Written by Anthony Veerkamp
Three days ago, I took the train to Sacramento (that’s right, do what we can to reduce our carbon footprint!) to provide comment on behalf of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to the California State Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal to zero out state funding for California State Parks.
I wasn’t there alone. In all, the committee heard 30 hours of testimony from nearly 2,000 Californians over seven days of hearings. The hearing I attended started at midday and lasted well into the evening. After standing around for hours waiting for my chance to speak (literally standing -- there is nowhere to sit in the hallways of the State Capitol!) I started to get hungry. And crabby. I then reminded myself that I, after all, was attending as a paid staff member of the National Trust -- most of the 100-plus parks advocates who made the trek to Sacramento that day did so on their own dime.
People like Tina K. May. Tina was part of a contingent of forty advocates from Santa Cruz who chartered a bus and got up at the crack of dawn to tell their elected leaders why they opposed closing State Parks. Like most of us, she started with the obvious: closing parks is fiscally irresponsible. According the California State Parks Foundation, each dollar invested in state parks generates $2.35 cents in revenue for the state’s general fund. That doesn’t include the much greater economic benefits derived by business owners and local communities that depend on visitors to state parks for their livelihood.
But with just 60 seconds to make her case, Tina quickly shifted gears and asked those assembled: “what is our legacy going to be?” To destroy a system that has taken over 100 years to build, or to keep the parks open when they bring in money to the state budget? Continuing on the theme of legacy, she noted “We survived World War I, the Depression, and World War II without closing parks -- I don't buy that we have to do this now.”
In my own 60 second in the spotlight, I focused on the risks to our heritage that would result from state park closures:
“Of particular concern to the National Trust are the historic places that would be shuttered. Preservationists have learned from bitter experience that an unused building is a building at risk. Without ongoing maintenance, small leaks become major structural failures. Fewer eyes minding closed parks will lead to increased risk of theft, arson, and vandalism.”
This battle is far from won, but I think park advocates and preservationists made some real headway on Tuesday. I even came away with a new respect for the members of the California state legislature, who rank right around Bear Stearns execs and the octuplet mom in popularity these days. Some pundits have said that these public hearings were style over substance. And it’s true that 60 seconds is barely enough time to say “good afternoon” (or in my case “good evening”) and state your name and affiliation, much less make a nuanced case for the importance of parks and heritage.
Yet we were clearly heard. As the committee chair State Senator Noreen Evans noted in her blog that night (what was she doing still up?!) “Most members of the public attended today’s hearing to address what is perhaps the governor’s most provocative natural resources proposal calling for the closure of 221 state parks. This is about 80% of all state parks.” She also apparently heard my own comments: “The public also testified that closing parks would risk the safety of cultural housed artifacts within our historic parks.”
Assemblywoman Evans summarized the seven days of testimony saying: “This budget is about the people of California and the kind of state they want to call home. Public testimony humanized the budget process. It showed the impact of abstract cuts on the lives of Californians. Public comment also gave the public ownership in the budget process ahead. We received constructive input and ideas that will help us move forward with the difficult decisions that lay ahead.
So, what kind of state do we Californians who care about our state’s rich heritage want to call home? It’s not too late to weigh in, but time is short. Californians, take action now: write to your state legislators and let them know you oppose closing 220 of your state parks.
- Take Action to Save California's Parks
- California State Parks on America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list
- California State Parks Foundation
- Proposal to Close 220 State Parks
Anthony Veerkamp is the senior program officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation Western Office.