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The Future of State Parks: Partnerships, Closures & Possibly Corporations

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A Save Our State Parks Campaign demonstration held outside the California State Capitol in June (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
California State Parks director Ruth Coleman said that the agency faces a total of about $39 million in cuts after the new budget, which directly states a $14.2 million cut, was signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger today. Additionally, $2.4 million was siphoned from a cigarette tax fund because less people are smoking. Furloughs and salary cuts round out the large number (Note: a full budget fact sheet is embedded below).

No list of park closures has been published, nor will it be for about a month or longer, Coleman explained. However, the original list of parks to stay open released when 80% of parks were to proposed to close will likely not be a concern because they will still be self sustaining (think Hearst Castle). She said that staff, with a finalized budget in hand, must analyze which parks can stay open and will close based on costs, revenue and legal issues such as units legally bound to stay open because of federal contracts.

Officials will also be using the time to see where partnerships can be developed to save parks. "[The public and local governments] should assume every park is vulnerable. Everybody should step up right now," Coleman said, noting that for each partnership that saves one park potentially means saving another. For example, if the Friends of Topanga State Park raise enough money to save it, nearby Malibu Creek State Park may have more funding options.

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Even corporations and private business could get involved. While a name change to a state park can be only approved by a commission, signing policies already allow for recognition. However, Coleman warns that seeking outside money should not be a long-term trend. "We don't look at this as a permanent situation... We should be very hesitant to make any permanent changes."

A proposed $15 annual vehicle registration fee dedicated to the state parks system was shot down last month by Republicans and Schwarzenegger who vowed to not increase taxes or fees in the process. If it had passed, state parks would be operating with ease and likely with expanded funding.

Some parks with with the highest visitation will not necessarily be saved because numbers include school field trips, which by law must let students enter without paying a fee. Revenues from entrance, parking and camping fees will play a major factor as to which parks stay open. Other parks may stay open because of their sheer size. Anza-Borrego in San Diego County is the largest state park--over 600,000 acres--in the lower 48 states and includes 12 wilderness areas. While the visitor center and campsites could close, the park itself may stay open.

About 30% of parks have zero staff assigned to them full time and some are basically run by volunteers such as Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park in Mendoncino County. In those situations, maintenance, trash and park rangers come by on a schedule, but are not stationed full time, because volunteers legally cannot act as law enforcement and from experience, Coleman says volunteers are not interested in cleaning bathrooms and showers on a daily basis.

Other parks that are under a federal contract with the National Park Service may legally stay within state jurisdiction if the parks stay open for a handful of days and close the rest. If they don't, parks could be swept back up by the federal government.

Although increased crime and marijuana grow operations such as the one recently found at Malibu Creek State Park are a concern, they won't be the ultimate deciders for which parks get funded. The theme of revenue is ever so present.

"We have a legal obligation to live within our means," said Coleman. Staffing is the major budget line item meaning seasonal, then full-time employees will be eliminated. July and August are the busiest and most expensive--35% of the budget--period for the department. And local areas may lose additional jobs because a loss of tourism.

Many of the park closures will begin after labor day, when all camping reservations have been honored, but a few parks may close earlier. Next year, it appears state parks could face a $22 million cut.

Talking Points on Blue Pencil Additional Budget Reduction july 28_ 2009.doc numbers only -

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