Neighborhood watch-style groups will have to do the work of rangers to prevent illegal activity in closed state parks unless voters approve a vehicle license fee or some other method is found to save the beleaguered park system, officials and park supporters said Tuesday.
California State Parks officials - who had planned to tell the public this week which state parks were going to be closed this year due to budget cuts - admitted Tuesday that the job of determining which parks to shutter is more complicated than they thought it would be.
As a result, they indefinitely delayed naming the 100 parks to be closed. They also said they did not know when the closures will occur.
"We are involved in a process we didn't understand was as complicated as it is," said Roy Stearns, spokesman for the park system.
One big problem, officials said, is that they don't know exactly how they're going to keep the public out of closed state parks and beaches. Officials fear a free-for-all among squatters and ruffians for dibs on thousands of acres of unpatrolled parkland.
Hard to fence in
"That's the difficulty and also the worry as we try to come up with a list of closures," said Stearns. "It's pretty impossible to close (many of the beaches and parks) or put a fence around them. People are probably going to go there. We hope they are careful and don't put themselves at risk."
Stearns said local sheriff's deputies will primarily be responsible for patrolling the closed parks, but many state beaches and remote wildland areas will be impossible to supervise adequately.
"We hope there is a kind of statewide neighborhood watch where people make a call if there is something that shouldn't be there," Stearns said. "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of our visitors are very watchful of these places and are as disappointed as we are that they are closing. I would suspect people will be eager to be watchful and report unscrupulous activities."
2010 ballot measure
Stearns said the final list, when it is released, will be a working document that may change if funding changes or if there are new ideas to keep parks open.
One idea is to put a $15 vehicle license fee on the ballot in November 2010. The initiative, being considered by a coalition of environmental groups, would raise about $400 million a year and eliminate entrance fees for motorists at all state parks.
The California Conservation Action Fund, which lists the California State Parks Foundation, the Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society as contributors, will decide this fall whether to spend some of the nearly $1 million in the committee's coffers to get the issue on the ballot.
"We want off this roller coaster ride, and we are looking for a tool that will be viable and will provide a long-term funding source for the state parks," said Elizabeth Goldstein, executive director of the parks foundation, which is leading the effort.
But a ballot initiative is not a sure thing. Legislation for such vehicle fees failed in 2008 and 2009 after Republican lawmakers opposed new taxes. Despite initial support in polls, it is unclear whether cash-strapped voters would agree to another Department of Motor Vehicle fee.
The agreement to close as many as 100 of the parks was part of a deal signed in July by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to erase a $24 billion budget gap this fiscal year. The deficit-elimination plan means virtually every state department will lose personnel and see funding slashed, but the state park hit list is weighted with a huge amount of public anxiety and outrage. It will be the first time in the 108-year history of the park system that a park has been closed to balance the budget.
California's 279 state parks, which cover 1.5 million acres, were already operating on little more than a shoestring budget, having absorbed years of cost cutting and staff reductions. As it is, the state parks have $1.2 billion in deferred maintenance on the books. Now, many of these under-maintained parks are facing outright abandonment.
Which parks will be closed remains a mystery. Park officials had said that parks that don't make money, cannot be operated with minimal staffing and are not self-sustaining through fees are in jeopardy. Stearns said the project now is to determine which parks can be patrolled by personnel from nearby parks or by part-time workers.
At least 25 state parks within an hour of San Francisco are vulnerable, including Mount Tamalpais, China Camp and Samuel P. Taylor State Park in Marin County, Mount Diablo and Angel Island, and beaches in San Mateo County and along the rugged Sonoma coast.
Henry W. Coe State Park, Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, Tomales Bay State Park and Candlestick Point State Recreation Area were on an earlier hit list and could very well be on this one too.
"The last thing we want to do is close parks if there are alternatives out there, so if someone shows up the day after we release the list with an idea, then it would behoove us to listen," Stearns said. "The goal would be to have this run its course in two years or less when hopefully the economy improves, state revenues improve and we can put our state parks back together."
Park closure developments
The list: State parks officials delay releasing a list of the 100 parks to be closed because of budget cuts.
Ballot measure: An environmental coalition is considering a 2010 ballot measure to create a $15 vehicle license fee to keep parks open.
Neighborhood watch: Parks officials ask the public to alert them to any suspicious activity inside closed parks.
E-mail Peter Fimrite at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle