Opinion: The price we’ll pay for closing state parks

Seventy California state parks are closing. Locked down, go home, do not enter. This is not a suggestion or a proposal; it’s a fact, a done deal. Next summer, 25 percent of state parks will shutter due to budget cuts imposed by lawmakers in Sacramento. Among the features to be off limits are redwoods, beaches, mountains, deserts, oak woodlands, historical buildings and rivers. It’s the first time this has ever happened in California, and it could very well not be the last.

Closing state parks is bad for California. Studies have shown that state parks return more coin to state coffers than they receive thanks to revenue from tourism. Common sense points out the hotel workers, restaurant owners and sporting goods providers around state parks who are part of a chain of Californians whose livelihoods are dependent on state park visitors. Over 500 businesses around the state think their economic relationship to state parks is so strong that they’ve put up signs in their windows that say “Closing Parks is Bad for Business.” Closing state parks will end up literally costing the state in ways that have not been analyzed, understood, or factored into the budget-making process.

There are some critical things that the Legislature could do to mitigate this uncalculated damage.  

First, do no more harm. Do not approve the $11 million cut still pending for state parks. State parks cannot afford the full $22 million cut, and the Legislature can help by holding off on the $11 million cut in the upcoming session. That pending $11 million cut will only exacerbate the existing barriers to creating partnerships and solutions to help alleviate this crisis.

Second, do not let good deeds get punished. There are already aggressive efforts underway to bring additional philanthropic funding and contributions to state parks to make up for budget cuts. However, the philanthropic community needs to see support from the Legislature. Further reduction of funding for state parks, or a failure to add more public funding for parks as the economy rebounds, will be perceived as a punishment for good deeds.

Third, support and be part of credible local efforts to keep parks open. The passage of Assembly Bill 42 and the broad, bi-partisan support it received reflects a willingness to do just that. Due to ongoing budget reductions and the impending closures, nonprofits are stretching their resources to help parks where they can in areas that are clearly a public responsibility. This often means keeping a visitor center open, paying the utility bill, or ensuring the bathrooms are cleaned. Nonprofits are stepping up with proposals to keep parks open and California State Parks Foundation is actively working to develop programs to support these efforts. This crisis is creating, and will continue to create, innovative approaches to keep California’s state parks open and accessible to the public. But nobody should believe this is going to substitute for the need of a long-term sustainable commitment from the public sector.

Lastly, support efforts to identify appropriate ways to increase or generate revenues in parks. There are examples from around the country and Europe that must be explored. Imagine new amenities and services in state parks like backcountry cabins, improved camping facilities, or perhaps lodging in historic buildings. These innovative features could bring in new park visitors and entice current visitors to pay something extra.  

A California without state parks is a place too awful to contemplate, particularly for the citizens of this state. Over 100,000 Californians have already taken advocacy action this year to defend their parks, and the parks community is willing to step up and try new things to keep parks open. Today, we look to our elected leaders to acknowledge that they know the difference between the dollar cut on the page and the real on-the-ground financial impact of closing state parks. Consider the funds this state might be forced to spend on shutting down illegal marijuana growing in unpatrolled parklands, fighting wildfires in closed parks, cleaning water that natural systems in state parks have protected for generations, and assisting communities that have lost tourism revenue because they are next to closed parks. Is it worth it? We have priceless things to lose and simple actions to take to protect them. This moment is the biggest challenge to have faced California’s state parks in their 100 year history. The Legislature can make this easier if it so chooses. We will be watching.  

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