Donations May Save 2/3 of California Parks Set to Close

As the state scrambles to avoid the first park shutdowns in its history on July 1, private groups; local cities and counties; and rangers have come to the rescue.
by | June 22, 2012

By Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

Amid towering redwoods and tweeting birds, rangers on Thursday removed a "Closing Due to Budget Cuts" sign at Portola Redwoods State Park, saving yet another park from the closure list just days before California is scheduled to shutter dozens of beaches and campgrounds.

With less than two weeks until a July 1 closure deadline, the rustic Santa Cruz Mountains destination near La Honda became the 31st park saved from the list of 70 parks that Gov. Jerry Brown had proposed to close to help balance the state budget. A $100,000 donation from three Bay Area environmental groups will keep it open for at least another year.

Private groups, local cities and counties, and in some cases, rangers from the National Park Service have come to the rescue with donations to save parks, as the state scrambles to avoid the first park shutdowns in its history.

With time running out, negotiations continue to save another 24 parks. And 15 so far have no rescuers. On Thursday, California state parks director Ruth Coleman said that she is hopeful as many as two-thirds or more can be kept open.

"We are over 30 now. I would expect we can get to 50. My fantasy is to get to 60," Coleman said, describing the deals as "a reprieve" until larger state budget issues can be solved.

Bay Area parks removed from the closure list in recent months include Henry W. Coe State Park, near Morgan Hill; Samuel P. Taylor and Tomales Bay state parks in Marin County; Benicia Capitol State Historic Park in Solano County; and Castle Rock State Park and Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park in Santa Cruz County.

Several key East Bay parks, such as Mount Diablo, were never on the closure list because of their high-profile nature and large number of visitors.

Seven of the 15 parks that so far have no saviors are public beaches, such as Moss Landing in Monterey County, that the California Coastal Commission has said cannot legally close under the state's landmark Coastal Act.

Coleman said if no donations surface to keep them open, state parks officials will padlock bathrooms, and remove regular ranger and life guard staffing, but will leave the gates open to satisfy the law.

"If we start seeing huge enforcement problems, that will change," she said.

Some of the other 25 parks on the list still being negotiated -- which include Twin Lakes State Beach in Santa Cruz, Castle Crags State Park near Mount Shasta and Salton Sea State Recreation Area in the Southern California desert -- could remain open and staffed for a few weeks after the July 1 deadline to finalize details, she said.

"As long as groups are showing good faith efforts we are not going to lock the gates of all of them on July 1," Coleman said.

Brown, a Democrat, and his predecessor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, drew significant criticism for their attempts to close state parks to save money. In the 110-year history of California's state parks system, no governor has ever closed state parks, even during the Depression, to balance the budget, largely because they represent less than half of 1 percent of state spending, and also because they remain politically popular with both parties and drive tourism.

After receiving tens of thousands of phone calls, emails and letters, Schwarzenegger dropped his efforts. But Brown, facing a $15.7 billion state budget deficit, so far has not, saying that closing 70 parks -- one quarter of the state's 280 state parks -- would save $22 million a year.

On Thursday at Portola Redwoods State Park, the larger issues took a back seat to the news that the gates will remain open for another 12 months, allowing families access to the 53 campsites, 18 miles of trails and outdoor amphitheater where generations of children have attended campfire programs to learn about redwoods, astronomy and wildlife.

"We want to assure that the redwoods are protected," said Ruskin Hartley, executive director of Save the Redwoods League. "Our assessment is that bad things could happen if we lock the gates and keep law-abiding citizens out."

Under the deal, Save the Redwoods League, in San Francisco; the Peninsula Open Space Trust, in Palo Alto; and the Portola & Castle Rock Foundation, in Monte Sereno, will contribute $100,000 to keep the park open.

Of that, $60,000 will pay for operations, making up the shortfall between the $350,000 annual park budget and the money that would have been lost in entrance fees, camping fees and other revenue had the park closed. Another $40,000 will go to an "enhancement fund" to pay for projects that could bring new money to the park, such as building a new outdoor shelter for weddings and other events, or rehabbing several old cabins that could be rented to campers.

Also written into the deal: a provision that all the money over the next year will stay in the 2,800-acre park, rather than going to Sacramento.

"Seven million people live in the Bay Area. This park is less than 1 hour away for many of them," said Walter Moore, president of the Peninsula Open Space Trust. "This is our chance to bring people back to their parks, to reinvigorate them."

(c)2012 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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