Budget deficits have threatened California’s state parks – among the finest places with which nature has gifted this state – for several years, with annual threats to cut their operating budgets or even close them down.
Under most plans, only those parks that produce enough revenue to pay for their own maintenance and ranger staffing are assured they’ll never be closed. That includes some state beach parks where parking and camping fees produce substantial revenues and a very few others, like the Pt. Lobos Reserve State Park outside Carmel.
But the fate of scores of other parks and historic sites continues to depend on the way the political winds might blow on a particular day. Right now, closing is on the table for 70 parks. That’s just plain wrong.
For if we allow politicians to deprive California citizens of the best this state has to offer, then we enable them as they send the state down a primrose path to second or third-class stature.
Many roadside rest areas along California highways are already shut for financial reasons. This means there are no longer many non-commercial places for drivers to catch breathers and perhaps picnic, even on the state’s most sleep-inducing roads, like Interstate 5 between Grapevine and Stockton, or U.S. 99 from Bakersfield to Modesto.
The seemingly perpetual budget battles in Sacramento have already cut into the summer planning of many thousands. It’s much tougher to plan a vacation while unsure which parks might be open and which closed.
Wrote Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the private, nonprofit California State Parks Foundation, “With every financial cut to the state parks’ budget, there have been subtle and not-so-subtle changes, (resulting) in a system that has less human presence and is substantially less well taken care of (than previously).”
So what happens if and when most state park personnel are laid off? Do marijuana-growing cartels move into places like Pfeiffer-Big Sur or Kruse Rhododendron state parks – fabulously gorgeous places that happen to be almost perfectly suited for cultivating pot? With fewer park rangers, do we get booby traps set by such outlaw operations?
Goldstein told members of her group she’s seen park employees “find ways to keep on moving forward as their resources keep getting smaller. They’ve been masters as doing more with less. But there is always a moment when less is nothing but less.”
What’s more, there is no assurance that any budget cuts made now will ever be restored. So precious resources where Californians have headed for generations to renew and relax may disappear.
Into this sad situation this spring came a proposal by Republican state Sen. Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo to give counties and cities a chance to take over closed state parks for one year to five years. It aimed to encourage them to recruit volunteers to do work not done by sophisticated, trained professionals.
At the same time, his fellow Republican state Sen. Tom Harman of Orange County proposed allowing the privatizing of parks in order to keep them open. Democrats voted down both bills, but left open the possibility of doing what the measures called for.
Those votes came because both bills raised concerns that republicans, who often have sought to privatize state services, might try to take whole units out of the state park system forever and give them to private companies (read: GOP campaign donors).
Harman and Blakeslee denied this, saying there was nothing in their measures forcing the state to let anyone take over parks, but only a requirement that the state listen to offers. Yet, worry persisted that even if park takeover agreements appear temporary at first, they could eventually become permanent, dooming the state’s most pleasant places to either unskilled management or commercial exploitation.
All this is just plain wrong. Because a few lawmakers have refused to allow a popular vote on Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to extend the small income, sales and vehicle license tax increases agreed to in 2009, many thousands of Californians could be deprived of one of the major joys of their lives.
Of course, those same Californians last year turned down a ballot measure setting up an $18 vehicle license fee surcharge to fund state parks.
So it’s not only politicians who have made state parks a political football, kicked around at the risk of destroying some of the most precious and delicate resources and opportunities California can offer. Voters are also to blame for putting some of the finest places in California at risk.