State parks, facing closure, get outpouring of public support

Proposals by the Schwarzenegger administration to close scores of state parks to help cover the state budget deficit have sparked a public outcry unprecedented in the state for parks-related issues, according to an independent, nonprofit foundation that advocates on behalf of the parks.

The California State Parks Foundation reported that more than 128,000 letters had been written during the past three weeks by some 47,000 individuals to elected officials protesting the potential closures. The Foundation encouraged the campaign.

"About 47,000 people participated in sending a letter to at least one of their elected officials. It's pretty incredible, this amazing outpouring of concern about this budget proposal," said Elizabeth Goldstein, the foundation president. "I think the budget proposals have really touched a raw nerve. People have always thought that these parks are always going to be there."

Last year, by comparison, a proposal from the administration to eliminate 48 parks drew some 100,000 letters over five months.

Capitol sources said the parks' letters amounted to more than four times the number of letters that been received protesting cuts to In Home Supportive Services, the program that provides funding for non-medical care for the aged, blind, disabled and others.

Faced with a $24 billion shortage, Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed a series of cuts throughout state government. For the parks, the governor proposed shuttering 220 of the 279 state parks and cutting the parks' budget by $70 million the first year.

Negotiations have been under way in the Capitol, and a two-budget conference committee has sent to the floors of both houses a proposal that would help finance the parks – and create a free-admission pass for day-park use – by adding a $15 fee to the annual vehicle license fee.

In the Senate, at least, that idea is dead on arrival for Republicans, whose votes are needed to approve the proposal.

"D-O-A," said Melanie Reagan, a spokeswoman for Senate GOP Leader Dennis Hollignsworth, R-El Cajon. "You don't just increase fees on people who drive their cars. It's ridiculous, increasing the VLF is one of the things that got the governor (Davis) recalled."

Instead, Senate Republicans favor approving an offshore oil drilling project off the Santa Barbara coast, called Tranquillon Ridge, that would generate an estimated $100 million annually in revenues to the state. "Revenue from Tranquillon Ridge would take care of the state parks problem," she said.

That project, rejected Jan. 29 by the State Lands Commission, is before the Legislature in a proposal that would shift jurisdiction over Tranquillon Ridge to the governor's Department of Finance, which favors the plan. If approved, Tranquillon Ridge would be the first new state offshore oil lease in 40 years.

Parks supporters also say the budget cuts would trigger deeper economic impacts, citing studies that show the closures would negatively affect local economies near the parks. There also are fears that closed parks would be magnets for crime and homeless settlements, and would suffer environmental damage.

The California State Parks Foundation has about 100,000 members. It was founded in 1969 and has raised about $135 million for park development and protections, and related activities.

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