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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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???