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Mendocino County Today: July 29, 2012

VROOM! VROOM! The Ukiah Speedway roars back into action Saturday night with a full schedule of car races peeling out at 5pm. A fireworks display commences after dark, the first fireworks in Ukiah in five years. The track was closed for four months due mostly to Dirt Gate, a mini-scandal kicked off by Bruce Richard, boss at the Mendocino Transit Authority. Site prep for Richard's lavish new bus barn and office suite required removal of contaminated soil. Richard, in a deal whose particulars still aren't known, arranged for the soil to be hauled out to the Ukiah Fairgrounds where it was used to firm up the track. When it was discovered that some of the soil was placed hazardously near a children's play area, and was considered hazardous no matter where it was placed, the dirt had to again be hauled to distant landfills. Racing was delayed, the track's long-time director went broke, a new organizer had to be found, and Richard got a raise. All-in-all, an Only In Mendo series of events.

GIVE US OUR MONEY BACK. The likelihood that Mendocino County's state parks would be closed because the state was broke mobilized a huge fundraising effort by private persons to keep the parks open. Then the state said, “Oops, we found millions we didn't know we had.”

TO THE SOUTH of us, the people who went all out to raise private money to keep open Henry W. Coe State Park, Northern California's largest, have threatened to tear up their deal with the state and demand their money back if the state does not spend at least $20 million of re-discovered cash to keep parks open.

“WE'RE FURIOUS. We feel we've been taken,” said Winslow Briggs, a retired Stanford biology professor who is on the board of the Coe Park Preservation Fund. “Our little group spent a year and a half raising money, apparently all for naught. What a waste.”

COE, southeast of San Jose, was among 70 parks the state threatened to close this year because of a $22 million cut in the Parks budget. Hikers, campers and other park users formed a nonprofit group to save the rugged, 135-square-mile expanse, raising about $350,000 to fund salaries and benefits for two rangers, two assistants and a maintenance worker through next June.

THE GROUP signed a contract with the state to fund the park for three years, and mailed the first installment — $279,000 — in May. The state cashed the check July 7, but then last week revealed that the Department of Parks and Recreation had a hidden stash of $54 million.

ABOUT $34 million of the cash is set aside for off-road vehicle parks, but $20 million could be used for all parks, said Richard Stapler, spokesman for the Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the Parks department.

“WE SHARE PEOPLE'S OUTRAGE. Over the next few weeks we'll be working with the Legislature and the administration over how to best allocate those funds,” he said. “Our real hope is to mitigate these park closures. … We want to earn back people's trust.”

COE PARK is not the only park kept open with public donations. Most of the 70 parks threatened with closure had nonprofit groups raising money on their behalf. In all, the public gave more than $1.82 million, with donations ranging from proceeds of children's bake sales to an individual gift of $400,000, Stapler said.

“IT'S HARD, when you see the efforts people have gone through to save these parks,” he said. “Californians of every stripe have done some heroic work on this and they should be applauded for it.”

IN ADDITION to the money raised, hundreds of people agreed to volunteer on behalf of the parks, and numerous local and federal agencies offered to take over state parks that would otherwise be closed.

PUBLIC EFFORTS have so far been successful: Of the 70 parks scheduled to close, only one, a mining museum in Calaveras County, has actually closed, Stapler said. The rest have enough funding and volunteers to stay open at least another year.

THE LEGISLATURE returns to work in early August and will work with Gov. Jerry Brown to decide how to spend the $20 million, Stapler said.

COE PARK is a former 19th century cattle ranch at the southern tip of the Diablo Range with 87,000 acres of rolling oak woodlands, steep canyons and creeks. The higher peaks get an occasional dusting of snow in the winter.

“IT'S JUST EXTRAORDINARY, nearly 90,000 acres of wilderness in the middle of Silicon Valley,” said Dan McCranie, treasurer of the Coe Park Preservation Fund. “We felt it was critical to find a way to keep the park open.”

THE GROUP collected donations from hundreds of park users, ranging from $25 to $25,000, in hopes of eventually creating a fund to keep the park open in perpetuity.

IF THE STATE decides to spend the newfound $20 million on programs aside from parks, the fund's board might sue to get its money back, members said. (Courtesy SF Chronicle)

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BUT NOW, in the case of Hendy Woods State Park in Anderson Valley at least, there’s already a noticeable drop in summer camping reservations which local park activists attribute to the previous closure announcement and the State Parks Department’s decision to remove Hendy from the nationwide computerized camping reservation system until it was put back on last month when locals came up with volunteers and $40k to keep the park open. If anyone has any ideas on how to get the word out about Hendy being open for camping please post any ideas on our website or on theirs at Or just make your camping reservations (also linked via the website). You can’t go wrong with a campout at Hendy Woods, one of the most accessible, hikable and gorgeous little parks in the entire state parks system.

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