Budget crunch: Feds eye state parks

Federal authorities are considering taking over some state parks, as the state’s grapples with a $26 billion-plus shortage and is searching for ways to save money.

John Jarvis, Pacific regional director for the National Parks Service, wrote Gov. Schwarzenegger on June 8 that closed state parks would be seized by the federal government. The state has considered closing them to save $70 million annually.

Some of the parks that stand to be taken over include Angel Island and the summit of Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County. Jarvis also wrote that the state would lose its federal grant from the Land and Conservation fund, should the proposed parks close. About 69 of the scores of parks proposed for closure receive funding from the Land and Conservation fund.

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s attempt to close scores of state parks has met with protests. This week,  park supporters collected the signatures of 29,000 people on petitions demanding that the parks be kept open. The petitions were delivered to legislative leaders.
Parks supporters also displayed photographs of people at parks across the state protesting the looming closures. The photos were taken on June 20-21, the first official weekend of summer.

Traci Verardo-Torres, the vice president of government affairs for the nonprofit California State Parks Foundation,  said state parks were vital to California’s economic health.

“We know that people are using parks now more than ever,” she said. “In 2009, there were 29,000 overnight camping reservations. Compare that with last year, there was a little over 20,000 and the year before a little over 19,000.”

The Schwarzenegger administration, struggling to cover a $24 billion shortage, originally proposed cutting some 220 of the state’s 279 state parks. The issue has been the subject of intense negotiations in the Capitol.

Verardo-Torres also spoke of the importance these parks to local communities. “Look up at Tahoe, look in some places in the eastern Sierra, look up in Mendocino. These are communities where their entire being and their identity is wrapped into the state parks that are around them.”

“With these parks closing it really puts a big question mark on what the further economic turmoil will be through these parts of the state. I don’t think California can afford to do that,” she added.

The signature petitions were to the offices of  Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, Senate GOP Leader Dennis Hollingsworth, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, Assembly GOP Leader Sam Blakeslee and Gov. Schwarzenegger.

Verardo-Torres said other protests had been planned.

“So we’re still encouraging people to sign petitions, to sign postcards. We know there are other demonstrations and rallies planned at other parks. One of the things that we’re trying to do is to move the public voice and let it be seen by folks in the capitol and that what this display is about.”

“We understand that there’s a lot of pressure on the legislature to make a decision on the budget soon and like a lot of Californians, we hope they make that decision soon,” she added.

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