We are fast approaching the July 1st date when the Department of Parks and Recreation will shutter many state parks. It is now certain that some of the 70 parks listed for closing will in fact not be closed. A few, such as Tomales Bay, Samuel P. Taylor, and Del Norte are to be rescued because the National Park Service has stepped in to absorb them into their operations. There are likely to be others saved due to the Coastal Commission jurisdiction. There are a few others that will be saved by volunteer groups that have stepped in to bear the burden of operating their treasured parks: Mono Lake Tufa SNR and Henry Coe State Park are examples. With all of this in mind, what about those state parks which are not so fortunate to be protected by the generous efforts of the National Park Service, volunteer groups, and perhaps legal restrictions?
In no small part because of the huge outpouring of concern by citizens of the North Coast our Democratic representatives are now at work to reverse the current state park closures decision. However, the road ahead is full of uncertainty and unseen hazards. Like the Titanic that struck a glancing blow to the side of an iceberg 100 years ago (April 14, 1912), few of us saw it coming. We were trying to enjoy our California life journey without due regard for the budgetary fog that has settled over our economic and political welfare. But let’s not dwell on our past shortsightedness. It is time we focused on the road ahead.
Assembly Bill 1589
There are presently two legislative initiatives that, if passed, will certainly help alleviate the current situation. The first one is AB-1589, jointly authored by Jared Huffman (San Rafael), Wes Chesbro (North Coast), and Roger Dickinson (Sacramento). In addition, four other members are listed as co-sponsors. Significantly, all seven assemblymen are Democrats. Only one, Bob Blumenfield, is from the southern part of the state (San Fernando). Since this bill will require a two-thirds favorable vote, the hurdles it faces are significant.
Perhaps the most encouraging element of the bill is its formal recognition of the undisputed facts that call into question park closures. Namely, Article 1.8 of the California State Park Stewardship Act of 2012 reads: “(c)) California state parks are vital to the quality of life in California and are a major draw for tourism in the state, generating billions of dollars in annual economic activity in communities near state parks and in park-related expenditures. The economic activity generated by state parks helps sustain small businesses and jobs in local communities near state parks and generates significant tax revenue for the state.” And,”(d) The budget for state parks has not kept pace with population growth and growing demand. The annual budget for state parks has been significantly below the amount necessary to maintain state parks in their current condition. State General Fund revenue for state parks declined by over 37 percent between fiscal years 2007-08 and 2012-13,
inclusive. The ongoing shortfall has resulted in a deferred maintenance backlog of over one billion three hundred million dollars ($1,300,000,000) by 2010, inadequate staff to protect park resources and maintain public access and safety, and partial closures of many state parks. The state park system cannot sustain further cuts in funding and remain viable.”
In short, these two acknowledgements within the bill frame the argument both for the need to keep the parks open and to fund them at a sustainable level. To achieve these ends, the bill provides in detail criteria for evaluating the importance of a state park to the local communities that would be affected by closure.
Within the body of AB-1589 are a number of new initiatives to provide for increased funding of the state park system. These include a means to divert existing funds to improve fee collection by the construction and use of new fee collection technologies, voluntary tax-payer check-off on tax returns to contribute to state parks, and a new special vehicle license plate program. Thus, much of the burden to be taken on to avert park closures falls on the individual citizens of the state, and not its political establishment. It may be assumed that given the current state of budgetary constraints in Sacramento, any reliance upon new general tax revenues or the rolling back of planned budget reductions is politically unachievable. Given that no Republican assembly member has signed on to the bill and all but one of the seven Democrats hails from the northern half of the state, this is a reasonable assumption.
On February 6, 2012, Assemblyman Huffman stated that “This bill is about charting a more sustainable future approach to managing and financing our treasured state parks…”
However, even he acknowledges in the same message that the goal is to “achieve…budget savings without wide scale park closures.” The bill, as it stands, provides for the means for closing up to 25 state parks, provided that new rules for transparency, disclosure, and an explicit methodology for the criteria used to close state parks are adhered to.
By now the reader may be forgiven if he or she does not understand why the simple thing cannot be done: that is, simply restoring the $22 million dollars in budget cuts and then moving on to the task of putting in place the stewardship plan. But, remember that we are talking about California. When the Titanic, that unsinkable wonder, struck the iceberg on that fateful night of April 14, 1912, it had sailed with only enough life boats to save perhaps one half of its passengers and crew. There was no alternative that night but to abandon 1517 human beings to their own fate in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Whatever one may want to believe about the “life boat” ethic, it certainly did not operate that night. It is just so with the state park system. The mind set, by all appearances, is still one of “prioritizing” and thus abandoning some for the greater good. The Captain of the Titanic ordered that the most treasured, that is the women and children, were to be saved first. This is the implication of the cap of 25 closures being permitted, provided that certain rules are followed. Will there be a mad scramble on deck among the remaining state park communities to see whose park-life is saved from the axe and which are, figuratively speaking, thrown overboard?
Of course we need to applaud our state assembly members for doing what they can to save the day for our state parks. Within their sphere of action, they are doing what they believe is possible. But this does not mean that we, the electorate, should step back and say, “Do what you can.” We need to say, while recognizing their good efforts, that more is required. It should not give anyone a sense of satisfaction that the state park system can be “trimmed” or “downsized” at the expense of some and with no cost to others. Each and every state park is, as the authors of AB-1589 acknowledge, a unique treasure. On the North Coast, our state parks provide an extraordinary array of unique, world-class natural wonders. We offer the world, literally, the wonders of unspoiled redwoods and seascapes unlike anywhere else in the world. The challenge is to find the means to avoid throwing any such treasure, statewide, over the side.
Senate Bill 974
On January 19th, Senator Noreen Evans, in whose district 22 state parks are slated for closure, introduced SB-974. She made her position quite clear: “There has never been a defensible criteria for the closures…”
SB 974 would require a “formal and transparent process” upon which to consider any park’s closure. The Legislative Counsel’s Digest states that “The bill would prohibit the closure of any other units of the state park system until the requirements of the bill are fulfilled.” A majority vote is required, not the two-thirds rule regarding AB-1589.
SB-974 is a brief and to the point bill that outlines the requirement to re-examine the list of park closures through a transparent review process, one which must take into account 1) the “economic impacts on local communities...” 2) the cost of park closures, including “deferred maintenance, liability, and security,” 3) the honoring of acquisition agreements. In addition, the bill would require at least two public hearings, the availability of the minutes of any such meetings, and documentation of cost savings measures in lieu of park closings.
There is one aspect of the proposed bill, however, that may be problematic. Its provisions are to go into effect on July 1, 2013. That leaves in place a full year’s hiatus between its provisions going into effect and the existing plan to close parks in 2012.
Local Hendy Woods activist Kathy Bailey has helped to clarify this by pointing out that any bill that is passed into law during this current legislative session could not take effect until January, 2013 in any event. On the John Sakowicz program on KZYX, last Friday, February 10, Senator Evans indicated that she plans to introduce more legislation next week that would halt the closures for this year.
Senator Evans has made her position to the park closure process quite clear. In addition, encouragingly, is her opposition to for-profit entities being part of any realignment plan for operating state parks. When the Public Works Board announced its plan to “bundle” eleven state parks and open bids from for-profit operators, the Senator was reported to be frustrated and angry. She was, in her words, “blind-sided” by the board’s announcement. She is on the list of Senators who must receive advance notice of any such actions. The pattern of non-transparency, call it secrecy, which the public has been subjected to throughout this entire process had thus extended even to high elected officials within the state legislature.
To reinforce the above analysis of the two bills now working their way toward committee hearings, it is clear that new regulations are very likely to be promulgated that will restrict, if not eliminate, the park closures process. Both within the State Assembly and the State Senate there is a strong sentiment for insuring a more open, transparent, and criteria driven process for considering closing any state parks. Neither bill as they stand, however, prohibits the closing of state parks. The Department of Parks and Recreation would still have the power to close any state park so long as it meets the new process requirements included in legislation.
To return briefly to the Titanic metaphor, there seems to be an implicit recognition on the part of state legislators that there is not enough room in the “life boat” for everyone. Otherwise, the language in the bills would be more explicit about immediately rescinding the current plan to close parks in its entirety. The Assembly Bill (1585) would allow up to 25 parks to be closed. Which ones, then, might we be concerned for? Kathy Bailey has pointed out that there are especially vulnerable parks within Mendocino County that would almost certainly be listed on a list limited to 25 units. Manchester State Park is an example. In any event, even at a reduced number of closures, the closure process is divisive and counter-productive. It is divisive because those legislative districts within the state that are not affected have to real incentive to join forces with those districts slated to lose access to their parks. It is counter-productive because the presumed savings through budget cutting have been shown to be illusory at best. No analysis of the cost of keeping a park closed has been made. A closed park will still require costs for security, fire protection, maintenance of infrastructure, and more. As to the costs related to local community loss of tourist income and jobs, the price is incalculable at this writing.
Finally, there is the almost unthinkable specter of for-profit operators coming on the scene. By definition, for-profit operators are in it for the money. The Titanic sailed with too few lifeboats as a cost saving move. Nor will a for-profit entity be over concerned about maintenance issues, improvements, and non-income related services.
As for the army of 40,000 volunteers, such as docents, who already shoulder a tremendous load of responsibilities at our state parks, what incentive would they have to continue giving their time at for-profit operations?
The Public Works Board did not make clear that there would be a time limit to any agreements made with for-profit operators. Logically, no for-profit would likely find a short term agreement acceptable. Once in hand, how might the state recover a state park from the control of a for-profit operator? Whether or not they understood the implications of opening the door to for-profit enterprises, the Public Works Board was effectively promoting the privatization agenda that is advancing into once sacrosanct areas of the Commons. State Parks are, without question, California’s most precious resource that is available to every person, regardless of place of habitation, income, education background, religion, or political beliefs. What other institution within the state can make such a claim? The duty we have as members of our respective communities is to support the continued universal access to our state parks, all our state parks.
When the Titanic went down a little after 2am on the morning of April 15th,1912, the survivors in lifeboats watched helplessly. The ship’s lights still shone. “And The Band Played On.” Take the few minutes needed to call, write, or e-mail our representatives in the state assembly and senate to add your voice to the rescue effort of the state park system. As Assemblyman Huffman has said; the state “needs to step back from its decision.”