State parks

The budget approved June 30, 2011, imposed a bleak obligation on California’s park system.

To save $22 million out of an $86 billion general fund, 70 of the state’s 278 parks  — 25 percent — were consigned to closure beginning July 1, 2012.  The original closure list can be seen here. A June 20 Parks Department memo on the closures can be seen here.

The parks to be closed were scattered throughout the state from Weaverville in the north to Fort Tejon in the south. Besides the 19 parks on the list were eight state beaches and 17 state historic parks including the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento, the former state capitol in Benicia and Jack London’s home in Glen Ellen.

Some observers said the move was simply a smaller scale version of the We’ll-Need-to-Close-the-Washington-Monument gambit played by the National Parks Service when cuts to its budget are threatened.

Whatever the motive, lawmakers, non-profits, donors, foundations, the Park Service and localities stepped up, whittling the closure list down to a maximum of 30 and potentially as few as 1. Among a final handful of parks that were expected to be closed — but will likely remain open — are Gray Whale Cove State Beach in San Mateo County and the California Mining & Mineral Museum in Mariposa. The Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, 56 miles west of Needles, is already closed until further notice. 

Among those saved from closure within the last few weeks was the Governor’s Mansion, which received $75,000 from Raley’s Supermarkets and $25,000 from the Church of Scientology to cover its operating expenses for one year.

“This achievement is a testament to the work and dedication of the Department (of Parks and Recreation), nonprofit organizations, local governments, and others—along with the state Legislature—to keep state parks available to the public,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in vetoing $31 million of $54 million lawmakers earmarked for park maintenance in the budget.

“We’ve spent the last year-and-a-half working on partnerships,” State Parks Director Ruth Coleman said on a recent episode of “Politics on Tap,” Capitol Weekly’s public affairs program.

But, Coleman stressed, although almost all the parks on the original closure list will stay open as of July 1 – 69 of 70  – the partnerships and financial help from the new budget isn’t a final solution.

“I wouldn’t say they’re safe, I think reprieve is more like a better (word),” Coleman said.

The threat of large-scale park closures – particularly without a prior one in the system’s 85-year history – has become a catalyst for reshaping the system’s future.

And it’s clear from the debate over the past year that whatever new shape California’s park system takes it must be self-sustaining — far less dependent on the general fund and far more reliant on park-generated revenues.

That’s a fundamental change from the vision of Gov. C.C. Young who created the state’s modern park system.

Citing the California’s “rapid growth and development” and the loss of pristine locales to “private exploitation,” Young convinced lawmakers to create a State Park Commission in 1927. He also championed a successful $6 million bond act the following year to pay for acquisitions.

Expansion of the park system – at almost exclusively general fund expense –was embraced by every subsequent governor, in varying degrees, until now California’s 278 parks comprise more than 1.3 million acres, 280 miles of coastline, 625 miles of lake and river frontage, 3,000 campsites and 15,000 miles of trails.

Moving to a parks-pay-for-themselves model was an alien concept as recently as 1979, during Brown’s second term, when 91 percent of the parks department budget came from the general fund.

As Coleman says, “We would get an appropriation … (and be told to) go be stewards of the resources and make it affordable to everyone.”

Today, 29 percent of the system’s roughly $400 million budget comes from the cash-poor general fund. Of the $400 million, some 25 percent is offset by revenue generated by parks.

The not-so-unspoken message of the past year’s struggle to keep parks open is that $100 million is nowhere near enough.

Some are wary an increased focus on raising money will harm stewardship.

“Do we want a state park system that serves its traditional mission of preserving the environmental, ecological and historical resources of the state?” asked Sen. Noreen Evans, a Santa Rosa Democrat whose district contained 22 of the parks slated for closure including Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area near Laytonville where she and her family have camped for 50 years.

“It appears the parks’ mission has now been de facto changed to generating revenue — with no public debate,” she said despite being one of the lawmakers who spearheaded efforts to prevent closures.

Others say circumstances demand a change in strategy.

“For better or worse, we’re in a different world,” said Sen. Joe Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat who was also one of the lawmakers central to preventing the closures.

“General fund pressures are the major part of it, yes. But in this environment the department has to reinvent itself because doing things the way they were done in the past simply won’t work.”

In the wake of the closure announcement last year, numerous proposals were pitched to help parks cover more of their own budget – some of which were adopted by lawmakers.

Among the suggestions was allowing private sector groups to operate some state parks.

The department has already put to bid six contracts allowing concessionaires to operate several smaller parks.

Switching from parking fees to entrance fees was also proposed.

The Legislative Analyst said charging an entrance fee to one-eighth of the persons who visit day-use parks for free or raising fees visitors at other parks currently pay by $1 would “increase revenues by the low tens of millions of dollars annually.”

Less use of park rangers for some tasks was also advanced. Rangers are peace officers and, as such, more expensive employees than those that aren’t. The analyst pitched use of non-rangers for jobs like guiding school groups.

Coleman previously tried to create a new category of park employee that wasn’t a peace officer and incurred the wrath of the union representing the rangers.

This year’s budget-related bill on parks says the department “should undergo a reclassification of its personnel by adding non-peace officer status position classifications.”

Lawmakers also included $15.3 million for a “State Parks Revenue Incentive” fund of which 50 percent of the money generated from revenue-enhancing projects for the system would stay within the park district that had  the idea.

Brown vetoed $31 million in money that the Legislature borrowed from other uses to help the parks department deal with its estimated $1 billion in deferred maintenance. He left $10 million.

The Democratic governor also approved $13 million in money from previously approved bonds to be used for capital improvements that boost the park system’s bottom line.

On a conference call, Coleman said examples of bond money projects could include adding more pay machines that use credit cards and debit cards, powering those machines by solar, adding cabins and other alternative forms of camping that cost more to use but are popular with v
isitors and taking parks without electricity and replacing diesel generators with solar.

“This is a totally different picture than we were facing one year ago,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, a San Rafael Democrat, also instrumental in preventing the park closures.

“But it’s still not enough. We don’t want to have temporary avoidance of closure. The goal is to put the parks on a solid long-term footing.”

Ed’s Note: Updates earlier with 69 parks to stay open, sted 65.

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