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    Visitors stroll and splash last week at Kneebone Beach in South Yuba River State Park, which began collecting a $5 daily parking fee in May.

  • Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club.

  • Kathryn Phillips is director of Sierra Club California.

Viewpoints: Now is the time for action to keep state parks open

Published: Sunday, Jun. 10, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jun. 12, 2012 - 9:52 am

Are you a native of California? Neither are we. In fact, about one in five Californians were born in a different state. Across the United States, millions of people grow up seeing pictures of California's stunning redwoods, mountains, deserts and beautiful beaches – and dream of visiting them some day. Some of us are lucky enough to become Californians who can explore these wonders through California's parks. How long will that remain the case?

This summer, when the Brune family goes camping in Mendocino's Hendy Woods State Park, we'll be thankful that this pocket of old-growth California redwoods has earned a reprieve, along with roughly half of the 70 parks originally marked for closure July 1. It'll be bittersweet, though, because the crisis that faces California's state parks remains unsolved. Although Hendy Woods will stay open – for now – many parks are virtually certain to close, and those that remain open will continue struggling to operate under severe budget constraints.

Our state parks provide both recreation and a network of amazing ecological diamonds where we can find respite in nature, view wildlife and rejuvenate from the pressures of city living. Last Memorial Day, Californians made 10,000 camping reservations. That's a lot of s'mores.

But our parks encompass more than just campgrounds and natural wonders. They also include cultural treasures and historic sites that help students connect with California history, art, culture and civic responsibility.

The state parks system's true value to California and its citizens is incalculable, although it's worth pointing out that every dollar the state invests in the parks generates more than double that amount in sales tax revenue. Thousands of businesses and communities that depend on park-related tourism will suffer economically as well – a factor that the director of California's state parks system, Ruth Coleman, has admitted was not considered when drawing up the list of parks to close.

Now, with less than a month before parks are shuttered, we need both immediate and long-term solutions.

Thankfully, the California Legislature is at least attempting to find some. The "Sustainable Parks Proposal" legislative package sponsored by state Sens. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, is one of several worthy efforts.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, has also introduced a parks funding and stewardship bill. Members from both political parties have joined in support to stop park closures and find long-term funding solutions.

This rare bipartisan spirit stands in contrast to a distressing silence from Gov. Jerry Brown. Thus far on state parks, Brown has been stronger on issuing ultimatums than on finding solutions.

Now is the time for the governor to do something. He must work with the Legislature to identify and implement both the best short-term crisis response and long-term sustainable funding options. We need a comprehensive review of funding sources or revenue-generating strategies that can both stop closures this year and ensure that there are no closures in the future.

As part of that coordinated effort, these issues must be addressed:

• The Department of Parks and Recreation needs the freedom to adopt a structure and staffing that supports the mission of the parks. Does requiring every superintendent to be a badged law enforcement officer help or hinder the mission?

• The state's population has grown tremendously in the past 30 years – and with it so has demand for park services and access. What will be required to bring the level of access up to demand?

• The state parks system contains many of our state's most treasured wild places. What has to happen to make sure the parks system is managing the natural areas and wildlife within its holdings in a way that ensures ecological health?

• Ultimately, the state parks belong to all Californians. How can the parks system avoid pricing park amenities – like entrance fees and camping spots – so high that they become outside the reach of working people?

This crisis did not develop overnight. Thirty years of financial neglect have left our state parks system with a $1.2 billion backlog in deferred maintenance. Californians know the value of their parks and will support a sensible plan to save them.

They would probably even recover from the shock of seeing the governor and the Legislature cooperate to solve a problem that affects us all.

The real question is not whether we can afford to maintain our state parks, but whether we can afford to allow a failure of political will and imagination to destroy one of our state's most irreplaceable assets.

More than half our state parks so far have earned a reprieve from closure on July 1. Gov. Brown, Californians are counting on you to finish the job.

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