When Jared Huffman arrived at Hendy Woods State Park last Saturday afternoon, he was eagerly greeted by a good-sized crowd of locals and swiftly ushered off to have a look at The Gentle Giants, the stately redwoods adjacent to the day use area. Everyone was bundled up for the chilly, damp weather and chattering appreciatively as they tramped through the dewdrop-bejeweled fern fronds and ground hugging clover leafs. The guest of honor was duly impressed, we were later assured, with this, his first visit to our bureaucratically endangered park.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-Marin County) — formerly an environmental lawyer — is chairman of the State Legislature’s Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. As such, and as he campaigns to be our Congressman, Huffman is uniquely placed to actually do something to keep our State Parks open, and to this end he came to Anderson Valley last Saturday drawing a crowd of perhaps 130 potential voters to hear him address local concerns over the pending closure of Hendy Woods State Park. The park is currently closed for the season, and won’t reopen until April, just two short months before it is slated to be closed year-round, along with about 70 other state parks on June 30.
The locally organized Occupy Hendy Woods demonstration, which took place the previous weekend, received a good deal of Bay Area news coverage. Huffman said he'd decided to stop by Hendy Woods on the spur of the moment as he headed south.
“I was coming through and somebody suggested I stop by Hendy Woods…” Huffman had been campaigning in Humboldt County and was on his way back to Marin County where he makes his home.
“I had no idea there’d be this kind of turnout,” he said of the large crowd assembled in the park’s day use area to meet him and hear what he had to say.
“If you are trying to send a message, you can consider that message received — by me, at least.”
The crowd, of course, warmly murmured its approval. They were a fairly sophisticated lot, much more urbane than the Anderson Valley’s more picturesque characters who generally dress out of a wardrobe for a Russian-peasant epic. And surely, the people who turned out to hear Huffman were well-rehearsed on the issues, and probably aware of the Assemblyman's letter in this fine publication criticizing the recent article by Franklin Graham called “North Coast Up For Grabs.” Huffman and a couple of his supporters claimed it contained “serious factual errors,” but were unable to point to any. Huffman and his partisans suggested Huffman's lead opponent for Congress, Norman Soloman, had somehow been responsible for the criticism.
With all this in mind, the crowd listened attentively, if somewhat skeptically, to the Marin Assemblyman.
“Now, the task is to find solutions,” Huffman declared. “This is not the first time I’ve had to address this issue. Former Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger wanted to close over 200 State parks.”
Huffman said he'd worked to keep the parks open during the previous administration, adding that he sympathized with Governor Jerry Brown’s budget difficulties and repeated his vacuous declaration, “Now the task is to find solutions.”
Huffman mentioned the possibility of non-profit groups taking over some of the parks, such as was recently proposed for Jughandle State Park over on the Coast, and how the owner of the Lagunitas Brewing Company in Marin County was angling to sponsor the operation of a park in that area. “And I’ll work with him on that,” Huffman asserted, perhaps planting a bug in ears of our local brewmeisters.
Huffman said it costs the state $22 million to keep the parks open but it would be much more expensive than that to re-open them because of the cost of revived maintenance. He mentioned the 12 anonymous bureaucrats who'd met in a closed chamber to decide the fate of 70 state parks, corroborating Kathy Bailey’s assertion that this was how the decision to end Hendy had been done.
Somebody asked, “Why our park?”
“We have no way of knowing, or how to change the factors… The process was so flawed… Well, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Huffman said. “We don’t want to commercialize our parks, but on the other hand most people don’t trust the state with their money.”
The option was setting up a special state parks fund, but experience has shown that these funds can be appropriated by the state for other uses, and the overwhelming opinion in Huffman’s audience was that parks should not be turned over to private companies.
“That is my strong preference,” Huffman asserted. “That we keep them the way they’ve been for the past 100 years. So we need to find revenue solutions.”
Huffman joked that with the day's large attendance no one had been at the entrance collecting fees. He pointed out that parks in Marin County were generally so crowded that you often couldn’t find a camping spot, and yet the parks were being closed for lack of use.
Loren Rex, Regional Parks Superintendent, was present. Hufffman asked Rex for “some clarity” on the figures for Hendy Woods. Rex said it cost approximately $500,000 a year to run Hendy but the park brought in about half that. Somebody questioned the $500K cost and Rex admitted that the number wasn’t precise because many of Parks people also worked in other County parks.
“The days of having staff for one unit are long gone,” Rex explained.
A member of the audience announced that Huffman was scheduled to be a guest on KZYX radio with John Sakowitz the following week as another woman remarked, “The overflow camping for events at the fairgrounds, such as the Sierra Nevada Music Festival, the Beer Festival, the Fair, for all these things, we are going to find ourselves in trouble when these people have no place to camp,” commented a member of the audience. “Not to mention the businesses who depend on the tourists…”
“I am an environmental lawyer,” Huffman reminded everyone. “A well-placed lawsuit could probably bring this closure business all to a stop, and I don’t mind mentioning it to you…”
The crowd murmured approval.
“Now, I understand we may have a little bit of pot growing going on here …” Huffman began when Franklin Graham adroitly returned the Assemblyman to the matter at hand: “Once you close a park,” Graham said, “it’s like abandoning a house. It deteriorates quickly. We’ll spend far more to repair, re-condition and reopen the parks than it costs to keep them open and maintained.”
“Once they go feral, as they say, it costs more to reopen them.”
“Is this a Land and Water Conservation Park?”
There was a lament that a lawsuit meant the lawyers would get all the money, leaving none for the running of the parks.
“Good point,” Huffman said before he was reminded of the problem of policing the parks, should they close, with the already under-budgeted County sheriff’s department having to pick up the slack.
How liable would the state be if some transients at the abandoned park sent the area up in flames “and if the fire gets out of control and goes up the ridge, well, then, what about my house?! Who’ll be liable for that?”
“I think we’re going to have to look at some creative possibilities,” Huffman said. “I want to think of every revenue idea I can. On my walk through the trees I learned that the redwoods got it all started [the state park system]. But they’re not close to the cities, the people, the visitors... maybe we could charge an extra $5 more to see the redwoods… And I think we should raise the price during the peak use times, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and things like that. Now, you’ll argue that we’re pricing people out, but I don’t think so…”
“What about a volunteer staff?”
“I don’t know about that…”
Wendy Roberts commented, “I think special conditions apply with some of the parks.”
Huffman said, “The 12 men didn’t consider that!”
An angry voice said, “I wonder if we could get the chosen 12 over here…?”
This sentiment was greeted with sanguinary enthusiasm as an amused Huffman smiled.
“This administration is trying to grapple with a massive deficit,” he said in defense of Governor Brown, with whom Huffman, a loyal Democrat, clearly identifies, and he was building towards a pitch for his party and his campaign. He spoke of the failed Proposition 21 (the vehicle license fee add-on that would have adequately funded state parks) and lamented that it was too late in the day to try the likes of it again. “In the long-run that’s clearly the solution, but we’re years away form that ever happening and ‘cutting’ is the only tool the governor has at his disposal. Right now, I think our strategies are best focused on savings. We need more Democratic seats in the legislature — if we can get two more seats in the House and two more in the Senate in this election, then…” There was enthusiastic applause at the prospect of… “I’m really excited to see the community come together out here in the rain!” Huffman huffed. “If you want to donate or volunteer, we really need your help.”
The candidate mentioned his campaign website and said, “I invite you to keep in touch — I’m running for congress, by the way! Mike Thompson and Wes Chesbro have both endorsed me!”
More applause. Cheers. Huge applause.
Huffman adjourned to the Boonville Hotel for a campaign stop where my colleague Mark Scaramella picks up the report.
* * *
A much smaller crowd of about two dozen filed into the Boonville Hotel’s ante-room to quiz candidate Huffman who, if sent to Congress, will represent the newly drawn Congressional district now running in a narrow strip up the entire California north coast from Marin end of the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border.
Huffman’s positions on the major issues are standard liberal Democrat positions, protect Social Security, defend Obamacare, reduce the Pentagon budget, and so on. He’s well informed on state issues, many of which have a direct impact on Mendocino County.
Asked to compare himself to his opponent Norman Solomon, Huffman said he respected Solomon for his “true believer” positions on the big issues over the years, but that he (Huffman) has the legislative experience to “get things done,” a remark suggesting that Solomon is a mere fanatic while he, Huffman, is the sensible option for sensible people, the Thompson-Chesbro option you could say if you believe Thompson-Chesbro represent anything but more of the same.
Huffman claimed credit for streamlining the state’s “small stockpond” permitting process so that small vineyard owners could reduce their dependence on pumping frost protection water directly from fish streams. He also said he hoped the vineyards would pursue “non-water-based frost protection strategies.”
Asked about reversing the State Parks closures, Huffman said he’d do “everything I can,” adding, boldly, that he would prefer that no parks be closed. But “realist” that he is, he added that “some probably will be,” but he hoped the closure criteria would include consideration of the effects on local economies of closure.
Asked what he thought of the state’s realignment plan to send lower level prisoners to County Jails, Huffman said he knew that Governor Brown had promised that he wouldn’t leave office until the funding beyond the initial fiscal year was in place, and that “we all have to put our shoulders to the wheel” to get the ballot initiative that would fund the realignment passed in November. (As one attendee noted, the “realignment plan” sounds ominously like the bipartisan plan during Ronald Reagan’s governorship that sent mentally ill people back to “the community” without adequate funding or even housing.)
Someone asked what Huffman thought of the State Water Board’s recent decision to require that vineyard owners submit frost protection management plans to prevent fish kills. Huffman was familiar with the issue and replied that he didn’t “think it’s as bad as some of the growers think it is” and “it will probably be upheld in court.”
Although he co-sponsored Sheila Kuhl’s Single Payer bill in the Assembly and is all for Single Payer healthcare, he’s convinced that it’s unrealistic to expect Single Payer nationally, and for the time being small steps, like Obamacare, are the best that can be hoped for, then “someday” some kind of single payer. Huffman insists that Obamacare and the insurance mandate have some pluses and deserve support. Which is true so far as it goes but Obamacare mostly represents a huge and mandatory windfall for health insurance corporations, and more evidence that Obama and Democrats like Huffman represent a kind of soft Republicanism.
Wrapping up, it was clear that Huffman is worried about Norman Solomon. Because of California’s open primary laws, there’s a good chance that Huffman could run against Solomon in the general election if Solomon gets more votes than the only Republican running (a relatively unfunded and unknown Repub from Lake County). “We have to pull together as Democrats,” said Huffman, somewhat oddly, since there’s nearly zero statistical probability that a Republican could get elected in the newly configured Northcoast district, and a statement that ignores the many thousands of us up and down the Northcoast who think Democrats are half the problem.