California Puts Brake on Parks

Source Wall Street Journal

By JIM CARLTON

GUERNEVILLE, Calif.—State parks here are in a downward spiral amid budget cuts that have left many only partially open and in decrepit condition heading into the busy summer season—amid plans to indefinitely close a quarter of the 278 parks.

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Jim Carlton

Public safety superintendent Jenny Donovan said budget cuts have made her job tougher to patrol places such as Sonoma Coast State Park, north of San Francisco.

The 70 closures, slated for 2012, would be the first in the 84-year history of California's state park system, the largest in the country. The legislature decided in May to cut an additional $22 million from the state Department of Parks and Recreation to help close a state budget deficit of $9.6 billion.

Overall, funding for California state parks has dropped 43% since fiscal 2006, to $99 million planned for the fiscal year beginning July 1 from $175 million six years earlier.

Sixty state parks are partially closed while 90 more have experienced severe reductions in services, said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Officials are racing to try to avert some of the closures, including with a bill that would make it easier for nonprofit groups to take over some park operations. But the bill proposed by Democratic Assemblyman Jared Huffman—which has passed the Assembly and is pending in the Senate—wouldn't save all of the parks, Ms. Goldstein said. "We are not optimistic we will keep 70 parks open or anywhere close," she said.

Budget cuts have hit state parks elsewhere, too. Arizona has closed seven of its 30 state parks over the past 18 months because of budget troubles, said Renee Bahl, executive director of the Arizona State Parks Board. Officials in Idaho, meanwhile, are considering corporate sponsorships to keep state parks open there.

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Jenny Donovan

California state parks have had so many budget cuts in recent years that basic upkeep, such as to these crumbling stairs and a now-closed trail in Sonoma Coast State Park, is falling by the wayside.

Some people say the parks cuts are necessary at a time when almost every other part of state government is being reduced in the face of big deficits and suggest the parks' agency should seek new sources of revenue.

"There are things they could do to become more self-sufficient," such as charging higher camping and day-use fees and outsourcing campground operations to a private concessionaire, said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a taxpayers' advocacy group in Los Angeles and Sacramento.

Advocates argue the timing is bad. "When you have near-record unemployment and home foreclosures and a health and obesity problem with youth and adults, that is a terrible time to be taking away the close-to-home recreation opportunities for these folks," said Phil McNelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors.

The impact can be seen at the Austin Creek State Recreation Area, a 5,683-acre forested preserve near Guerneville, in the mountains of Sonoma County north of San Francisco. Budget cuts prompted park officials in 2010 to close the 24-site Bullfrog Pond Campground for 10 months out of the year.

On a recent day, a padlocked gate blocked motorized access to the bucolic campground, where rodents had taken up residence in a restroom and its mirrors were missing. The campground is set to reopen July 1 through the end of August.

"People get really mad at us when we tell them it's closed," said Jenny Donovan, public safety superintendent for the park agency's Russian River district, which includes Austin Creek. "But as state park employees, it's hard on us, too."

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