California Gov. Jerry Brown will work with lawmakers to determine how some of the $54 million stashed by the parks department can be used to help keep state parks open, a spokeswoman for the governor said Monday (July 23) as supporters who helped raise millions for the beleaguered system urged that the money be used for that purpose, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Elizabeth Ashford, a spokeswoman for Brown, said that his administration “is going to work with legislators to determine how this money can be used to mitigate park closures.”
On Friday, state officials said they had opened an investigation after learning that the California Department of Parks and Recreation had failed to report for more than a decade that it had $54 million stowed in special funds. Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned, and her deputy was fired.
Nonprofit leaders who raise money to benefit state parks said that using the newly discovered money for park operations will be a key step toward rebuilding public trust. But they warned that the windfall alone wouldn’t solve the troubled system’s problems.
“It is just appalling,” said Ann Briggs of the Coe Park Preservation Fund, which gave the state $279,000 in privately raised money to keep Henry W. Coe State Park in Santa Clara County open this year. “We don’t know what to think. … Our reaction has been one of total surprise, total shock that this has happened. We are not sure what is going to be the next step.”
The state, which has chronic deficits, slashed the parks department budget by more than $50 million over the past four years. Additionally, the parks department has deferred $1.3 billion in maintenance, said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the nonprofit California State Parks Foundation.
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The director of California’s state parks system resigned after officials discovered that her department had $54 million of unspent money in its accounts that it had not reported to the Department of Finance, even while the state said parks were so short of money that many needed to be closed.
The Associated Press reported that Ruth Coleman, who had led the agency since 2003, stepped down, and the department’s second-in-command, Acting Chief Deputy Director Michael Harris, was fired.
California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said the state Attorney General’s Office will be investigating and the Department of Finance will be conducting a comprehensive audit.
“It’s our goal to make sure we get to the bottom of this,” Laird said.
Laird said that the parks department had shielded from finance officials $20.4 million in an account that takes money from park entrance fees and concession contracts, as well as $33.5 million in a state fund for off-highway vehicle parks.
The disclosure comes at a politically difficult time for Gov. Jerry Brown, who pushed for more than a year to close 70 state parks — one quarter of the entire park system — to save $22 million as part of efforts to balance the state’s budget.
“This is deeply disappointing because we just went to many partners around the state to get them to step up and cover the shortfall,” Laird said. “I’m truly sorry about that.”
The parks had been scheduled to close on July 1. But they didn’t after dozens of private groups, cities and private companies came forward with donations.
When California’s Department of Parks and Recreation announced last year it would be closing a quarter of its parks due to budget cuts, millions of nature-loving Californians were devastated.
But, according to a report by the Huffington Post, there may be some relief ahead.
With the July 1 closure deadline looming, nearly half of the 70 parks originally slated to be shut down have been saved, and the state is in the process of negotiating agreements to keep nearly two-thirds open past that deadline.
The methods used to rescue the parks are varied, but they fall into a few distinct categories. Some received large donations from private individuals or conservation organizations, others were taken over by local municipalities or the federal government and a small handful, most controversially, are being privatized.
Though private companies (both of the non- and for-profit varieties) have long operated inside virtually all of California’s green spaces, having non-governmental groups handle the operation of an entire state park is relatively new. Last year, the legislature passed a bill allowing private organizations to take over the operation of California’s parks without first having to gain approval for each individual decision.
A recent report by the Legislative Analyst Office estimated that, by privatizing the operation of many parks, the state could save tens of millions of dollars each year.
Parks Department Deputy Director Roy Stearns admits that the idea has been met with some hostility. State Senator Noreen Evans, for example, said that park privatization is “inconsistent with serving the public.”
“We’ve gotten some pushback, but people are more and more coming to the realization that our budget has serious problems,” Stearns told The Huffington Post. “There are private companies in the Parks and Rec business that do it well. People shouldn’t see private enterprise as a dirty word. Our main goal is to get though these tough times.”
Other states have considered going the privatization route, but California is the first to actually implement it. Currently, the state is in final negotiations on private operation for six parks: Castle Crags, Benbow Lake, Woodson Bridge, Brannan Island, Turlock Lake and Limekiln.
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers gathered on Monday to push a new plan to save dozens of California parks slated for closure this year.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the lawmakers want to improve the collection of entrance fees and allow residents to buy special license plates to increase park funding. In addition, residents could use part of their tax refund to buy an annual pass.
“State parks are an essential part of our heritage,” Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) said during a news conference outside the Capitol.
If the law passes, the new money wouldn’t start flowing for up to a year — problematic because 70 parks were slated for closure this summer. But Huffman said he’s hopeful there will be a stopgap measure to keep them open.
Closing the parks could save $22 million in the upcoming fiscal year, according to Gov. Jerry Brown’s Department of Finance.
The plan is the second effort announced this month to provide life-saving funding for state parks. Sens. Joseph Simitian (D-Palo Alto) and Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) want to tap vehicle registration fees to maintain park roads and redirect other state funds to keep some parks open.
“This reflects a growing consensus that the closure of 70 state parks is fundamentally ill-conceived,” Simitian said in a statement. “The question now, of course, is how do we make it work?”
The parks were slated for closure when lawmakers approved the state budget last year. So far just Providence Mountain State Recreation Area near the Mojave Desert has shut down, and donors and the federal government have worked to prevent 16 from closing.
The California State Parks Foundation (CSPF) announced Thursday (May 17) it will award 13 grants totaling $328,586 to organizations that are fighting to keep state parks off the closure list.
This one-year commitment is one of several steps the 43-year-old foundation is taking in response to the crisis of park closures across California’s state park system, according to a news release. These grants were made possible by funding from the S. D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation and the Thomas J. Long Foundation.
“We are pleased to announce these grants as part of our integrated effort to help keep these threatened parks open,” said CSPF President Elizabeth Goldstein. “The grantees that have come forward to assist parks need our help now, and more organizations will have similar needs in the future. It is our hope to assist in providing reprieves for as many parks as possible by working closely with the parks community. We’ve been working hard on a number of different fronts, such as launching a major fundraising campaign and offering new technical assistance to nonprofits working to keep parks open.”
In addition to these 13 new grants, CSPF previously awarded two grants to temporarily keep open Santa Susana State Historic Park and Jughandle State Natural Reserve. All of these awards are contingent on the state entering into agreements with these organizations who have developed strong and effective proposals to keep parks open.
“This is an example of the value of public-private partnerships,” said California Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) Director Ruth Coleman. “We thank CSPF for mobilizing donors and resources to assist our nonprofit partners to get through this budget crisis.”
Adeline and Walt Holmtren have been visiting the northeastern shore of the Salton Sea for more than 50 years. A couple times each month since the early 1960s they drive their camper from their home in Aguanga in Riverside County to the Salton Sea State Recreation Area and camp for a couple of nights at the Salt Creek campground.
According to a report in the U-T of San Diego, it is an odd place. The Salton Sea is Californias’ largest lake and its surface elevation is about 230 feet below sea level, making it one of the lowest places on Earth. Millions of birds use the sea each winter. There is a particular smell, not always pleasant, but people get used to it quickly, they say.
“It’s a unique place,” said Adeline, 70. “There isn’t anything like it.”
But that may well all end this summer.
The recreation area is a 14-mile-long shoreline state park that, despite millions of dollars in improvements in the past decade, is scheduled to be permanently closed June 30.
One of the original 70 state parks targeted by Sacramento for closure last year because of the state’s budget mess, the area is far from self-supporting. Camping fees and day-use payments bring in only about $100,000 a year while the budget to keep it operating has been around $1.2 million. A proposal that would severely reduce staffing and other costs in hopes of keeping it open has been proffered.
Many of the parks around the state, like Palomar State Park in North County, have since been saved, or are about to be, thanks to partnerships formed with nonprofit citizen groups that promise to keep the parks open by covering any budget shortfalls.
But no such arrangement has come close at the Salton Sea and with just a couple months before the deadline, supporters are growing desperate.
They need someone to step forward. They need money. And they need it fast.
“We just haven’t been able to access the public the way we would like to be able to do so,” said Bill Meister, president of the Sea and Desert Interpretive Association, which runs the visitor center and park store and is leading the charge. He said that for nine months the association has been trying to generate interest in saving the park. They’ve contacted local and state representatives “but really haven’t had any response from them.”
“It’s going to be very tough,” Meister said. “It’s going to be a close call.”
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It’s been an exercise in frustration and futility for many campers around Southern California who wish to spend the Memorial Day holiday weekend in Big Bear.
The website, www.recreation.gov, where people go to reserve a spot at campgrounds throughout the San Bernardino National Forest, isn’t taking reservations, the Big Bear Grizzly reported. Instead, all the prospective camper gets is a blanket statement: “The campground is closed through May 31 while the San Bernardino National Forest works on issuing a new permit for management of this and surrounding facilities.”
Unfortunately for campers and for Big Bear, May 31 comes three days after the holiday.
According to John Miller, public information officer for the San Bernardino National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service is required to renew concessionaire permits every five years. “The plan is to have them all open by the Memorial Day holiday,” Miller said. “The challenge is in a lot of the older areas there are campers used to reserving the same spot for even generations. The biggest thing is that people have been unable to reserve a spot.”
May is a critical month for campgrounds throughout the national forests. “Usually (the concessionaires) need a couple of weeks in the site before they can open,” Miller said. “They need to turn on the water system, limb trees, rake leaves and do minor maintenance.”
As of press time, the Memorial holiday weekend is less than three weeks away.
The Big Bear Discovery Center has been receiving calls about reservations, Miller said. Miller suggests checking the website frequently during the next two weeks. “Once an agreement is formalized, then recreation.gov will come alive to take reservations,” Miller said. “When that is, I don’t know.”
The California State Parks is planning to increase the price of annual park passes by as much as $70 on May 1, another example of park users being asked to pay more to avoid more service reductions or parks being shut, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat has reported.
The cost of an annual day use pass that is valid for all California parks will jump from $125 to $195. The Golden Poppy Pass, which provides entrance to 98 parks will go from $90 to $125.
State parks officials have yet to announce the increases, which were outlined in a memo sent to all park employees last week and obtained by The Press Democrat.
Roy Stearns, a state parks spokesman, said Wednesday the park pass increases — the first since 2009 — are necessary to offset service reductions.
“We don’t like raising fees. But the cost of everything is going up,” Stearns said.
The fee increases reflect a growing sentiment that park users will have to pay more out of their own pockets as Sacramento grapples with budget deficits. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered $22 million cut from the state parks budget to help solve a much larger deficit.
In the first few months after California announced its park closures in May 2011, park advocates were stunned and outraged, according to a report by The Bay Citizen. The state was tearing down 25% of a world-renowned system – 70 parks in all.
Almost a year later the state parks closure cloud still looms, big and black. But dozens of small victories and individual acts of courage are adding a silver lining.
The good news started with some wins last year. A handful of beach lovers and staff at McGrath State Beach near Ventura raised half a million dollars for the new sewage system that is keeping that park open. And a nonprofit, the Coe Park Preservation Fund, raised more than $500,000 to protect its namesake park near San Jose.
Institutional neighbors stepped up, too. The National Park Service has pledged to keep Tomales Bay, Samuel P. Taylor, and Del Norte Coast Redwoods state parks open for at least a year. Counties and cities have offered to provide services at parks within their borders.
“People are beginning to be mobilized in a way they haven’t before,” said California State Parks Foundation president Elizabeth Goldstein.
At the same time, promising and dedicated grassroots leaders have emerged. To name a few: Greg Hayes, a former state park superintendent, has forsaken retirement to try to rescue Jack London Historic State Park; Kathy Bailey, a longtime resident of Northern California’s Anderson Valley, is devoting her days to working with her neighbors to keep Hendy Woods State Park open; Robert Hanna, not long ago a sales manager in a financial firm, has teamed up with activists at several state parks to “do everything I can to help keep parks open.” Perhaps Hanna was destined to be a leader; he is John Muir’s 31-year-old great-great grandson. Somehow this crisis has led him and dozens of other Californians to a new calling: preserving state parks.
Inside and outside the bureaucracy, the crisis has highlighted some not-so-new ideas. At Samuel P. Taylor State Park, in Marin, supervising ranger Rose Blackburn is reassessing her use of volunteer campground hosts. In exchange for free RV space, they work 20 hours a week helping park visitors and handling emergencies. In peak season, she now has two campground hosts and may expand that to three or four, with one host concentrating on maintenance. One surefire revenue enhancement at Taylor is a new lodging option: five new primitive cabins that she hopes will be ready for visitors this summer, at $100 a night or so (compared with $35 for a campsite).
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A non-profit group is seeking to prevent closure this summer of Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville, Calif., and also restore services at several beaches and campgrounds along the Sonoma County coast.
As with other proposals to save state parks from closure, the plan submitted by Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods hinges on whether park visitors are willing to pay more to use facilities, the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reported.
Specifically, the organization is proposing to charge visitors for parking at day-use areas on the coast and to expand the paid parking area at Armstrong Woods State Reserve.
“We’ll do what we can to appeal to peoples’ goodwill and interest in keeping parks open,” Michele Luna, executive director of the Stewards group, said Friday.
The state is planning to close 67 of California’s 278 parks by July 1 to save $11 million this fiscal year and $22 million in succeeding years. The list originally included 70 parks, but the National Park Service has agreed to operate three parks, including Tomales and Samuel P. Taylor state parks in Marin County.
In Sonoma County, state parks slated for closure include Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park east of Kenwood. A total of 16 parks on the North Coast are on the closure list.
The Stewards group is one of several non-profits that have submitted proposals to operate Sonoma County parks and keep them open. The Stewards plan is the most ambitious, as it encompasses not only 5,700-acre Austin Creek, but also Sonoma Coast State Park, which is not slated for closure but has experienced major service reductions.