California State Parks Get Reprieve From Closing

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.

Voters unpredictable

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?

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.”

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