CHAMPAIGN -- Whether it's overseeing trail maintenance, knowing when to pump water from a lake or helping mow the lawns, the on-site superintendents of Illinois' state parks play an important role in managing the state's natural heritage, from Starved Rock along the Illinois River to tiny natural sites in every corner of the state.
But since late last year, almost a quarter of the park superintendents have retired, taking with them in many cases 30 or more years of experience that will be hard to replace in an agency hit hard by years of budget cuts and unsure whether it can replace them.
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At least 23 park superintendents and another half-dozen assistant superintendents have left the state Department of Natural Resources since late 2011. Beyond eight openings the DNR has already filled or is trying to fill now, department officials say they don't know when they would have the money to find substitutes.
The exits appear to be driven in most cases by concerns about potential changes in the state's underfunded pension system. DNR says the retirements and earlier cuts and staff shifts have left it with 75 superintendents at its 126 parks, recreation areas and other outdoor destinations.
The loss of institutional knowledge is one more cost of the state's deep financial crisis, even in parks where replacements have been hired. Some remaining superintendents now are being asked to oversee two separate parks, and entire parks are staffed with no more than one or two people or have no staffing aside from a single unpaid volunteer, even on busy weekends.
"They keep cutting budget, cutting budget. You keep doing less with less," said Richard Goble, who retired this year from Lincoln Trails State Park in Marshall in southeast Illinois over pension concerns. He's been a park superintendent for about 25 years. "It just gets to a point where you just wonder where it's going to go."
Department officials say they're doing the best they can with what they have.
"Given our funding challenges, this is the best and most responsible way to use the limited staff we have," DNR spokesman Chris McCloud said. "It is a juggling game. That's where the DNR is at right now, trying to reprioritize."
The DNR had 1,800 employees and a budget of about $100 million in 2002. Now that's down to about 1,200 people and $45 million. Cuts have come every year as lawmakers and a string of governors -- from George Ryan to Pat Quinn -- signed off on state budgets that gave the department less and less as state revenue dwindled.
The pension crisis has created another headache. Illinois is short about $85 billion on its pension obligations for state employees, and as lawmakers and Quinn have talked about potentially cutting what the state offers, many longtime state employees have opted to retire.
At DNR, 118 employees had either retired or filed paperwork indicating they would do so between late 2011 and mid-summer, according to numbers provided to The Associated Press by the state Comptroller's office. Those numbers included the 23 superintendents and six assistants.
Some retirements were at high-profile parks, like Starved Rock, a collection of bluffs, waterfalls and water-sculpted sandstone canyons near Utica that is visited by more than 2 million people a year. Others were at lesser-known destinations such as Anderson Lake State Fish & Wildlife Area, a shallow lake along the Illinois River that's popular with fishermen and duck hunters.
Starved Rock, the state's busiest park, is among the sites where a new superintendent has been hired, the DNR says, though it lost its assistant superintendent too. The department hasn't decided whether to fill any of the vacant assistant's positions, McCloud said.
Many of the veteran superintendents' lives are deeply intertwined with the parks. Goble's father, for instance, was a state-park ranger. Many superintendents live at houses at the parks.
Before he retired as superintendent at Anderson Lake earlier this year, Ed Oest spent 42 years working there, less than a mile from where he grew up. Maintaining the lake for fishing and waterfowl, he said, requires a good deal of knowledge about when to pump water in and out, depending on river flooding and other conditions like this year's drought. That knowledge was earned through years of work, he said.
"You can think you have everything mastered along the Illinois River," but the river tends to surprise those who do, he said. Oest had planned to retire late this year but moved up his plans several months over the pension concerns.
With only one other staff member at the 2,200-acre park, Oest helped with more mundane but necessary tasks -- mowing and maintaining the campground, to name two.
His departure leaves only the single staff member, which he says means that two days a week no one is working at the park aside from a volunteer campground host who checks in campers.
At Lincoln Trails, where Goble wrapped up a long DNR career, management duties will now be combined with those at Walnut Point State Park, a facility about 40 miles to the north that also lost its superintendent to retirement this year. The DNR expects to start looking for a new superintendent to oversee the two parks soon, McCloud said.
The current superintendent at Fox Ridge State Park in eastern Illinois is already stretched thin but now is taking on work at other sites, said Mark Esarey, president of the volunteer Fox Ridge Foundation. The group raises money and volunteers time to help at the park.
"He's got a lot of work to do at our park that he just doesn't get to because he doesn't have manpower or time," Esarey said, noting that part of the park's network of trails, one of its primary attractions, is shut down because it can't be maintained.
A bill that could have provided some relief for DNR's troubles stalled earlier this year in the General Assembly. The sponsor, Rep. Frank Mautino, says he will try again to secure support this fall for it.
The bill would raise about $22 million for DNR operations and maintenance through a $2 fee on state license plates. The Democrat, whose north-central Illinois district includes Starved Rock and several other parks, believes years of cuts have left the department and its parks permanently damaged, or close to it.
"You soon hit a point of no return," he said.
The retirees say the people still working at the parks have been holding them together through hard work and a willingness to do whatever work needs to be done, no matter their titles.
"Everybody's sort of busting their butts to make parks work," Oest said.