The Arizona State Parks board will consider this Friday (Jan. 15) a proposal by state parks staff to close 13 state parks due to budget deficits in the state. More parks may close if the parks cannot raise enough money from entry fees to keep them open by the end of the fiscal year, June 30, according to rvarizona.blogspot.com.
The six most profitable parks based on visitation income are Alamo near Wenden, Kartchner Caverns in Benson, Slide Rock near Sedona, Catalina near Tucson, Dead Horse Ranch near Cottonwood and Lake Havasu at Lake Havasu City. Also remaining open would be Buckskin Mountain near Parker, Cattail Cove at Lake Havasu City and Fool Hollow near Show Low.
The parks that would close under the proposal include Tonto Natural Bridge near Payson, Red Rock near Sedona, Lost Dutchman near Apache Junction and Tombstone Courthouse in Tombstone.
Editor’s Note: The following editorial appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
One of the more contentious issues of this year’s tortuous budget deliberations was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s threat to close state parks to help bridge a budget gap of more than $20 billion. Many Californians who objected to the closures assumed their voices were heard – and the story had a happy ending – when a budget deal was reached and the governor announced that all 278 state parks could remain open.
But Californians who have since tried to visit their favorite park might quarrel with the definition of open when they suddenly see a “closed” sign on weekends or can no longer use certain campgrounds, parking lots, restrooms, picnic grounds or other facilities.
Even though no park has been officially shuttered, the system has taken a severe hit from the $14.2 million cut in the current fiscal year. The effects will be even more severe in fiscal 2010-11, when another $22.2 million will be slashed from the parks budget.
Democratic legislators had come up with a sensible plan to buffer the parks from an annual budget peril that intensifies when multibillion dollar deficits are threatening education and core social services. They proposed a $15 per-vehicle registration surcharge, with the revenue dedicated to preserving the parks system. In return, visitors entering the parks with California license plates on their vehicles would not have to pay the daily use charge, which ranges from $10 to $15.
Unfortunately, that vehicle-license plan was shot down by Republicans who opposed any new taxes to balance the budget.
The idea is coming back in the form of an initiative promoted by a coalition of parks supporters. Those groups have begun circulating petitions for a November 2010 ballot measure that would establish an $18 annual vehicle license fee and create the California State Parks and Wildlife Conservation Trust Fund. The fee would apply to cars, light trucks, motorcycles and recreational vehicles. Larger commercial vehicles and mobile homes would be exempt.
The fee would generate about $500 million a year, with 85% dedicated to state parks and 15% to other wildlife and ocean-protection agencies.
Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, said the governor’s threat to closed parks showed “the fragility” of the system in lean times. The foundation’s list of Facebook friends went from 500 to 50,000. “We were stunned by the level of support this issue engendered,” Goldstein said.
While we like the concept of a vehicle fee to sustain the parks, we would prefer that such taxing and budgeting decisions be made in the California Legislature. One of the reasons this state confronts such gridlock and dysfunction is the long string of voter-approved initiatives on spending and taxes that limit the Legislature’s prerogatives. A mandate that is locked-in by a voter initiative cannot be altered or lifted – regardless of how it is working or economic circumstances – without another statewide vote.
Schwarzenegger and legislators should take note of the outpouring of public concern that gave rise to this initiative. They should resurrect the proposal for a vehicle fee or come up with another creative proposal to provide a reliable source of funding for the parks.
Californians revere their state parks, which not only provide an affordable source of recreation, but preserve our history and natural treasures. The initiative drive has laid down a challenge to Sacramento: Protect the parks, or the voters may do it themselves.
Lawrence Hart and Tom Gilbride were both staying at Connecticut’s Hammonasset Beach State Park and Campground earlier this month. And they were definitely not happy campers.
They were angry over the doubling of park entry and camping fees that went into effect Oct. 1, according to the Hartford Courant.
The increase, adopted by the legislature in an effort to boost revenue, means that Hart, a retiree from Waterbury, Conn., who has been camping with his wife and friends at the oceanside park for 18 years, spending much of the summer there in his RV, will be paying $30 a night to stay there. The camping fee had been $15 a night.
Gilbride, 59, a visitor from New York who has been pitching a tent at the park with his wife and friends each season for 20 years or so, will pay $40 a night because he’s not a Connecticut resident.
“Those ads for ‘staycations’ are a joke because you can’t even afford to stay,” said Gilbride, who has traditionally made the 100-mile trip from his home to camp at Hammonasset each May and October for seven to 10 nights.
State fees are also doubling for season passes, sportsmen’s licenses, parking at many of the state’s parks and forests, and admission to popular attractions such as Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill or Gillette Castle in Lyme.
Hart and Gilbride are lucky, for now. The increases won’t affect them next year because they made reservations before they went into effect. But Hart is bracing for two years from now and expects to cut back drastically on the number of weeks he spends at Hammonasset.
“Five bucks would have been OK,” said Hart, 72, who figures he stays at Hammonasset more than 10 weeks a year. “But to hit us all of a sudden with double — it’s ludicrous.”
Dennis Schain, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said the agency told legislators about the possible impact the fee increases could have on visitors. The DEP oversees a system that in 2007 had 6.6 million visitors to 43 parks and campgrounds and about 1.2 million more to 12 state forests.
“We did urge them to think carefully and explore all options,” Schain said. “When things cost more, do people sometimes buy less? Yes that’s true.”
But Schain said the state’s park and forest system still stacks up well compared to other forms of entertainment and recreation.
“Twenty dollars is still more than 10, but it’s less for a family than going to the movies or bowling,” he said. Schain said the department is sensitive to the legislature’s need to increase revenue in difficult economic times.
But Bill Phillips, who was fishing from the beach Thursday for bluefish and stripers, was less sympathetic. The state is now requiring saltwater fishing licenses and charging $10 for them.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s insane,” said Phillips, 64. “They spend too much. The budget’s out of control.”
Phillips said he could understand licensing fees for freshwater fishing because the state stocks ponds, lakes and rivers.
“Me? I get nothing,” said Phillips, who added that many of the anglers he meets at Hammonasset fish only occasionally.
“Ten dollars for three or four times a year? You might as well just go buy the fish,” he said.
Schain said the effect of the increases won’t be measurable until next year because most of the parks have already stopped charging for parking this year as the weather gets cool. But the department will be monitoring attendance and revenue in the spring and summer to see how they compare to this year.
Regardless of the increases, Gilbride plans to continue his semiannual trips to Hammonasset. But he expects to spend a lot less time and money dining out and shopping.
“If I have to give (the state) $400, that’s $200 I’m not going to be spending in town,” he said.
California State Parks officials — who had planned to tell the public this week which state parks were going to be closed this year due to budget cuts — admitted Tuesday (Sept. 15) that the job of determining which parks to shutter is more complicated than they thought it would be.
As a result, they indefinitely delayed naming the 100 parks to be closed. They also said they did not know when the closures will occur, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
“We are involved in a process we didn’t understand was as complicated as it is,” said Roy Stearns, spokesman for the park system.
One big problem, officials said, is that they don’t know exactly how they’re going to keep the public out of closed state parks and beaches. Officials fear a free-for-all among squatters and ruffians for dibs on thousands of acres of unpatrolled parkland.
Hard to fence in
“That’s the difficulty and also the worry as we try to come up with a list of closures,” said Stearns. “It’s pretty impossible to close (many of the beaches and parks) or put a fence around them. People are probably going to go there. We hope they are careful and don’t put themselves at risk.”
Stearns said local sheriff’s deputies will primarily be responsible for patrolling the closed parks, but many state beaches and remote wildland areas will be impossible to supervise adequately.
“We hope there is a kind of statewide neighborhood watch where people make a call if there is something that shouldn’t be there,” Stearns said. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of our visitors are very watchful of these places and are as disappointed as we are that they are closing. I would suspect people will be eager to be watchful and report unscrupulous activities.”
2010 ballot measure
Stearns said the final list, when it is released, will be a working document that may change if funding changes or if there are new ideas to keep parks open.
One idea is to put a $15 vehicle license fee on the ballot in November 2010. The initiative, being considered by a coalition of environmental groups, would raise about $400 million a year and eliminate entrance fees for motorists at all state parks.
The California Conservation Action Fund, which lists the California State Parks Foundation, the Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society as contributors, will decide this fall whether to spend some of the nearly $1 million in the committee’s coffers to get the issue on the ballot.
”We want off this roller coaster ride, and we are looking for a tool that will be viable and will provide a long-term funding source for the state parks,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, executive director of the parks foundation, which is leading the effort.
But a ballot initiative is not a sure thing. Legislation for such vehicle fees failed in 2008 and 2009 after Republican lawmakers opposed new taxes. Despite initial support in polls, it is unclear whether cash-strapped voters would agree to another Department of Motor Vehicle fee.
The agreement to close as many as 100 of the parks was part of a deal signed in July by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to erase a $24 billion budget gap this fiscal year. The deficit-elimination plan means virtually every state department will lose personnel and see funding slashed, but the state park hit list is weighted with a huge amount of public anxiety and outrage. It will be the first time in the 108-year history of the park system that a park has been closed to balance the budget.
California’s 279 state parks, which cover 1.5 million acres, were already operating on little more than a shoestring budget, having absorbed years of cost cutting and staff reductions. As it is, the state parks have $1.2 billion in deferred maintenance on the books. Now, many of these under-maintained parks are facing outright abandonment.
Which parks will be closed remains a mystery. Park officials had said that parks that don’t make money, cannot be operated with minimal staffing and are not self-sustaining through fees are in jeopardy. Stearns said the project now is to determine which parks can be patrolled by personnel from nearby parks or by part-time workers.
“The last thing we want to do is close parks if there are alternatives out there, so if someone shows up the day after we release the list with an idea, then it would behoove us to listen,” Stearns said. “The goal would be to have this run its course in two years or less when hopefully the economy improves, state revenues improve and we can put our state parks back together.”
It is expected that a list of about 100 California state parks that may be closing will be known to park districts across the state sometime shortly after Labor Day.
“By Labor Day we should have a list of which parks will be closing,” Shannon Gillespie of the Mendocino District Office near the town of Mendocino said Tuesday (Aug. 25), according to the Ukiah Daily Journal.
Roy Stearns, a spokesman for California State Parks, said an awaited list of closures will be known sometime after Labor Day.
“It is not ready yet,” Stearns said. He said 100 is an estimated figure for closures at this time.
Stearns said that consideration for closure is not regional or based on value. “It is a business decision,” Stearns said, adding that officials look wherever a park closure can have a savings to help close the budget gap.
Cuts to state parks this year total $14.2 million or 10% of the general fund. In 2010, state parks expect to lose $8 million with an estimated additional $5 million loss from park closures.
Facing a mounting fiscal crisis, the state of Michigan is seeking help to decide how to best begin to divest itself of some of its state campgrounds.
The state has already closed some campgrounds to meet reduced funding levels. Looking to the future, if funding cuts continue, as expected, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Lansing is looking for public input on how to further shrink the cost of state campgrounds, according to examiner.com.
The DNR has created a questionnaire <http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153–220003–RSS,00.html> for the general public to help it establish which criteria should guide decision making on reducing expenses to meet the expected revenues.
“The campground evaluation process includes an opportunity for the public to provide their thoughts on what criteria should be considered when evaluating the state forest’s 145 campgrounds and two cabin facilities for downsizing,” the DNR stated. “The public will then be asked to rank each criteria in their importance for making this evaluation.”
The DNR has identified six criteria to be used in this effort as outlined on this questionnaire. They are:
- Campground quality.
- Renovation needs.
- Associated recreation activities.
- Proximity to other campgrounds.
- Use and occupancy.
- Financial sustainability.
There is space for the public to add other criteria. The form <http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153–220003–RSS,00.html> on the website asks respondents to rank which criteria are most important. All responses are due to the DNR by close of business on Sept. 14.
There are two PowerPoint presentations <http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153–220003–RSS,00.html> that provide a history of the campground funding and a description of the evaluation process.