Written by Elaine Stiles
When I moved to California five years ago after a lifetime spent on the east coast, I had a lot to learn about my new home. To combat my sense of disorientation, I became a heritage tourist in my own back yard, hoping the past would help me get better acquainted with the present. Not surprisingly, California’s state parks played a central role in my efforts. Sites like the Weaverville Joss House (the oldest continuously used Chinese temple in the state), Angel Island, Mount Diablo, and Marshall Gold Discovery State Park exposed me to the natural and historic wonders of the Golden State, as well as the things that help us really understand a place: the people who lived there, the jobs people did, the communities they formed, and the cultural and natural landscapes they shaped. After five years in California, I’ve still barely scratched the surface of California’s state parks. I’m still waiting to visit the most productive gold mine in California history, the most restored of California’s Spanish missions, the most extensive collection of Native American rock art in California, and the only town in the state founded, financed, and governed by African Americans.
The inherent cultural value of California’s state parks are at the core of the National Trust’s decade-long commitment to ensure that the system remains open, well-maintained, and adequately funded. The California state park system has suffered from decades of underfunding, resulting in a $1.2 billion maintenance backlog and adverse conditions for many historic and cultural resources. In recent years, budget reductions of 43% since 2006 have compounded these challenges and required service cuts and reduced hours at many park units. The significance and vulnerability of California’s state parks has been highlighted on annual lists of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places three times in various forms: in 1999, the Angel Island Immigration Station at Angel Island State Park was an emblem of the deterioration and neglect suffered by many historic resources in the park system; in 2008, the entire California State Park system made the list under threats of budget cuts and closures; and in 2010 the system was featured in the thematic listing of America’s State Parks and State-Owned Historic Sites.
Just two weeks ago, there was major news for California’s state parks when Governor Jerry Brown signed a state budget that closed a $26.6 billion deficit in our cash-strapped state. The cuts it entails will hit many public sectors in California hard, including our state park system. The budget includes $33 million in cuts over the next two years, resulting in the closure of 70 of the state’s 270 parks in 2012. This is a tough new reality for California state parks, and one that had been successfully beaten back or reduced during each of the past five years’ state budget cycles by the California State Parks Foundation (CSPF) and Save Our State Parks (SOS), dozens of organizational partners like the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and thousands of Californians who love their parks. This year was no different. Just days before Governor Brown signed this year’s budget the SOS coalition – including National Trust Western Regional Attorney Brian Turner - rallied on the steps of the State Capitol and visited legislators to highlight resources at risk if the proposed 70 state parks – including 23 state historic parks – closed their doors.
Although it is hard to contemplate the closure of one quarter of our state parks, Californians from all corners of the state remain committed to supporting the integrity and quality of our collective cultural and natural heritage. With 1.4 million acres, more than 3,000 historic buildings, 11,000 archaeological sites, and six million museum objects, this is indeed a long-term commitment. While supporters ride out this particular tough spot, no one is idle. The CSPF, with the support of the National Trust, is working with the California legislature to pass two bills to benefit the system: AB 42, which would ease the effects of park budget cuts by allowing operating agreements with nonprofit organizations to keep parks open and accessible, and SB 580, which would enact statewide policy to protect the park system against development projects inconsistent with park use. The CSPF and Save the Redwood League, with contributions and support from National Trust Western Regional Director of Programs Anthony Veerkamp and other partners, recently released A Vision for Excellence for California’s State Parks, which provides a blueprint for ensuring the future of California’s state parks through relevancy, increased access, resource protection, broader leadership, and diversified funding streams. And of course, as park devotees we do the single best thing we can do to support our state parks: we visit them with enthusiasm, wonder, curiosity, and gratitude for those who preserved, and continue to preserve, our state’s superlative cultural and natural heritage.
You can learn more about this year’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places — and you can help. By texting the word “PLACES” to 25383 on your mobile phone, you can donate a special $10.00 gift to support the National Trust’s efforts to save the places that tell America’s story. Click here for details.
A one-time donation of $10.00 will be added to your mobile phone bill or deducted from your prepaid balance. All donations must be authorized by the account holder. All charges are billed by and payable to your mobile service provider. Service is available on most carriers. Donations are collected for the benefit of the National Trust for Historic Preservation by the Mobile Giving Foundation and subject to the terms found at www.hmgf.org/t. Messaging and data rates may apply. You can unsubscribe at any time by texting STOP to short code 25383; text HELP to 25383 for help.
Elaine Stiles is a Program Officer in the Western Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She will be taking her 3-year-old twins on their first camping trip this summer in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.