There is a narrative quality to the series of events that have taken place in relation to the funding of California state parks over the past few years. The story has taken many twists and turns within that time, often melodramatic with undertones of Greek tragedy. More recently, as the cast of characters has grown, it has taken on the epic proportions of a Norse saga or perhaps a ballad set to music.
At any rate, the dénouement of the drama has been reached with the arrival of July 1, 2012, . This doesn’t mean that the story is over, but it bears looking back at how we got to this point.
The ongoing funding problems for state parks go back many years, but really started to reach a crisis level in 2009, when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a state budget that would have closed 220 of the 278 California state parks. The cuts were so severe that they would have resulted in layoffs of at least 2,000 park rangers, biologists, lifeguards, interpreters, architects, and maintenance workers. The proposal was ultimately scaled back, after strong opposition from park supporters around the state. Nevertheless, cutbacks resulted in reduced maintenance, administrative staff, and operating hours at many parks.
An ambitious plan to fund the state parks was proposed in 2010, with a ballot initiative that would have provided a steady and reliable source of funding through an $18 increase in the vehicle license fee. Proposition 21 was soundly defeated in the November elections of that year, however, another victim of the third rail of California politics: the dreaded "car tax." It became clear that a new and innovative approach to funding state parks was sorely needed.
During this time of uncertainty for the state parks, I attended Park Advocacy Day in Sacramento in March 2011. This annual event, sponsored by the California State Parks Foundation, brings state park supporters from all over California to the Capitol Building to meet with legislators and lobby them on issues that affect our parks. We knew at the time that the Department of Parks and Recreation was going to release a “closure list” sometime in the near future. There was much discussion about the criteria that were going to be used to select parks for the closure list. Revenue-producing parks such as Hearst Castle or the state beaches in Orange County were obviously safe from closure. There was also talk that culturally significant parks or popular parks close to large urban areas would be safe.
It was an ominous Friday the 13th when the Department of Parks and Recreation finally released the much anticipated and dreaded list of state parks that were going to be closed permanently. The list came out in May 2011, with a scheduled closure date of July 1, 2012. There were 70 parks on the list, more than one fourth of the 278 state parks in California. Four of them were here in Marin County: China Camp, Olompali, Samuel P. Taylor and Tomales Bay. The criteria that we had heard would be considered seemed to have been thrown out the window. How could a culturally significant park like China Camp, located in the densely populated Bay Area, be slated for closure?
Park supporters began to mobilize throughout the state. Many parks on the closure list had nonprofit cooperating associations that support them with volunteers, although these groups found they were hampered by state laws that limited the ways in which they could help. In response to this, Assemblyman Jared Huffman authored AB42, legislation that made it possible for nonprofit organizations to partner with California State Parks and assume some of the operations and costs. This began a grassroots political movement across the state, with nonprofit organizations mobilizing to raise funds and save the local parks that are so important to the community.
The change in strategy was significant, as is exemplified by Friends of China Camp (FOCC). This small group, a committee of the nonprofit Marin State Parks Association, had 35 members in 2011, and focused on interpretive programs and providing volunteer docents for the museum at China Camp Village. By July 1, 2012, FOCC had grown to a thriving organization with 1,200 members and strong community support. They raised $250,000 in the first six months of 2012, including substantial support from the California State Parks Foundation, the Marin Community Foundation, and the Marin Chinese Cultural Association. They are now in the process of finalizing an Operating Agreement with California State Parks to keep China Camp State Park open, and even to expand services within the park.
Other parks have benefitted from provisions of AB42, working out donor agreements with private individuals or organizations. Henry W. Coe State Park, the largest state park in northern California, was able to stay open for three years through donations from the Coe Park Preservation Fund. Some parks, such as Brannan Island State Recreation Area, Turlock Lake State Recreation Area, and Benbow Lake State Recreation Area, will stay open through concession agreements between the state and private companies.
Three state parks were granted a reprieve because of their proximity to national parks. Samuel P. Taylor, Tomales Bay, and Del Norte Coast Redwoods . There is even one park, Westport-Union Landing State Beach, where a proposal from Native Americans, the Cahto tribe of Laytonville, is being finalized with California State Parks.
The fight to save California state parks took many forms over the past year. One of the most effective campaigns was undertaken by the Olmsted Park Fund, founded by Alden Olmsted in honor of his father, naturalist John Olmsted. The elder Olmsted, who died in 2011, was instrumental in the establishment of a number of state parks, including Jug Handle State Natural Reserve in Mendocino County, which was on the closure list. The Olmsted Park Fund raised enough money to keep this park open, and also to make sizeable contributions to keep open South Yuba River State Park, Greenwood State Beach, China Camp State Park, and Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park.
The hard work of nonprofits and volunteers has resulted in a temporary reprieve for most of the 70 parks that were placed on the closure list. A long-term solution is still needed however, one that will address not only the funding of state parks, but also the backlog of deferred maintenance projects that has contributed to the deterioration of infrastructure and the diminishing of the visitor experience.
Huffman introduced new legislation in 2012 that aims to address these issues. AB1589, the California State Parks Stewardship Act of 2012, would modernize and simplify fee collection at state parks, and allow people to buy an annual state park pass when they pay their taxes. The bill passed the State Assembly in May with unanimous support and is now close to passage in the State Senate.
July 1 has come and gone, and most state parks are still open. A very effective way for people to demonstrate their support for the parks is to visit them and show Sacramento how much these places mean to us. The future for California state parks is still very unclear, but one thing is certain: the long summer days and sunny weather are perfect for an excursion to your nearby state park!