Draconian Cuts & State Parks

Friday morning, December 2nd, at 9AM, the John Sakowicz show on KZYX/Z featured a live interview with Jared Huffman, candidate for the 2nd Congressional District. Mr. Huffman appeared in his capacity as Chairman of the State Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. True to Mr. Sakowicz’s word, the hour was devoted strictly to the issue of State Park Closures. Well, sort of.

In fairness to Jared Huffman and John Sakowicz, time constraints make it difficult to cover the ground. For Mendocino County and beyond this is a huge issue. Also on the program were John Pinches, Mendocino Supervisor, and Jeff Hedin, Piercy Fire and Rescue Commissioner and advocate for the Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area. What follows is a more complete picture of the impact the closures of State Parks means to the North Coast. What is at stake includes our economic welfare, our socio-cultural life, our environment, and our relationship with the political establishment. The reader may wish to access two previous articles that appeared in the AVA for more background: ‘If A Park Falls: Hendy Woods’ (11/7/2011) and ‘Why Close Any State Park?’ (11/23/2011). Here, the focus is in large part on information and developments that have surfaced over the last few weeks.

One of the volunteers at the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse who called in to the Sakowicz show perhaps said it best. He called the cuts to the State Park budget “draconian.” He should know. For years, he has witnessed cuts in state personnel, regulations that cannot be honored, and an overall with-drawl of support at the state level for our parks. Another caller characterized the setting up of non-profits to manage some state parks as a “simplistic notion.” He commented that there is “no guarantee the parks (will be) run for the public interest.” Mr. Huffman responded that “we need to take a fresh look.” He said that he is “hearing from many non-profits.” As the sponsor of the newly enacted AB42, which opens the door to non-profits to run up to 20 state parks, in part or wholly, Mr. Huffman is involved in organizing a “bidder’s conference” for those interested in such an initiative. Are we to assume, then, that if we want to keep parks, such as Hendy Woods, off the closure list that it is up to us? Must the solution be that every State Park that faces closure is abandoned to its own devices? The picture is murky at best.

What was not mentioned during the John Sakowicz hour are a number of developments that make the list of closings even more “draconian” than the call-in volunteer imagines.

To begin with, the California State Park Foundation noted, on October 6, that three state parks have been saved from the axe by the National Park System. The parks to remain open thanks to the National Park Service include Del Norte Coast Redwoods (Trinity County), Samuel P. Taylor (Marin County) and Tomales Bay State Park (Marin). These parks abut National Parks and as such can be absorbed into their operations by the National Park Service. Their revenue will go out of the State Park system and into NPS income. Fair enough.

Another flaw in the list of 70 State Parks slated for closing concerns The California Coast Act which “limits the state’s ability to close coastal parks.” Reference the Background statement of November 1: Joint Oversight Hearing: Impacts and Status of State Park Closures. The act in question insures public access to the coastline and “any move by the state that could limit access to public land along the coast could violate the act.” Park officials may try to get around this law with “plans to merely remove resources from coastal parks and not block access.”

Translate this as removal of personnel, sanitation facilities, security, the equipment to maintain trails and public areas, and more. The aforementioned Background statement also points out that some parks may violate agreements with the Federal government and “jeopardize future federal funding.” This is a direct reference to the 1964 Land and Water Conservation Fund. Since 1965, California has received $286 million. The National Park Service is on record (2009) as stating that closure of parks that have received federal grant money would violate provisions of the contract between the federal government and the state, as well as jeopardize future funds. Samuel P. Taylor State Park, to name just one example, is slated to receive $175,000 this December. Presumably, by saving this park from the closure list the grant will go to the National Park Service, not the State Parks Department.

How many other such examples are there? Parenthetically, the National Park Service, letter dated 8 June, 2009, referring to lands conveyed to the states must remain available “to the public for park and recreational use,” or they “may revert to federal ownership for re-disposal.” In Mendocino County alone, 16 State Parks or Beaches have received LWCF monies. Six of these are on the closure list. There are another 4 listed for closure in the North Coast Redwood District.

There is also the matter of state parks that cannot be closed because of “legally protected species.” At least four State Parks the currently fall into this category on the 70 closures list. Included are Morro Strand, Manchester, Moss Landing, and Zmudowski. Manchester, of course, is in Mendocino County. There are other legal issues that may also require extensive and expensive litigation due to existing law and contracts. Reference the Background statement presented at the November 1 joint hearing.

Before leaving the subject of State Parks that may not be closed due to legal and contractual obligations, special note should be taken of the 17 units identified by the California State Park Foundation as parks with Land and Water Conservation Funding that, according to the law, cannot be closed. Six of these are concentrated in the north counties (Annadel SP, Benbow Lake SRA, Castle Rock SRA, Olompali SRA, Russian Gulch SP, and Manchester SP.

By now, the reader cannot help but see just how ill- conceived the construction of a list of State Park Closures is. The closure committee apparently ignored legal and contractual constraints, environmental regulations, and just plain common sense. The question must be asked: why is all this happening?

The simple answer, perhaps simplistic or flimsy would be more appropriate, is that the Governor began it all by demanding every department of government to cut 9% from its budget. It appears that once the Governor made his demand, twelve apostles of the State Park Department met in secret and came up with the list of closures (70) designed to meet the dictate to reduce the General Fund portion of the Park Budget 9%. In doing so, they claimed to have cut the visitor-ship base by 8% and revenue by only 6%. It is possible that the officials in charge of coming up with the list of closures thought they were doing a good thing to save money. For some of those who have done such a “good job” there is a special bonus of $600,000 for retiring executives who have not taken all their vacation pay, this according to a leaked internal memo. Throughout this entire process, no one has stood up to protest that this is just plain mean-spirited.

None of this, of course, relates directly to what it means to the economies of North Coast communities. According to John Pinches, Mendocino County Supervisor, 5,000 jobs related to the tourist industry are directly impacted. He presumably was speaking only for Mendocino County. Whatever turns out to be the full scope of affected businesses and jobs, the effect will be “draconian.”

What no elected official has dared to focus on is the true dimensions of the economic impact closures will have on the North Coast. For starters, Mendocino County has a median household income of $41,488, which is 70.4% of the state’s average median income. Del Norte County figures are even lower.

Humboldt and Trinity counties are lower still. In short, the northern counties are without question one of the most economically challenged areas of the state. In contrast, Marin County, which has a median income of 147.1% of the state median, at $86,658 per household, is the richest. Does it surprise anyone that two of the parks on the October 6 list exempted from closure are in Marin County? Samuel P. Taylor and Tomales Bay State Parks will remain open. Money and being next to a National Park do make a big difference as to staying open or being shuttered.

Then there’s the case of Henry W. Coe State Park, in Santa Clara County. Due to private donations, $900,000, this park will also be spared from the chopping block. Voluntarism does work you might say. Yes, if you live in the second richest county in the state, at $84,990(144.2% of the median household income). Finding volunteer dollars is conceivable if your population base is 1,880,285. By way contrast, Mendocino County has only 90,289 people, one person for every 21 living in Santa Clara County. Plainly, the counties with the largest population base, the richest households, and lowest rates of unemployment fair far better in avoiding closure of State Parks and Beaches than do the more rural, less affluent areas of the state. Put another way, those counties that depend the most on economic activity by park attendance fare the worst.

There is another factor to consider in assessing the economic impact of closing state parks, the level of unemployment in the affected areas. It is not enough to say these areas are among the least affluent and sparsely populated. They are also disproportionately dependent upon the employment that is provided directly by their State Parks. They depend mightily on tourist and visitor dollars to maintain local economies. While Marin County can boast of a below state average unemployment rate of 8.3% in 2010, Mendocino County comes in at 11.4%, Del Norte County at 13.3%, Humboldt County at 11.5, and Trinity at a crushing 18.7%. As stated at the November 1st legislative hearing, economic impact factors did not enter the list of 13 criteria considered by the closure committee.

In Anderson Valley, for instance, “the Committees (it is presumed this refers to legislative committees) received a letter signed by 40 local wineries and businesses in the Anderson Valley concerned with the impact that closing Hendy Woods State Park would have on the local economy.” The implication is that even state legislators do not understand the ramifications of park closures to local economies. Dave Evans, at the Navarro Store, put it succinctly, that closing the state parks “is one more nail in the coffin.” He stated that he can’t count the number of customers to his store who ask for directions to Hendy Woods. How many businesses may go out of business or have to lay off employees is incalculable before the fact? But does anyone really want to see the probabilities of increased unemployment and failed businesses become a reality? On the Sakowicz show, Supervisor Pinches estimated that 5,000 people will be directly impacted by park closures in Mendocino County alone.

What Californians are witness to coming from Sacramento is the three-step waltz of the decision-making process. It is a process designed to obscure how decisions are made and avoid accountability. First, at the executive level the Governor sends down his dictum: cut each department by 9%. In response, the nameless, all but hidden bureaucracy goes to work making the cuts. This is done behind closed doors with no input from those to be affected materially. What notes are taken about the process and how decisions are made is destroyed. To date, the twelve apostles of the Parks Department bureaucracy remain anonymous. Then comes the third step; the legislators step pass the budget which includes the cuts. At each stage, no one takes responsibility for the ultimate decision.

Is it passing strange that of the thirteen assembly members on the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, only one, Chairman Jared Huffman, represents a North Bay county meaningfully impacted by the State Park Closures List. But fear not, two of the four parks listed to be closed in Marin County have since been rescinded. The committee vice-chair, Linda Haldeman from Fresno, saw no cuts to her district. Of the six closures announced that are within the 13 districts represented by committee members, two are in Huffman’s district (China Camp and Olompali). The remaining four represent historical parks, such as Pio Pico SHP and the San Pasqual Battlefield SHP, with the exception of Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve.

It is reasonable to conclude that some care was given not to impact much the districts of committee members. That said, the four Republican minority members of the committee did take the biggest hits in relation to Democratic members as a whole. Politics, one might say, is like making sausage: you don’t want to watch. However, if one wants responsive leadership, one must.

It all comes back to one thing: where was leadership at the state level while all these cuts were being made? Did no one with the Governor’s ear make it plain to him that the California State Park System is a net producer of revenue for the state, a vital economic engine for dozens of local communities, and a source of enhanced well-being for tens of millions of people each year? Did no one make the argument that while government does have to find the means to balance its budget, the wrong way to go about it is to weaken one of the areas of state government that returns far more in revenues than it costs to run it? Did no one suggest to the legislators that the reason they are the highest paid state legislators in the country, by far, is because those who have sent them to Sacramento expect leadership from them, leadership that knows how to govern intelligently and humanely?

Unfortunately, the nostrum that Mr. Huffman kept returning to throughout the interview was AB42. At both of Mr. Huffman’s latest appearances in Mendocino County, in- person at the Occupy Hendy Woods event and by phone on the John Sakowicz show, his best solution to date is to suggest that volunteers step up to the plate and take over running parks, like Hendy Woods. The legislator takes pride in having written and passed AB42, which potentially allows for up to 20 parks on the closure list to be run by volunteers through “operating agreements.” That may indeed be feasible for a county such as Santa Clara with a population base nearing 2 million and a level of household affluence more than twice that of Mendocino County, a county with 5% the number of people living in super-affluent Santa Clara.

When Supervisor Pinches tried to make sense of where to cut state expenses other than the State Parks, Mr. Sakowicz deflected Pinches’ observations by returning yet again to AB42, saying that “I hope it (AB42) will help state government achieve…” Achieve what? Keeping our parks open through volunteers? “We’re gonna balance the state budget on the back of the Park System,” rejoined Pinches. Fire Chief Jeff Hedin also made it plain that a park cannot be considered simply in raw economic terms, a means, as Mr. Huffman puts it, to “capture revenue.” For Hedin, a volunteer fire commander, a state park is a vital source of water in a fire emergency and a refuge for evacuees, to say nothing of the economic benefits to a community.

Clearly, the uniform sentiment of every citizen aware of the State Park Closure decision is that it needs to be rescinded. It was a decision made behind closed doors, with no input from affected communities. The criteria list and notes taken during deliberation were destroyed. Every examination of the economic impact to local communities leads to the conclusion that it will do more harm than good and cost more money than it saves to implement the closures. Once closed, for a period of perhaps five years or more, the affected parks will experience accelerated deterioration of infrastructure, habitat decay, vandalism, and lack security. The cost to re-open a closed park is also estimated to be far more than the imaginary savings to be achieved in the first place. There are perhaps two dozen parks on the list that cannot be closed without violating federal laws or concords (especially the Land and Water Conservation Act), the Coastal Protection Act, and regulatory obligations to protect endangered species. Litigation alone may be a large, unanticipated cost.

Finally, if the State Government persists in following through with the park closures, excepting those identified as already exempted from closure, the ultimate effect will be an erosion of the “social contract” that any system of governance must rely upon. This may sound somewhat abstract to the bean counters charged with “saving” (slashing) $22 million from the park budget.

Even so, every citizen still wants to believe that those who lead and those who govern do so with the consent of the governed. In this age of increasing distrust of government, there is still some measure of faith that ultimately our elected leaders are accountable to the people. The proposed list of 70 State Park closures has already had a damaging effect. It is widening the divide between the affluent, urban areas of the state and the more rural, less affluent ones. And what of those who do not happen to live in the impacted communities? Can they breathe easy and ignore what has happened? They too will experience the loss. They will not be able to experience the full measure of California’s natural and scenic legacy. Their lives too, though not affected by loss of employment or loss to their business, will nonetheless be the poorer for the lack of a fully supported State Park System.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.