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The Californication of Golden State parks


Governor may close parks to balance the state budget


By Dianna Dilworth



The Armstrong Redwoods in California, known for its nature trails, is the home of majestic trees including the Colonel Armstrong Tree, estimated to be more than 1400 years old.** But due to state budget cuts, the park may well be closed by summer along with its docent and community education program, which serves 5,500 school children a year.

 

Sonoma is just one of 48 state parks and 16 beaches in California in jeopardy of being shut down under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s current proposal to balance the state’s 2008-2009 budget. With more than 270 park units, the closures amount to nearly 20 percent of the state system. While Schwarzenegger has admitted that he may be using scare tactics to highlight the state’s desperation, environmental groups are taking it seriously and citizen groups statewide are pushing back.

The California State Parks Foundation is calling on park visitors to send in photos of their favorite parks in order to build enthusiasm for the threatened open space. While Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods (who stand to lose their office if the Armstrong Redwoods State Park closes) is collecting personal and group stories like those at Armstrong, and encouraging people to send them to state legislators through its letter writing and e-mail campaign.

“We’ve spent 25 years building this volunteer program,” says Michele Luna, executive director for the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, about the Sonoma program. “Not to mention that if the parks close, it will be a huge cost to get them up and running again.”

The proposed legislation to close the parks comes after Schwarzenegger—who is trying to balance a $14.5 billion budget deficit—asked California State Parks, and all other general fund departments and agencies to reduce expenses by 10 percent. The proposed reduction would cut $13.3 million out of the Parks Department’s operating budget.

“Taking 10 percent out of the parks operating costs is a lot for an already under funded organization,” says Jim Metropulos, legal representative for the Sierra Club of California. “This isn’t going to get the billions needed to cut the deficit, but it will be a huge hit for an agency that is already operating on a shoe string budget. The proposal calls to close, close to 20 percent of all total park units.”

Significant past reductions have brought funding from $250 million down to $35 million. To meet the new cuts, the Parks Department has proposed reducing its workforce by 136 permanent positions; salaries are the largest part of the budget. In addition, funding for about half of all seasonal workers—lifeguards, park aides, and maintenance staff—would be cut. Beach goers would be left to swim at their own risk.

“We’ve been reducing our budget for the past 15 years, so we really had no place left to cut,” says Sherry Watson, spokesperson for the Parks Department. “We support the governor’s efforts to try and find ways to balance the budget and we are working with him as best we can.”

Eliminating public access to the 48 parks will result in a revenue loss of approximately $3.7 million to the State Parks and Recreation Fund. That combined with the $13.3 million cut to the General Fund would reduce total funding for the operation and maintenance of the state park system by $17.0 million. While the governor hopes this will save the state money, it may hurt the local economies.

“This isn’t just about people concerned about their recreation, it’s about businesses and the economy of the local communities,” says Traci Verardo-Torres, legislative and policy director of the California State Parks Foundation. “For every dollar spent by the state on parks, $2.35 is spent in the local economy by park attendees.”

Dennis Krueger who owns Horizon Kayaks, a kayak rental store in Morro Bay, California, may lose customers if the Montana de Oro State Park beach is closed.

“I get Boy Scouts and families coming in to rent kayaks in larger groups to go over to Montana de Oro State Beach,” Krueger says. “If this proposal passes, which I don’t think it will, I could lose some of this business.”

If the proposed cut passes, the parks will be placed in caretaker status, and closed to the public, or in some cases partially closed. The parks would receive basic maintenance and be patrolled by badge and gun carrying state park law enforcement to prevent trespassing. When California Governor Pete Wilson closed state parks in the past, there were issues with vandalism and trespassing. But interestingly, animal habitats thrived, according to Metropulos.

The parks slated to have their gates locked, including Portola State Redwoods, Grizzly Creek Redwoods and Torrey Pines State Beach, were chosen based on four criteria: whether it could physically be closed off, visitor attendance, how much revenue it generates, and the cost ongoing caretaking. The closures run across all 23 districts of the state.

“We tried to be as fair and equitable as possible,” Watson says.

The Sierra Club of California plans to testify about its concern over the closings during budget hearings. “This is not what the people of California want to see,” Metropulos says.  “In the past 10 years California bond funds have been passed by voters.”

Metropulos cited Proposition 84, Proposition 50 and Proposition 42, all of which granted money to the Parks Department, including the acquisition of new parkland. “These park bonds have clearly passed with the full support of CA voters and they are not looking to loose their parks,” he adds.
Sierra Club proposes that the state look for other ways to cut the budget and that the Parks Department look at ways to raise fees and other funding beyond cutting budgets. The Parks Department says that it is not possible to just reduce the hours of parks or close parks for a day or two each week to solve this funding problem.

More than 75 million people visit California state parks and beaches every year; the closures are projected to reduce that number by about 6.5 million people annually, or drop attendance to by 10 percent.

“We are still the biggest state park system in the nation and 230 state parks would still be open,” Watson added. “By closing these parks we can keep up the high level of services that people expect in other parks.”

The governor is expected to release his revised budget in May and enact the budget in the summer of 2008.

** The original version of this story incorrectly mentioned Sonoma State park as under threat of closure.