By DOUG WILSON
Herald-Whig Senior Writer
PITTSFIELD, Ill. -- Illinois deer hunters will have some new options as the state takes ownership of 410 acres of prime hunting ground in Pike County through an outdoor recreation initiative.
Gov. Pat Quinn announced the acquisition of 547 acres of natural habitat at four sites, costing $2.8 million Wednesday as part of the Illinois Open Lands Trust. The purchases will add public land for hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing and other activities around the state.
"Pike County is a tremendous deer hunting destination with virtually no public access. This acquisition will give hunters an opportunity to pursue whitetails in Illinois' deer capital," said Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Marc Miller.
Brenda Middendorf, coordinator of Access Illinois Outdoors headquartered in Pittsfield, said the Pike County purchase will help ease hunting pressure in the county perennially leads the state in deer harvest. It also will boost the local economy.
"Deer hunting is very critical to the economy of Pike County. Hunting brings about $25 million into Pike County every year for hunters' gas, food, motels and the lodges," Middendorf said.
Jerry Gille, a longtime member of the United Bowhunters of Illinois and director of the Quincy Housing Authority, was pleasantly surprised to hear about the Pike County land purchase. He has been an advocate for more free access to hunting sites.
"That's in an area that has been locked up tight for access. It's where the leasing craze began in Illinois," Gille said.
Several hunting groups have sought either more public land or access programs that give incentives to landowners to open their land for free hunting.
The Pike County property is southwest of Pittsfield and had been appraised at $1.8 million. It includes timber and upland areas as well as tillable and pasture ground. The newly acquired lands will remain closed to the public while the Department of Natural Resources completes a management plan, establishes hunting and other recreation rules and opens parking areas.
The purchase price comes from Quinn's $31 billion Illinois Jobs Now construction program of 2009 -- money set aside for long-term infrastructure improvements but unavailable for state government operating expenses such as catching up on $9 billion in overdue bills. The newest purchases will add to the state's 500,000-acre inventory of public lands.
In addition to the Pike County land there's new forest land in Ogle County, a Vermilion County recreation area expansion and 72 acres to debut the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge in McHenry County, part of 11,000 acres of tallgrass prairies and oaktree plains dubbed suitable for preservation last year by the federal government.
"We want to make sure we have places in our state of open space and opportunity for people to enjoy hiking and hunting and fishing and just watching," Quinn said at a Springfield news conference. "It's very important to understand, not only is this good for the soul, but it's good for our economy."
The newly acquired park land, once open, will have operating expenses, but Miller said a $2 increase in license plate fees that Quinn signed into law in December will produce as much as $25 million a year for park upkeep and repair when receipts start arriving in Springfield later this spring.
And nature preserves by definition don't call for much concrete, Miller said.
"We need some parking lots and some facilities, but other than that, we don't see a huge outlay to make many of these go," Miller said.
State statistics show the 324 parks, wildlife refuges, conservation areas and other natural habitats bring in $1 billion a year from tourism. Federal conservation authorities estimate that $3.9 billion is spent annually in Illinois on fishing, hunting and wildlife watching.
The Associated Press provided information for this story.