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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

The concept of monetizing state parks seems to be gaining traction.

It’s an idea that needs to be modified substantially, or better still, just go away.

Locally, the best, or in my opinion, worst example is the off-road vehicle course being built at Sahara Woods State Fish and Wildlife Area in Saline County. The 4,100-acre tract is a former strip mine.

The park is about half woods, half grassland. There are a couple sizeable fishing lakes. The park is used primarily for hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing — activities that require a quiet atmosphere.

But, coming soon — six miles of off-road vehicle trails. That’s just what every turkey and deer hunter or bird watcher wants to hear.

The politicians tell us that the off-road vehicle trails will bring economic development. Considering there are similar private operations in nearby Crab Orchard and Herod and neither town has seen significant development, with or without the trails, indicates we’re being sold a bill of goods.

Of all the places to build ATV trails, Sahara Woods is curious choice. As noted before, there are two private tracks in the vicinity. And, grassland habitat is a precious commodity in Illinois.

It seems an agency called The Department of Natural Resources might have opted to create areas of suitable habitat for northern bobwhites and other grassland critters. Modern farming practices have virtually eliminated quail habitat in the state.

A study conducted by the IDNR in 2006 bears out those facts. The quail population dropped nearly 60 percent between 1960-80, and the that trend continues. Fencerow-to-fencerow farming, the elimination of hedgerows and the use of herbicides and fertilizers are largely to blame.

Places like Sahara Woods seem to be an opportunity to shore up grassland populations, but the state has opted for off-road vehicle trails.

It is important, I would argue vital, the IDNR and the State of Illinois, doesn’t fall victim to the notion of monetizing our wild places — and Sahara Woods is about as wild as they come.

If the off-road vehicle tracks are desperately needed, why not a place like the World Shooting and Recreational Complex, and area that is already commercially developed? There are already thousands of motorized vehicles running around the park during shooting events.

A track there wouldn’t be nearly as disruptive to hunters, anglers or those who want nothing more than a quiet day in the woods. It is the quiet places, the natural places, that need our protection more than ever.

At a recent event an IDNR staff member expressed concern that a current agency project is being delayed because of an endangered plant or animal. That is not the attitude I want to see the IDNR project.

If a department of natural resources does not protect endangered plants and animals, who will? Protecting our natural world should be one of IDNR’s top priorities.

In order to fully utilize state parks, there are basic infrastructure requirements. There is a need to build roads, campgrounds and provide basic amenities. Conversely, the goal should be to allow our parks to be as natural as possible.

Our parks should be places where we can escape the daily grind of modern life. The notion of monetizing the parks — it’s not what Illinois needs.

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LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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