardy, as well as the people below you, and if you have to be rescued you’re also talking about the rescuers.”

Like Grivetti, Brown is hoping the park receives some kind of financial life raft before one of those precarious situations proves deadly.

“We don’t want to put ourselves in any kind of danger either, but we’re put in some pretty tight, precarious spots that we have to go into,” Brown said. “That’s a strain on not only the fire district, but on the park staff. It needs to be funded the proper way and treated the proper way for what it actually is for not only this town but the county and the country.”

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