Optimism Spreads that fewer State Parks will Shut Down

SACRAMENTO – State parks are not out of the woods.

Yet there is a growing sense of relief on the trail and around the campfire now that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to close 220 of the state's 279 parks will be downsized considerably.

“We're breathing a little easier, but we're still being cautious,” said Linda Tandle, executive director of the Anza-Borrego Foundation. 

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park was just one of the targets. Other San Diego-area state parks and beaches on the original list: Torrey Pines, Border Field, Carlsbad, Silver Strand, Cuyamaca Rancho, Palomar Mountain and San Pasqual Battlefield.

“We're still very nervous. This could be a big hit all around,” said Patricia Masters, vice president of the Torrey Pines Association. “Fifty years ago San Diegans placed it under care of the state. Now we're wondering what will happen.”

What will happen depends on how Californians respond, Parks Director Ruth Coleman said.

Asked if some parks are still destined to be padlocked, Coleman said, “In all likelihood, yes, I would say unequivocally.”

But she added a qualifier: Fresh funding strategies could keep the number low. Coleman and park superintendents are exploring a range of options, including partnerships to run some functions, offering local agencies the chance to temporarily adopt parks and closing a few facilities during the off-season or on weekdays.

“I don't want to sugarcoat this. I don't want to indicate there won't be a noticeable drop in park service. What I want to indicate is we're not willing to give up,” Coleman said.

“It will have to be a pulling together – like a barn raising. Let's work together in times of crisis instead of saying, 'Let's close up shop and go away.' ”

No parks will shut down until after Labor Day, if then.

As part of last week's budget agreement, lawmakers and the governor will divert $62 million from other program accounts to spare parks from most of the fiscal pain, leaving a more manageable $8 million deficit.

Ironically, the state plans to raid other recreational programs to help keep parks open. A fund for off-highway vehicle projects still on the drawing board will chip in an unspent $22 million, and the Department of Boating and Waterways will contribute $5 million to keep state parks afloat. The biggest shift, $35 million, will come out of a renewable resources fund collected by the Energy Commission.

While significant, $8 million is a little more than 2 percent of the park system's overall operating budget of $428.7 million, according to the Department of Finance.

But the parks department spends much of its budget during the busy summer months, so finding $8 million in savings during the off-season will be challenging.

Looking ahead, parks appear in jeopardy next year. The governor's original plan called for repeating deep cuts in 2010-11. State budget projections are pessimistic, and the accounts used to rescue parks this year may be drained.

Recognizing that, park supporters are crafting an initiative for a statewide ballot measure next year that would impose a $15 vehicle registration fee in return for free access to parks. With nearly 32 million vehicles registered in California, that fee could bring in about $480 million a year – at least $50 million more than the system receives now.

“The access fee is our best chance to provide a secure and stable source of revenue,” said Rick Vogel, president of the Torrey Pines Docent Society.

But any fee or tax proposal, even for something as popular as parks, is a tough sell to voters under the best of circumstances.

Meanwhile, some park advocates are not convinced there is widespread interest in adopting parks, particularly because local governments are struggling. The same budget deal that nearly decimated the park system borrows nearly $2 billion from city and county property taxes, and takes an additional $1 billion from local gas-tax accounts.

From the outset, Schwarzenegger said he was open to all alternatives – even giving local parks superintendents authority to raise fees. Entities that agree to temporarily adopt a park could also ask visitors to pay more.

State parks officials have yet to release any new list of closures. Targets will likely be determined based on the ability to generate revenue, attendance and whether there is any interest from public agencies or the private sector in adopting the park, Coleman said.

Joint federal-state park oversight functions, which have had some success in the Redwood Empire along California's north coast, is one money-saving idea.

“It has worked out relatively well,” said Richard Bergstresser, a north coast ranger and president of the State Parks Peace Officers Association.

But he is reluctant to completely farm out a park.

“To give away even one . . . would be admitting defeat,” Bergstresser said. “What are we here for? We're here to preserve the best of California for the future.”

The park closure plan was complicated recently when the National Park Service issued a letter warning the state that it could not shut down six sites that were once federal land.

If that occurs, federal law would require the park service to take title and turn ownership over to another agency for another use or, more likely, be put up for sale.

“There is no guarantee they would be maintained as a park. That's not an action the park service wants to take,” David Siegenthaler, the National Park Service's project manager for California, said in an interview.

“It would be out of our hands,” Siegenthaler said.

One of those federal deeds involves Border Field State Park in San Diego County near the boundary with Mexico that was once used as a training ground for Navy pilots.

“We are willing to work with state parks. I don't think it will come to these drastic measures,” Siegenthaler said.

Parks advocates note the cuts will be piled on top of other fiscal headaches, such as employee furloughs, including rangers. Parks have also lost $2 million because a source of funding, the cigarette tax, has declined dramatically.

Park supporters also argue to protect sites because parks return more in hotel and sales taxes than what it costs to keep most open. Small communities, such as Borrego Springs, are dependent on visitors.

“You're talking about a town dying,” said Tandle of the Anza-Borrego Foundation.

Still, they see the latest developments as positive, considering the governor at first sought to shut down nearly 80 percent of the state parks system.

“Given what we faced eight weeks ago, this is better than what anyone can expect,” said Traci Verardo-Torres of the California State Parks Foundation.