California Politics and Park Closures–Does it really have to be this way?

WARNING: This is unlikely to look like the OMG THEY CLOSED ALL THE PARKZ SO WE MUST RAISE THE TAXEZZZ!!!! blog posts that most outdoors folks have written on this story.

Feel free to complain to the management.

This past week, outdoorsy folks like us and most of you were aggravated to hear that the state was planning to close 70 out of the 278 parks in the State Park system.  Wifey and I (and our families) have been big fans of State Parks our whole lives, and a quick look at the list reveals quite a few parks that I’ve been to even in the last few years, including Annadel State Park (right across the street from where my grandparents used to live), Limekiln State Park (a great campground in Big Sur), Castle Crags State Park (one of the few decent campgrounds between Oregon and Southern California along the I-5), the Salton Sea Recreation Area (not too much positive to say here…), and Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve (which we just visited last summer).  And while we protest vociferously the speciesist anti-dog policies of the State Park system since we got our beagle puppy last year, we were still intending to get up to Palomar Mountain State Park sometime soon.

In defense of the closure list and the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), it is very hard to manage a budget cut of $11 million this (half) year and $22 million next year in a budget that is only $120 million or so per year without some park closures.  And in (extremely marginal) defense of the legislature, it is hard to close a 2 year deficit of approximately $20 billion in a budget of $85 billion, without every department taking a hit.  In further defense of the list itself, it is remarkable that they can close 1/4 of their parks while maintaining 92% of their overall attendance and 94% of the revenues paid to the system, showing that some parks are clearly more valuable to the general public than others.  And the fact that just this past November, the state’s voters just rejected (with 57.5% opposed) a relatively moderate fee to protect parks funding doesn’t help our case to make a priority out of State Parks in making budget cuts.

But there are places where the state legislature and the DPR have clearly missed the mark and the point of their mission to maximize state services and minimize costs:

  1. What do we pay taxes for? The state is closing 70 parks, but not laying off a single state employee in the process.  How is that even possible?  Where are the savings if all the employees remain employed?  We are not anti-state employee.  Both of us are actually state employees (wifey in the Cal State system and me actually working for Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries) ourselves!  But the point of the state budget is to provide the maximum possible services to Californians, not to maximize state employment!  I know the State Park system has many vacancies and they intend to shift workers from closed parks to vacancies in other parks, but clearly fewer parks could have been closed if personnel cuts had been part of the equation.
  2. Not all parks are created equal. I know the release linked above lists the criteria used in choosing the closures, and by and large, they appear to have done a good job of targeting the parks we would miss the most, but there are parks that have clearly been spared from closure for political purposes.  One is Colonel Allensworth State Park, which at one point in the recent past was the state’s least visited park, but it was curiously absent from the closure list, and I suspect it is because of certain special interests that fight to protect it.  Similarly, California Citrus State Historical Park has also regularly appeared on the least attended lists, and in fact was on two separate closure lists during the Schwarzenegger administration, but did not appear on the closure list.  I have a different conspiracy theory–which leads me to point #3.
  3. There are alternatives to closure that the state has refused to consider. I believe that Citrus Park was NOT put on the closure list specifically because there were other alternatives available that they refused to consider.
    • After several years of threats of closure, Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries introduced legislation to allow the City of Riverside to take over operation and management of California Citrus State Historical Park.  The City offered to eliminate entry fees, expand hours of operation, continue to label it as a State Park, and promote it as the most important park in Riverside, rather than one of the least important parks in the State Park system.  Even if the state didn’t close it outright, the City felt they could do a better job of promoting the park than the state has done.  But even though the Governor and the DPR has the authority to negotiate such an agreement, and it would save the state money and increase access to the park, they have refused to do so.  In fact, legislation to require this agreement was first forced to be amended, and then when the new language merely called on the DPR to negotiate with local governments to allow them the opportunity to save a state park with an operation and management agreement, it was killed outright for purely political and partisan purposes.
    • Other bills are still alive to encourage these sorts of agreements, but none of them require action by the state to consider all options to keep parks open.  One, by Senator Tom Harman, would require the state to notify local governments when a park is closing and accept bids to take them over.  Another, by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, would allow the state to enter into agreements with non-profits (such as conservancies or other groups) for operation and management of parks being considered for closure.  Unfortunately, both of these bills will still allow a DPR to refuse to sign an agreement to keep a park open, because they’d rather protect their political turf than let someone else keep it open for them.  Even in the statement by DPR, they have pledged to look for these sorts of opportunities, but speaking from first-hand knowledge, I can tell you they have not been sincere in their negotiations to this point.

I hope that those who actually utilize the State Parks will rally in favor of sensible solutions to the budget crisis and make sure that all alternatives to closure are considered first.  Can a local government or non-profit take over operation of a park to avoid closure (even one not on the list that might spare another)?  Can personnel cuts be made that might allow fewer closures to be made?  If park closures are necessary (and some may well be), have we really chosen the right parks for closure, or are some being protected for political reasons?  If you care about the parks, you should indeed call your legislators and ask these questions.

And while you’re on the phone with them, tell them to stop banning dogs from the trails, would you???

Iron Mountain Hike

Holly would love to be able to hike in our State Parks--won't you please help lift the dog ban?


  1. Chris Marks says

    You bring up a lot of interesting points here and have a unique take on an over-covered story. A big question I have with this list is how many will we really see close or more to the point, how much of this is just a ploy to put pressure on local agencies/non-profits to give the state parks agency money?

    Certainly this is a trick government agencies often use, Fire Departments, Police Departments, Schools, and of course Parks. Taken at face value this list of cuts would be devastating and a classic example of penny wise and pound foolish budget tightening. I too work for the government by the way (for a city planning department).

    Still I supported the $18 vehicle registration fee proposition last year because the parks system is badly underfunded (1970’s funding with 500 million more acres to manage) and it’s been set as a low priority by the state which can’t seem to get it’s act together.P.S. Dogs really do pose a risk to wildlife and I support the ban by the state parks. Not only because sloppy owners sometimes leave their mess on the trails but they can’t help but make noise and leave their scent. When wild animals encounter a dog (even from a distance or well after the dog has passed) it rattles them, raising their metabolism and forcing them to adjust their lifestyle if it happens often enough.

  2. says

     Good questions.  There are still opportunities to change the closure list with political pressure, but the cuts are based on budget cuts that will happen even if Governor Brown gets his tax increases/extensions in his proposal, so unfortunately it is unlikely to get any better.  But I do believe there are still ways to mitigate these cuts and possibly reduce the numbers of parks closed.

    As for dogs, I actually accidentally sat with the superintendent of the Chino Hills SP at a meeting today, and talked about the dog issue for a while (we live almost next door to the park).  I don’t doubt that there are sensitive areas where even responsible dog owners should be prohibited, I just disagree that they need to be prohibited outright from virtually every trail in every park in the state.  We’d be willing to pay an additional fee for the dog ($5?  $10?) to go towards enforcement of leash laws and clean-up mandates or other mitigation.  It just seems silly that certain trails (and fire roads) that allow horses and bikes and have a healthy population of native canine predators (coyotes) can’t find a way to allow dogs.  And it is unfortunate, because we were annual pass buyers before we got the dog, but now we won’t go to State Parks anymore except under rare circumstances.

  3. Stevecan says

    I want to know what gives the State the right to close parks to the public.  This is land we pay for and will have access to whether they close them or not.  They can close their facilities: bathrooms, water, maintenance, etc… but they do not have the right to close any public lands unless voted upon but the people of the State of California.

    Where does it state in the constituiton that we lost our rights to this land when the State is nothing more than the caretaker that tried to make a go of improving the camping and recreation for its visitor by charging for these improvements.  Close the improvements down but leave the access open.

    • Jeff Greene says

      They believe they can close off access to land they own just like they can lock up a state owned building at the end of the day. But there is significant question about whether they can legally cut off access to public beaches (California Coastal Commission seems to prohibit it) and a good percentage of the parks scheduled for closure were recipients of federal funds at one time or another that required them to stay open to the public under threat of being required to re-pay those grants, which the state clearly can’t do.

      They are trying to decide if they can do what you suggested, by allowing access to public lands without actually maintaining restrooms and other facilities within the parks, but still prevent mass vandalism or littering or destruction of natural and archaeological resources that lie within them.

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