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Conservation police officer Troy Lazzell talks to anglers who legally-landed catfish along the Illinois River near Starved Rock. Lazzell is one of four recruits patrolling the parks zealously and who’ve thus cut the number of alcohol- and drug-related falls to nearly zero. Utica firefighters confirm one genuine accident at the park and applaud the reduction in alcohol-related stupidity.
It’s a familiar story at the state parks: A young man from Chicago drinks beer, climbs a cliff or hikes off-trail and falls. First-responders then risk their lives getting him out. It happens every year.
Every year but this one, that is.
Utica fire chief Ben Brown said that except for one genuine accident at Starved Rock State Park there has been a noticeable decline in park accidents and in alcohol-fueled stupidity.
“We’ve had one accident at the parks this year,” Brown said, “and that was someone who slipped on a wet surface — it wasn’t a case of someone going off-trail.”
Brown has Conservation police to thank for the welcome lull in ill-advised behavior.
Conservation police added four new recruits who’ve patrolled the parks with rookie zeal.
Catching visitors with open containers and marijuana cigarettes has effectively curbed the temptation to hike off-trail or to scale cliff faces while under the influence, resulting in fewer accidents.
“These guys I’ve got now are aggressive and they’re hitting the trails hard,” said Conservation police Sgt. Robert “Hank” Frazier. “I’ve got some new blood and they just do a phenomenal job.”
The green recruits may even set a record. As of mid-June, the agency had filed 403 conservation violations with La Salle County. A decade ago, there were 413 tickets filed for the entire year. Conservation police are on pace to write nearly 900 tickets and shatter the record 808 set in 2001.
Frazier credits his department’s youth movement for the stepped-up enforcement and resulting decline in accidents, but also notes that Mother Nature has had a hand in it. This year’s crippling winter led to a bad case of spring fever and a worse case of bad judgment, spurring plenty of offenses for the police to catch.
Frazier and his team are not only finding the usual array of game and trail violations but also park visitors carrying joints and open containers.
“The winter was very bad,” he said, “and what I think happened was people were so cooped up that when they came out for spring, they were ready to party.
“And I do think the parks have been busy.”
That’s an understatement.
Starved Rock set monthly attendance records in both April and May, as winter-weary Illinoisans swarmed the parks and forcing a rare closure on Memorial Day weekend, when the parking lot hit capacity. April drew more than 220,000 visitors, breaking that month’s record by 26 percent, and May’s 265,000 visitors snapped a record set in 1982.
With numbers that large, Conservation police could be assured of finding plenty of school’s-out mischief and of writing tickets in above-average quantities.
Whether all those tickets turn into surplus cash for La Salle County remains to be seen. As of June 16, La Salle County was on pace to about match the $35,000 levied against violators last year, according to data supplied by the circuit clerk’s office.
However, summer has only just arrived and the data suggest a link between hot weather and illegal activity at the parks. Conservation police wrote $6,300 in May 2014 alone — a 70-percent increase over May 2013 — and authorities could, with a busy summer, eclipse last year’s total fines.