Budget Cuts Decimate California State Parks
State parks here are in a downward spiral amid budget cuts that have left many only partially open and in decrepit condition heading into the busy summer season — amid plans to indefinitely close a quarter of the 278 parks.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the 70 closures, slated for 2012, would be the first in the 84-year history of California’s state park system, the largest in the country. The legislature decided in May to cut an additional $22 million from the state Department of Parks and Recreation to help close a state budget deficit of $9.6 billion.
Overall, funding for California state parks has dropped 43% since fiscal 2006, to $99 million planned for the fiscal year beginning July 1 from $175 million six years earlier.
Sixty state parks are partially closed while 90 more have experienced severe reductions in services, said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Officials are racing to try to avert some of the closures, including with a bill that would make it easier for nonprofit groups to take over some park operations. But the bill proposed by Democratic Assemblyman Jared Huffman—which has passed the Assembly and is pending in the Senate—wouldn’t save all of the parks, Ms. Goldstein said. “We are not optimistic we will keep 70 parks open or anywhere close,” she said.
Budget cuts have hit state parks elsewhere, too. Arizona has closed seven of its 30 state parks over the past 18 months because of budget troubles, said Renee Bahl, executive director of the Arizona State Parks Board. Officials in Idaho, meanwhile, are considering corporate sponsorships to keep state parks open there.
Some people say the parks cuts are necessary at a time when almost every other part of state government is being reduced in the face of big deficits and suggest the parks’ agency should seek new sources of revenue.
“There are things they could do to become more self-sufficient,” such as charging higher camping and day-use fees and outsourcing campground operations to a private concessionaire, said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a taxpayers’ advocacy group in Los Angeles and Sacramento.
Advocates argue the timing is bad. “When you have near-record unemployment and home foreclosures and a health and obesity problem with youth and adults, that is a terrible time to be taking away the close-to-home recreation opportunities for these folks,” said Phil McNelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors.
The impact can be seen at the Austin Creek State Recreation Area, a 5,683-acre forested preserve near Guerneville, in the mountains of Sonoma County north of San Francisco. Budget cuts prompted park officials in 2010 to close the 24-site Bullfrog Pond Campground for 10 months out of the year.
On a recent day, a padlocked gate blocked motorized access to the bucolic campground, where rodents had taken up residence in a restroom and its mirrors were missing. The campground is set to reopen July 1 through the end of August.
“People get really mad at us when we tell them it’s closed,” said Jenny Donovan, public safety superintendent for the park agency’s Russian River district, which includes Austin Creek. “But as state park employees, it’s hard on us, too.”
Elsewhere in Ms. Donovan’s district, an admissions gate at the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve was unmanned even on a busy day recently. Meanwhile, the Fort Ross Historic State Park—site of a 19th century Russian encampment—is now open only five days a week, down from seven.
And with an estimated $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance statewide, parks in the district are in general disrepair. At Sonoma Coast State Park, weeds have grown to nearly obscure a closed restroom. At some other parks, graffiti covers campground signs.
Parks officials say they had no choice but to trim services because of staff reductions caused by the budget cuts. In her Mendocino County district, parks superintendent Liz Burko has funds to fill only four of 11 positions for rangers to patrol 22 parks. “We are forced to focus on areas of peak visitation,” said Ms. Burko, who also oversees the Russian River district.
Nonprofits have stepped in to provide some help. In Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation runs El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park under an arrangement Mr. Huffman’s bill would expand to other parks statewide. In Santa Cruz County, Friends of Santa Cruz raised $60,000 last year to keep 30 seasonal lifeguards employed at three state beaches. And in Jenner, Calif., Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods raised about $5,000 last year to keep the Sonoma County State Park Visitors Center open, said Michele Luna, executive director of the group.
But nonprofits can do only so much. A recently discovered leak at the visitors center created worries about the need for an expensive repair, Luna said. “The costs could be prohibitive” for her group, she said.