Caretakers, volunteers eyed for state parks

As the red-ink state ponders shutting down four out of every five state parks, authorities are poised to set up caretaker and volunteer groups to maintain the properties until times get better.

"With those groups and maybe a few park rangers that can still be on the payroll and circulate among them," said state parks spokesman Roy Stearns.

Of California's 279 state parks, about 220 are slated for closure as part of the Schwarzenegger administration's plan to cover an estimated $24 billion budget shortage over the next two years.

The dollars saved in closing the parks are small in comparison to the overall deficit. But the impact on the park system is dramatic, because the state parks get almost all of their money from the General Fund, the pool of income and sales tax money that is dwindling because of the recession. The shutdown, which must be approved by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor to take effect, would save the state some $213 million through 2011.

Stearns said between 1,500 and 2,000 of the state parks system's 2,800 employees face layoffs in order to meet the deficit-reduction projects. The layoffs would cut across all department classifications.

Among the options for raising money is increasing park fees. Day-use fees currently range from $4 to $14; doubling them would boost the fees from $8 to $28. Overnight camping sites currently cost $25 to $40. Raising the fees of the high-end parks could mean $100-per-night stays, a policy that is not favored within the system.

"We would be pricing people out of the parks," Stearns said.

The state parks handle about 80 million visitors annually. The state estimates that the visitors spend some $2.6 billion in local economies, Stearns said.

The parks proposed for closure include such iconic favorites as Pfeiffer Big Sur, Ano Nuevo, Angel Island, Anza-Borrego, the 90,000-acre Henry W. Coe State Park south of San Jose, and the Bodie ghost town near Mono Lake, among others.

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