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Most parks avoid the axe, but questions remain

With a fragile budget deal finally reached this week, those waiting anxiously to learn whether  220 state parks would have to be shut down heard the good word. Or at least, as good as it could get.

Although the exact budget numbers of the budget remain tentative, Gov. Schwarzenegger and Legislature’s leaders have agreed to replenish most of the proposed $70 million cut to state parks. The money will be paid through government loans and fund transfers and will cover about $62 million of the cut. That leaves California’s state parks to handle a budget gap of $8 million.

This means that about 30 to 50 of California’s 279 state parks may have to close. The question now is which ones? That list is being put together.

“It appears that if these budget numbers hold, there will certainly be park closures,” said Roy Stearns, the state parks’ chief spokesman. “But that will be much less than the 220 that was previously cited.”

Traci Verardo-Torres, vice president of government affairs for the California State Parks Foundation, which leads the Save Our State Parks Campaign, said that due to the sheer magnitude of the state’s economic situation and deficit, California may not be so lucky as it was last year when it avoided closures.

“It’s not great to have any parks close,” said Verardo-Torres. “But these are difficult times…we don’t see a magic bullet on the horizon.”

Along with the proposed park closures, parks that do remain open will have to undergo significant management steps to save money. Park employees are already furloughed three Fridays out of the month, hours and days of operations will need to be shortened, and visiting fees will most likely increase.

One proposition to help fund state parks, known as the State Park Access Pass, called for a $15 increase to the annual vehicle registration fee, but Governor Schwarzenegger rejected it.

“The budget already included the largest tax increase in California history in the deal reached in February,” said Lisa Page, Communications Director in the Office of the Governor. “The Governor did not want this budget to include any additional taxes.”

In the unlikely event that California is completely unable to keep its parks open, some parks like San Francisco’s Angel Island, Point Sur State Historic Park and Fort Ord Dunes, could be taken back as federal land.

David Siegenthaler, project manager at the National Park Service, said that because the federal government gave the plots of land to the state on the condition that California would keep it continually accessible to the public, the state could fail to meet the rule if parks close down.

“If the land is reverted, it would revert to federal land reserves for re-disposal,” said Siegenthaler, “and it would not necessarily remain a park.”

For now, State Parks is working closely with the National Parks Service to make sure that land reversion does not happen.
“We’ll look at what parks bring in revenue and the costs to operate and how popular they are. The most popular parks, we’ll try to keep open,” said Stearns.

During a time in which luxury has been scrapped for more economically friendly alternatives, the need for state parks to remain open as a cheap and enjoyable place for recreational activities seem as necessary than ever.

Furthermore, a recent study from California State University, Sacramento, found that state parks generate a profitable amount of economic activity from tourists and visitors in local areas – about $4.3 billion annually, according to Verardo-Torres.

Despite the fact that there may be no final numbers until the budget is officially voted on this Thursday and the possibility that some state parks will close is not only inevitable but highly likely, the budget agreement so far is deemed tolerable by some.

“We are not happy with it,” said Verardo-Torres. “But we’re satisfied that given the alternative, this is as good as a deal that we think we can get.”

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