The fact that California faces a staggering $24-plus billion-budget deficit is now old news. Leaving aside the issues of how we got here, the most pressing decision legislators face is how we close this gap. Seeing this week’s attempts and failures to come to a budget agreement, it is clear the Governor and the Legislature face some incredibly difficult decisions…choices that will impact lives of millions of our state’s residents and, in many respects, determine what kind of state California will be next year and well into the future.
Nowhere are these choices more visible than in Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposal to close 220 of California’s 279 state parks. This 80 percent cut will decimate the nation’s premier state park system – one that provides inexpensive recreational, cultural and historic activities for Californians, and one that draws hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of tourists to California annually.
Californians from across the state have cried out in support of keeping the parks open. This past Monday, 1,649 pages of Save Our State Parks petitions containing more than 29,000 signatures as well as 2,400 postcards were delivered to the Big 5. This is in addition to 47,000 people who have contacted their legislators opposing the closure of state parks; 128,000 letters from parks supporters have been written; and 100 parks supporters testified during a June 2 Budget Conference Committee hearing.
If approved by the Legislature, no part of California will be spared from the Governor’s parks closure proposal. Entire regions of the state will see all of their nearby state parks closed and virtually every kind of park is on the chopping block – from redwood parks on California’s north coast, to the deserts of the Inland Empire, coastal beaches on the Central Coast to wooded campgrounds along beautiful Lake Tahoe in the Sierras, and historical and cultural sites from north to south. These closures will affect almost every California resident. Only 59 parks would remain open. They will remain so largely based on the presence of special funding or because a park has an agreement with local governments for its operation.
The tragic part of these deep and draconian cuts is that the “savings” will account for only 0.62 percent of the funding needed to shore up the state budget deficit – a rounding error at best. Findings from a recent Sacramento State survey found that visitors to California’s state parks, in fact, spend an average of $57.63 per visit – or $4.32 billion annually – in direct spending associated with state. The park closure proposal demonstrates how devastating a proposal it is to eliminate state funding for the park system. Such wholesale closures simply cannot be done without inflicting maximum pain on the public, local businesses, the tourism sector and our environment.
First, these closures will devastate California’s travel and tourism industry. Locally owned bed and breakfast establishments, nearby restaurants, retail shops, tour operations and many more small businesses that rely on parks for visitation and economic activity will be negatively impacted. At a time when the state needs to encourage and retain economic activity, this proposal shuts the door to a vital and vibrant part of our economy. A recent study found that for every $1 spent on state parks, $2.35 is returned to the state’s General Fund through local purchases. So, at the end of the day, the closures may end up costing the state more than it saves in the long run.
Second, to further add salt to an already open wound, Californians will lose access to a public trust resource that is theirs. In today’s economic climate, California’s state parks represent a cost-effective option for families seeking inexpensive activities or an affordable vacation. Parks are more popular than ever with the public. Our state parks have experienced a record number of camping reservations this summer and continue to experience high visitation. Last year, the California Department of Parks and Recreation tallied approximately 80 million visits to state parks. All indications point to even higher numbers this year.
On multiple levels, closing 80 percent of California’s state park system is a shortsighted proposal that will negatively impact millions of our state’s residents and small business owners. Aside from the tremendous loss of recreational, cultural and historic resources, the paltry savings – $143 million – won’t come anywhere close to closing our state’s huge budget gap. Worse still, our state may end up losing money should this proposal be implemented. State parks are a valuable economic and cultural resource that must remain open for current and future generations.