State park supporters protest proposed closures

Grassroots alliances are forming across the state to protest Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent proposal to close 48 state parks as part of a 10 percent budget cut.

“Our first effort is to write letters, e-mails, and make phone calls to all legislators who can now reverse and change this budget,” said Michele Luna, executive director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, one of 81 volunteer groups organized by the California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicating itself to keeping the parks open.

The foundation — 90,000 members strong — announced plans of a policy network to engage its organizations politically, prompting people into community advocacy and a legislative letter-writing campaign.

“We are absolutely committed to lead the charge, but our efforts will be the big umbrella that all communities will be able to organize under,” said Traci Verardo-Torres, spokeswoman for the foundation.

In addition to legislators, the state parks foundation plans to reach out to local businesses whose economic livelihoods are dependent on the survival of state parks on the closure list.

“When I saw the governor’s budget, it knocked wind out of me,” said Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria. “People are very concerned with fact that their business is based on tourism, and tourism is based on the beautiful parks and central coast.”

Since hearing of the closures, Maldonado said he has been researching the expenses and economic revenue that the parks in his district generate.

“The governor will hear voices from people in my district,” he said. The senator endorses all campaigns to keep the state parks open.

Dennis Krueger has owned Kayak Horizons since 1995. His business relies partially on tourism to the area surrounding Montaña de Oro State Park, one of the parks set to close.

“I think Maldonado has the right idea,” he said. “It seems silly to target a few parks. Montaña de Oro is a special thing, well-known across the coast for horseback riding and kayaking.”

If the budget proposal passes in the Legislature, Krueger predicts his business would feel a bit of a negative impact, as groups regularly enter his shop to purchase recreation items for their vacations to the central coast. He approves of any kind of activism to save the parks, but he won’t be writing any letters to legislators — he just doesn’t see the point.

“We’ve gotten involved in activities to try to change the thinking of state government, and after a while you feel like you’re banging your head against a wall,” said Krueger. “I don’t think you can organize something big enough to change minds.”

If the budget passes legislation, San Luis Obispo County faces to lose seven of its 11 state parks.

The California state parks system covers nearly one-third of California’s coastline, and it manages coastline, estuaries, beaches and dune systems.

The proposed 48 closures would reduce 17 percent of the existing 278 state parks to “caretaker” status, eliminating or relocating 136 state jobs, including half of the seasonal lifeguards at state beaches.

Also on the cutting board are state park employee positions: rangers, maintenance workers, historic site tour guides and environmental scientists.

The total savings is projected at $13.3 million. If the budget goes through as written, it would be up to a year before the ax would fall on any state park jobs.

“We thought about park fee increases; now we’re convinced that the park system is as lean as it can get, and the only way to make cuts was to make closures,” said Department of Finance Director Mike Genest at the Jan. 10 news conference unveiling Schwarzenegger’s budget plan.

Roy Stearns, deputy communications director for California State Parks, has been bombarded with media calls in the past few days since the budget announcement, with major newspapers and radio stations asking how the state Parks and Recreation Department is handling the issue.

“We’d like to save every employee we can,” he said.

After months of negotiations, the department conceded to make closures on state parks and beaches that had the lowest attendance and generated the smallest revenue. The working plan, Stearns said, is to eliminate vacant positions at the parks slated to close, and move permanent employees to open locations, should they be willing to relocate.

Stearns noted that California state parks are the single largest recreation destination in the state, exceeding by millions the number of visitors to private amusement parks. The closures would shut out an estimated 6.5 million of the 79 million annual park visitors that California enjoys, giving it the largest state park attendance in the nation.

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