Like California's public colleges and universities, state parks have seen a steady decline in the commitment to state funding over the last 20 years.
As with our public colleges and universities, fees have become an increasing part of how we pay for parks from 6 percent of the overall state parks budget in 1980 to more than 50 percent by 2006.
And, as with public colleges and universities, state parks also have turned more to private philanthropy. About a dozen companies including Coca-Cola, Stater Bros. Markets, Bosch, Travelocity, Geico, Nestle, Subaru have provided funding for projects over the past three years. Interpretive signs, visitor guides and state parks maps include their corporate logos.
In the state park system, more than 34,000 volunteers supplement 3,850 paid park staff.
A sign of crimped public spirit, however, is Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to close 70 of 279 state parks on July 1 to save $22 million.
Fortunately, many public and private partners have stepped up to temporarily take over operations for a year, some for up to five years. But that's not a long-term solution.
The National Park Service will keep three state parks open. Local governments are keeping open six more.
Private donations from individuals, foundations and corporations, grants from the California State Parks Foundation and management by nonprofits will keep 13 open with 14 more operating agreements almost complete.
That leaves 34 parks.
In a last-resort step, State Parks has put out "requests for proposals" for private for-profit concessionaires to keep open certain parts of 20 parks that would otherwise close such as campgrounds, day-use areas or restaurants allowing at least limited public access to state parks. For example, American Land & Leisure of Utah, which runs campgrounds in national forests, will keep open some facilities at Brannan Island, Turlock Lake and Woodson Bridge state recreation areas.
Parks Management Co., which runs national forest campgrounds in the Big Sur area, has put in a proposal for Limekiln State Park. But the deadline has come and gone with no concessionaire proposals for others.
Parks for the people, by their very nature, are not meant to be big revenue generators or profit centers.
For their part, legislators have ideas to raise funds through special state park license plates, directing a portion of tax refunds for an annual state park day-use access pass, installation of new fee collection technologies to raise $10 million or so from parks not collecting fees and tapping existing water and transportation funds for park water and sewer systems, trails and roads. Every little bit helps.
Gov. Brown, however, has been strangely absent content, it seems, to let parks close.
Though on state parks maps he describes state parks as "wonderful places where families and communities can come together to explore the magnificence of the Golden State," Brown has yet to define a vision for what the California state parks system should look like and how it should be funded in the future. That's what California needs as July 1 approaches.
California has never closed a state park and it shouldn't start now. The hardest of times, during the Great Depression, spurred a new era of park planning and development. That legacy remains with us still if we don't squander it.
The Bee's past stands
"Partnerships are a good thing, but no panacea. At the current rate, a good portion of the 70 state parks slated for closure will indeed close unless California lawmakers and voters craft other solutions before July 2012."
Oct. 31, 2011