From the Redwoods to the beaches, parts of California soon may be inaccessible to visitors.
Under the cloud of the Golden State's current fiscal crisis, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently asked each department and agency in the state to reduce its budget by up to 10 percent. The Department of Parks and Recreation came up with a proposal that sent a shock wave through the state: Close 48 state parks and reduce lifeguards at some beaches to cut $8.8 million from the 2008-2009 state budget.
Grassroots campaigns in dozens of shocked communities, including the town of Benicia near San Francisco, are calling for alternatives to closing prized resources like Benicia State Recreation Area and Benicia Capitol Historic Park. The recreation area, which the Audubon Society has designated an important habitat for birds, includes the volunteer-run Forrest Deaner Native Plant Botanic Garden, which boasts more than 200 species, and the Southampton Bay Nature Preserve. The capitol, which served as California's seat of government in 1853-54, is a cherished local landmark.
"This area is a very beautiful place for enjoying plants and birds, fishing, biking and walking," says Norma Deaner, director of the botanic garden. There's no doubt the state is in dire straights economically, but many argue that the savings represented by the current proposal are negligible, and that in difficult times, people need to immerse themselves more than ever in their state's rich heritage and natural beauty to restore their spirits. Closing these two parks would affect residents of at least six nearby communities, but 6.5 million Californians will be impacted if the proposal goes through.
"Most communities in the state will feel this. The proposal touches every geographic area, from the coast to inland parks, from northern California to the southern tip," says Traci Verardo-Torres of the California State Parks Foundation, which has mounted a major "Save Our State Parks" campaign. "Closing 17 percent of our parks is maximum pain for minimum gain," she says.
Targeting Historic Sites
"Of particular concern to us is the fact that historic parks are over-represented on the hit list," says Anthony Veerkamp of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which will address the situation at a preservation leadership conference scheduled at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park in April. Thirty percent of the state's historic parks and museums are on the closure list, including Will Rogers State Historic Park in Pacific Palisades and the newly-renovated Governor's Mansion in Sacramento, built in 1877. The over-representation of historic sites on the closure list may simply reflect the fact that these sites are easier to close than sprawling natural areas, says Veerkamp, but historic sites become especially vulnerable when left unattended.
The current budget deficit stands at $14.5 billion; the proposal suggests savings of $8.8 million. "Those projected savings, already small, will be offset by a revenue loss of at least $4.8 million from visitors turned away," says Verardo-Torres. In addition, communities adjacent to parks are alarmed by the potential loss of significant tourism dollars.
Case in point: Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown. "Closing down California history that won't be available to the public means a $15-million hit for tourism and will save only some $300,000 for the state," says Kathy Daigle, associate director of the California State Railroad Museum Foundation. Besides being a wonderful place for community picnics and other gatherings, the park draws history, railroad, and movie buffs from all over the world. One of only two preserved steam-era, shortline railroad roundhouse complexes in the country, it provided transportation for the early gold mining and timber industries. Railtown has also been featured in more than 200 movies, television programs, and commercials, ranging from "Lassie" and "Bonanza" to "The Virginian" and "High Noon."
From the county board of supervisors to the city council and the chamber of commerce, locals have come together to get the word out. They are planning a protest in April at the state capitol to deliver postcards and petitions.
"No Easy Solutions Are Left"
As documented in the California State Parks Foundation's annual "State of the Parks" report, California's park system, one of the largest in the country, has already suffered greatly from chronic underfunding. Some 17,000 volunteers have stepped up to help keep it going. Now the system is up against a tough financial reality, says Roy Stearns of the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Stearns points out that, having made park operations as efficient as possible to accommodate financial strains since the early 1990s, there is no fat to cut: "We've reached the time when we have to make the hard choices. We are at the point where no easy solutions are left." Stearns wants the public to know that the department stands ready to reopen these sites when money becomes available: "Closing them does not mean abandoning them or selling them off; our goal is to preserve and protect them until times get better."
But Verado-Torres points out that closing these properties and keeping an eye on them with a skeleton staff is not the same as having a full-time staff on site. Shutting down regular maintenance at these parks could boomerang in a big way. "We already have a billion-dollar backlog in deferred maintenance in the park system," she explains. Closing these parks would likely cause that line item to balloon.
Still Time To Head Off the Proposal
For the first time in history, the California legislature has convened an emergency budget session. Concerned citizens from across the state are asking their legislators to take parks off the negotiating table. States facing similar budget decisions involving parks are watching closely.
Each park on the list offers travelers unique opportunities to experience the state's history and natural beauty, and it is clear that Californians are passionate about every one of them.
"We are all in this budget crunch together, but we shouldn't be touching our national or state parks," Deaner says. "People can go to them without spending a lot of money. Parks are good for the environment, our health, and the community."
- Catherine Clarke Fox
The parks slated for closure are:
Del Norte Redwoods State Park
Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park
William B. Ide Adobe State Historic Park
Woodson Bridge State Recreation Area
Plumas-Eureka State Park
Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park
Manchester State Beach
Clear Lake State Park
Anderson Marsh State Historic Park
Austin Creek State Recreation Area
Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve
Governor's Mansion State Historic Park
Sutter's Fort State Historic Park
State Indian Museum State Historic Park
Tomales Bay State Park
Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park
Benecia Capitol State Historic Park
Benicia State Recreation Area
Candlestick Point State Recreation Area
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park
McConnell State Recreation Area
California State Mining and Mineral Museum
George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area
Wassama Round House State Historic Park
Portola Redwoods State Park
Great Valley Grasslands State Park
Henry W. Coe State Park
Fremont Peak State Historic Park
Fort Ord Dunes State Park
Limekiln State Park
William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach
San Simeon State Park
Harmony Headlands State Park
Estero Bluffs State Park
Morro Strand State Beach
Los Osos Oaks State Reserve
Montana de Oro State Park
Providence Mountains State Recreation Area
La Purisima Mission State Historic Park
Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park
Los Encinos State Historic Park
Topanga State Park
California Citrus State Historic Park
Will Rogers State Historic Park
Pio Pico State Historic Park
Mount San Jacinto State Park
Salton Sea State Park
Picacho State Recreation Area
The 16 state beaches whose lifeguards may be cut are: