Illinois state parks


As I noted in a post yesterday, today is the 5th anniversary of when then-Gov. Mitt Romney signed a universal healthcare bill into law for Massachusetts. But that’s not the only — or even the most important — anniversary of significance to be marked today.

Of course, the most significant is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. I began to commemorate the day this morning by dusting off my Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion II CD and playing it, beginning with the first track, “Civil War.” Then my wife and I hiked at Starved Rock State Park, where there weren’t many people today, giving us the opportunity to truly appreciate the solitude of nature and, at one point, reflect on how far we’ve come as a society since the Civil War — and even since the 100th anniversary 50 years ago.

You don’t need me to explain all that, but I do wish to take this time to mention a few Civil War-related books I’ve read or that are on my to-read list: Jay Winik’s “April 1865: The Month That Saved America” (about the final days of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath); James L. Swanson’s “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer” and “Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse”; David O. Stewart’s “Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy”; Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”; and George B. Kirsch’s “Baseball in Blue and Gray: The National Pastime During the Civil War.”

If anyone has suggestions to add to my reading list, I’d love to hear them. Also, if you have any Civil War sites you recommend I visit between northern Illinois and Atlanta, Ga., during a road trip planned for later this year, I’d love to hear those, too.

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Today is also the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight (by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin) and the 30th anniversary of the American space shuttle program’s first flight. NASA celebrated by not giving one of the retiring space shuttles to Chicago’s Adler Planetarium — but at least the planetarium will get the flight simulator used by astronauts during their space training.

The four space shuttles were assigned to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum near Washington, D.C.; the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex near Orlando, Fla.; the California Science Center in Los Angeles; and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York.

I’ll also be visiting the Kennedy Space Center during my aforementioned road trip planned for later this year. Suggested stops in the TOM (Tampa-Orlando-Miami) triangle are welcome, too. (Baseball games and Everglades National Park are already on the agenda.)

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Finally, today is the 1-year anniversary of when the Chicago Cubs front office started its official Twitter feed, @CubsInsider. This isn’t very notable, except to illustrate a point.

Lately I’ve noticed a few people in my Twitter timeline mention that they’ve been on Twitter for a year now. I’m glad they’ve been on Twitter that long, but I’m not sure why they think the anniversary is a big deal. I’ve used Twitter since early 2009 — proudly ahead of the curve with this form of social media — but I don’t know what day I tweeted for the first time. Nevertheless, if you’re on Twitter and don’t already follow me, I hope you will change that! I’m @thebreadline.

The Chicago Tribune reports Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn will announce Thursday that he will soon reopen seven state parks closed by his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, late last year.

The seven shuttered parks are Illini State Park in Marseilles, Castle Rock and Lowden state parks in Oregon, Moraine View State Park in Leroy, Weldon Springs State Park in Clinton, Wolf Creek State Park in Windsor and Hidden Springs State Forest in Strasburg. Quinn also is expected to say he is working on reopening the 12 state historic sites Blagojevich closed.

Blagojevich closed the parks and historic sites as a cost-cutting measure while continuing to waste taxpayer dollars flying from Chicago to Springfield and back every time he decided to actually do business in the state capital. Quinn previously said he thinks closing the parks cost the state tourism revenue instead of save money.

Another point not to be missed is the state parks, which do not charge an admission fee, are a cheap alternative for family fun during these trying economic times.

I’m glad to see Quinn will keep his word by reopening the parks as promised — something we aren’t used to from an Illinois governor in recent years.

During Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment trial Wednesday, state senators heard testimony that the Illinois governor abused budgetary laws and regulations in numerous ways that wasted millions of taxpayer dollars. You can read the details in plenty of stories elsewhere on the Internet.

What I want to do is remind readers that Blagojevich regularly wasted taxpayer dollars in legal ways, too. That might not be grounds for impeachment, but it paints a broader picture of how the Illinois governor has always thumbed his nose at his constituents. Perhaps the most blatant example of Blagojevich wasting tax dollars is his refusal to live in the Executive Mansion in Springfield. Since taking office in 2003, Blagojevich often used a state-owned airplane to fly home to Chicago every night after working in the state capital. Not that Blagojevich worked downstate all the time; but when he did, he did so at great expense to taxpayers.

Had taxpayers not been footing the bill for Blagojevich’s outrageous expenditures, there would be enough money in the budget to keep open all the state parks and historical sites the governor closed late last year. There would be a lot more money for all types of things, including really important stuff like education funding. But Blagojevich, the self-proclaimed fighter for the people of Illinois, took advantage of his position and fought against frugal spending. Shame on us in Illinois for electing him twice.

At least for the time being, Blagojevich will continue to steal money from Illinois taxpayers, even if he is removed from office as expected Thursday. Dishonorable discharge by impeachment does not prevent Blagojevich from collecting his state pension. He could lose it if he gets convicted on federal corruption charges, though.

It will be interesting to hear what Blagojevich says in his defense during the last day of his impeachment trial Thursday. He refuses to take questions from senators, so they won’t be able to ask him about all the legal and illegal ways the governor has wasted taxpayer dollars while helping drive up the state’s deficit. That’s a shame.

But when the impeachment trial finally ends sometime Thursday, there will be a small measure of happiness allowed for Illinois taxpayers. Not only will our chief political crook be booted from office, but he will have to find a way home on his own dime.

“I don’t think the taxpayers should pay out of the public purse transportation for a private citizen,” said Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who will take over as the state’s chief executive once the impeachment deed is done.

Perhaps Blagojevich will jog home from Springfield. It would take him an awful long time, but he can use it wisely by thinking long and hard about all the ways he screwed his state and his constituents. We are saddled with debt and people elsewhere think Illinois politics is a joke. Well, it’s no joke to those of us who have to live with the consequences. And for that, Blagojevich deserves whatever fate awaits him at the end of his impeachment and criminal cases.

It looks to be a good season for bird watching near the Starved Rock Lock and Dam.

Saturday and Sunday are Bald Eagle Watch Weekend at Starved Rock State Park and the nearby Illinois Waterway Visitor Center. One of the reasons I enjoy living in La Salle County is the annual opportunity to see bald eagles perched in trees along the Illinois River and flying over the water looking for food. The raptors congregate near the lock and dam during this time of year because the water surface is usually frozen practically everywhere else.

The number of birds varies each year, depending on the weather. Warmer weather means less bald eagles near the lock and dam. But it has been a cold January and high temperatures will be in the teens this weekend.

Bald Eagle Watch Weekend always draws a large number of people, so I generally try to go eagle watching during the weeks preceding and following the event instead of going that weekend. That is one of the perks of living a short drive away from the state park – I can go there whenever my schedule allows and still see the bald eagles.

I went to Starved Rock earlier this week and the bald eagles were more active than I can ever remember seeing them. A volunteer inside the visitors center told me there were 45 bald eagles counted there that day. An article that ran today in one of the local newspapers says 70 bald eagles were spotted along the river last week. So with another cold snap coming tomorrow night, I’m sure there is going to be an abundance of bald eagles to be seen this weekend.

I shot this photo of four bald eagles at Starved Rock State Park earlier this week. Not bad for a 5x optical zoom camera, if you ask me.

I shot this photo of four bald eagles at Starved Rock State Park earlier this week. Not bad for a 5x optical zoom camera, if you ask me.

It’s no surprise that Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn is urging the Illinois House of Representatives to move quickly on impeachment proceedings against his embattled boss, Governor-for-now Rod Blagojevich. After all, Quinn knows an opportunity when he sees one.

Not that Quinn wouldn’t be an improvement over Blagojevich as governor. (Though, I must add, many of us thought the same when comparing Blagojevich to his felonious predecessor, George Ryan, and we were very wrong about that one.) But if he wasn’t next in the state’s line of succession, would Quinn be someone we want inhabiting the governor’s mansion? After all, there’s a reason why Illinois voters denied him several elected offices over the years.

I won’t get into all the reasons why I think Quinn might be a bad governor (corruption is not one of them), but my chief concern about him is his idea of what the state’s priorities should be. For example, yesterday Quinn said the first thing he would do as governor is reopen the state parks and historic sites closed by Blagojevich. Of course I want those places reopened, but is that really the first thing Quinn should do as governor? How about focusing on paying the state’s bills first, Pat?

The state anticipates a $2 billion budget shortfall this year. Addressing that problem needs to be a higher priority than reopening state parks.

Barring a last-minute reprieve from Gov. Rod Blagojevich, 11 Illinois state parks will be closed to the public a week from now.

When the impending closures (due to budgetary reasons) were announced in late August, I thought for sure the governor was bluffing in order to get something in return for keeping the parks and 14 state historic sites open. I thought Blagojevich was threatening to close the state parks so he could argue the need for state park usage fees – not an unusual idea, as many other states have them. (Follow this link to read a blog post I wrote about this topic for The Times shortly after the closures were announced: http://www.mywebtimes.com/bloggers/notebook/?p=62.)

It seems I was wrong. Blagojevich’s continual disrespect to Illinois taxpayers has been worse than ever this year. That shows in many ways, including the closure of free state parks at a time when many people need cheap entertainment options.

I hope Blagojevich backs off his plan before the end of the month. But in case he doesn’t, I went to Illini State Park in Marseilles last week because it’s on the governor’s hit list and I don’t know when I’ll be able to visit it again.

Thanks to my eagle-eyed wife, a walk along Buffalo Rock State Park’s river bluff trail today yielded our first bald eagle sighting this season. One of the reasons I enjoy living in La Salle County is the annual opportunity to see bald eagles by the Illinois River during the cold-weather months. The raptors most easily can be found perched in trees on Plum and Leopold islands and flying over the river searching for food near Starved Rock Lock and Dam between late December and early February. If you’re lucky (and observant), you can sometimes spot a bald eagle along the Illinois River bluffs in October or November.

The eagles migrate here from Canada, Minnesota and Wisconsin and congregate near the lock and dam after the water surfaces freeze elsewhere. The number of birds seen varies each winter, depending on the weather. If the weather stays warmer than usual, the eagles spread out along the area rivers, whereas colder weather forces them all to hang out in the same, few areas (like the Starved Rock Lock and Dam) where the water is still open to fishing because the surface hasn’t frozen.

Sometimes you can count the number of bald eagles at Starved Rock on two hands, but other times there are dozens there at once. During a visit to Starved Rock a few years ago, a park ranger told me 115 different bald eagles were counted there that day. That was quite a sight.