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Why Close Any State Park?

When Governor Brown issued his list of State Park closures on May 13th, a numb silence spread through our park system. At first, Californians could not believe it. Why close down 70 State Parks at a time when the State Park system as a whole brings in far more revenue to both state coffers and local communities than it costs to run and maintain them? What is even harder to believe is that it took the California legislature almost six months to hold a single, one-half day, joint hearing on the matter. Where, for those six months were our elected officials on this matter?

The result of that one-half day session was a handful of legislators who made weak denunciations of the pending assault on the State Park System. The legislators expressed dismay that the list of so-called 12 criteria used to select 70 parks for closure could not be produced. It even appears that the notes taken during deliberation were discarded. Now, no one may ever know what went on behind closed doors as to why this park and not that one was chosen for the chopping block. Ruth Coleman, the California State Parks Director, has publicly acknowledged that shutting a park down is like abandoning a foreclosed home. Closure, in effect, means abandonment, deterioration, vandalism, and no commitment to re-occupy any time soon, if ever.

The Sonoma County Sheriff, Mr. Freitas, testified before the committee that law enforcement agencies have no money or personnel to patrol closed State Parks, investigate vandalism, or stop illegal pot grows that well may spring up. His concerns were clear. Another implication was also clear. Either keep the parks open with personnel and visitors on-hand to ensure the integrity and welfare of these 70 State Parks or let them deteriorate and become magnets to crime. It appears that no one in the state legislature has asked other obvious questions. If a park is closed due to the current budget downsizing, when, if ever, will there be revenues to re-open? What will be the criteria for re-opening a State Park? How much will it cost to recondition, repair, and then re-open a State Park? Once closed, how long might it take for a State Park to rebuild its visitor base? And, in the meantime, what happens to those communities that have depended so greatly on the closed State Parks for local tourism dollars? Will businesses fail due to the closures? How will the lost local and county tax revenue be replaced? There are other important questions to put before the state legislature and the governor.

Before turning to how important State Parks are to local and state economies, it is important to understand what the budget is for State Parks. According to the California State Parks published figures (August 8, 2011), the total budget for 279 State Parks for the fiscal year 2009/10 was $845,148,000. Of this total, the state’s general fund contribution is only $123.1 million. It is this budget item that is cited as the target of cuts amounting to $22 million. In other words, to save $22 million dollars, or 2.6% of the total State Park Budget, the State of California proposes to close 25% of the State Park System.

Of course, budget numbers are fluid and open to some interpretation. However, the decision driving the closures of State Parks is based on a top-down command from the Governor’s office to find 9% reductions across the board. This dictate ignores completely the revenue that is generated by the State Park system as a whole. There are also few comprehensive studies available upon which to measure how important the State Parks are to the state and local economies. Nevertheless, former State Parks Director Rusty Areias, in a press release dated October 25, 2001, titled California Economy Given Boost by State Parks Attendance Increase, stated that a projected increase of 21 million visitors, for a total of 93 million, was expected. The economic impact (2002) was estimated to be $5.2 billion, before fee reductions were in place, and $7.2 billion after the fees were reduced. Ironically, the State Park system increased park visits dramatically by reducing fees, not shutting parks down or increasing fees. Mr. Areias went on to state that an additional $2 billion dollars in economic impact was “created the business demand and the cash available to potentially support more than 31,000 new jobs in those local economies where state park visitors spend money.” A local study by California State University-San Luis Obispo in 2003,

Cited in California State Parks Quick Facts “found that visitors to Morro Bay State Park added $15 million to the local economy…” and that it was “responsible for 364 jobs in Morro Bay, primarily in recreation and amusement, hotels, restaurants, and retail shops.” The impacts to any State Park in the north counties may reasonably be assumed to be less. However, it is also true that the North Coast relies heavily on its State Parks as a mainstay to many communities.

As previously noted, the North Coast is being hit hard by State Park Closures. Much attention is being paid to Hendy Woods. However, the focus needs to be on all State Parks in Northern California. That is, of the 70 State Parks slated for closure, 31 are located from Marin County to the Oregon Border — -8 are in Mendocino County, 5 in Sonoma, 4 in Humboldt, 4 in Marin, and 2 in Trinity. The others are in Lake (1), Shasta (2), Napa (2), Colusa (1), and Tehama (2). The citizens of Northern California should not be forced, even if given the choice, to say close this one and not that one. It is never appropriate to set one group of citizens against another.

Out of 58 counties in California, the North Coast appears to have been singled out for especially deep cuts. As noted in the hearings, there was no consideration to the economic impact closures would have on local economies. Conceivably, there are more than two dozen communities in Northern California that will feel the negative effects of these closures. This translates into lost economic activity, lost jobs, and loss of vitally important access to the State Parks. There is a stated rationale for singling out Northern California for such deep cuts. When the closure list was first announced (on May 13, 2011) three criteria were listed.

They were “significance to state,” “visitation rates,” and “net savings.” As the hearings on November 1, 2011, co-chaired by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, discovered, there was no detailed scoring system on how the closure committee came to its decisions and what notes were kept were discarded. It was, in effect, a decision made behind closed doors with no input from those most affected by possible closures of State Parks in or near their communities. Nor were any environmental impact assessments, which would have taken into account economic and environmental concerns, conducted.

There is, however, one document that may shed light on how and why the decision to close 70 State Parks was made. No one can say that this document was a deciding factor, but it is certainly reasonable to believe that it was a GUIDING PRINCIPLE. The document in question is the current mission statement that serves to guide California State Parks Department operations. It states that:

“The mission of the California Department of Parks and Recreation is to provide for the health, inspiration and education of the people of California by helping to preserve the state’s extraordinary biological diversity, protecting its most valued natural and cultural and historical resources, by creating opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation for current and future generations to enjoy.”

So far so good. However, here for Northern California is the troubling part of the mission statement:

“With increased urbanization, the establishment of park units and recreation areas accessible to the major population centers of the state has become particularly important.”

This mission statement is to be found as the preamble to section 3790 — Department of Parks and Recreation of the Governor’s budget for 2011-2012. This statement of mission helps to explain why there are so many closures in Northern California. It also helps to explain why, in a budget crisis, there are new moneys in the 2012 State Park Budget for 3 new visitor centers, 3 increases for State Recreational Vehicle Areas, and over $3 million dollars for the Cuyamaca Equestrian Facility. The 2012 budget slashes funds for local assistance grants by $141, million, slashes resource protection and other “Element Requirements” by over $53 million, and has zeroed out such expenditures as “Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology Fund.” Reading any budget can be tricky. Those who constructed this budget will no doubt be quick to defend cuts here and added funds there. Stuff gets moved around to suit stated priorities, such as favoring “major population centers,” while allowing less populated areas of the state to suffer the most from the economic downturn. What the budget does not account for is the lost economic activity, the lost jobs, or the lost quality of life issues that Northern California must endure.

Northern California citizens need to amplify what Assemblyman Jared Huffman said on November 1, that “the administration (needs) to step away from this.” Closing State Parks, including 8 in Mendocino County, makes no sense. Why? The reasons are almost too many to enumerate. It makes no sense economically for the state. It receives far more revenue from State Parks than it spends on them. It has virtually no impact on the huge budget deficit the state faces. It will materially harm dozens of local communities by way of lost economic activity, lost jobs, and lost opportunities to maintain the health and life satisfactions of countless thousands of our citizens. Perhaps most corrosive of all, it reaffirms the increasingly cynical attitude that when times are tough, it is the least among us who must bear the burden. Northern California is not, nor is it ever likely to be, equal in numbers or political clout to other parts of the state. And to do it for the sake of saving a few million, while billions are wasted at the statewide level, is simply foolish. Ask a grocer, for instance, which department of your store typically loses money. Grocer will answer: it is the produce department. But would any grocery store eliminate the produce section to save a few dollars for the bottom line? Not if the grocer wants to stay in business. So it should be when considering the varied and enriching experiences of State Parks. Some may visit a park because they want to ride their off-road vehicles, others to fish, still others to see a historical landmark. In Northern California the reasons are clear: scenic beauty, the lack of crowds, camping, wildlife, and so many more wonderful things. Closing 70 parks (25% of the total number) to save $22 million dollars (about 2.5%out of an $845 million budget) defies reason. What is now required is forceful action by our elected officials to see that the state steps back from this. Keeping all our parks open is the only sensible thing to be done.

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