California state parks plagued by decay

06/27/2010 12:00 AM

10/06/2014 8:16 PM

The Bee is taking a summer-long look at the state of California's state parks. Read the stories, view the galleries, and check out our new online park directory, including descriptions, maintenance and crime data for all 278 parks. Become part of this project by adding photos from your visits to state parks, sharing your favorite picnic spots and walks and any troubles that cross your path at www.sacbee.com/stateparks.

The images won't appear in any California State Parks brochure.

MacKerricher State Park: Fifty elementary-school kids arrive for their annual end-of-year camping trip, only to find the drinking water contaminated.

Mount Tamalpais: A trail near the visitors center greets disabled visitors and families with a 12- to 50-foot sheer drop-off – and no guardrail.

Hearst Castle: The marble Neptune Pool at California's most famous state park leaks so much that stalactites have formed in a cavity underneath.

Look beyond the crashing waves and towering redwoods, and California's 278 state parks are a tangle of troubles. The nation's largest state parks system is weighed down by a $1.3 billion maintenance backlog, according to a review of park records by The Sacramento Bee.

Park visitors already have dealt with abbreviated schedules and services. Now decay and neglect in the parks endanger the environment, artifacts – and even public health, as the students and parents of Skyfish School in Redway recently learned.

"It's been a real hassle," said Mark Jensen, a parent and chaperone who had to keep 50 kids from drinking the water at MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg. "There were actually a couple kids who drank some before we could get the word out."

Much of the park decay exists because maintenance has been largely ignored for more than a decade amid slim and slimmer state budgets. Buildings and infrastructure, subject to constant exposure and heavy use, just get worse until they fail.

As a result, the backlog has more than doubled since 2001, when it was estimated at $600 million.

The operating budget for state parks from state funding and user fees – which pays for day-to-day maintenance, law enforcement and administration – stands at about $330 million this fiscal year. In 2001, it was $314 million. Adjusted for inflation, however, that reflects a 15 percent drop.

Meanwhile, during those same years, California added 12 parks and 100,000 acres of land to its system.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to leave the $140 million general fund subsidy intact this year, after he was criticized in 2009 for requiring partial closure of 60 parks and cutbacks systemwide.

It remains to be seen whether the Legislature will agree to keep the parks budget intact – and status-quo funding will do little to shrink the mountain of untended maintenance.

Environmental groups think they have a partial solution in the recently qualified November ballot initiative that would levy an $18 annual fee on every California vehicle registration, raising at least $208 million a year. In return, residents with up-to-date registration would have free day use of all state parks.

Increasingly, volunteers also are stepping up to help care for California parks, going beyond their traditional work as tour guides and docents. In May, for instance, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a statewide cleanup of some 10,000 city, county and state parks.

Private foundations and parks boosters supplement government funds as well. Last week, a Russian billionaire signed an agreement with Schwarzenegger to launch a nonprofit to support Fort Ross State Historic Park, a Russian colonial settlement on the Sonoma Coast that the governor had once eyed for closure.

McClatchy's California newspapers wanted to examine the state of our state parks first-hand. A team of journalists fanned out in the first two weeks of June, visiting 42 parks as part of a summer-long effort. Readers are invited to help by posting photos of what they encounter in state parks during their summer travels at www.sacbee.com/stateparks.

Keeping up appearances

Cynthia Neville, 31, who recently visited Samuel P. Taylor State Park in western Marin County with her two young daughters, said the parks "look fine to me."

"We come for the nature – not the bathrooms and picnic tables," said Neville, who lives in nearby Lagunitas.

Early one morning at Millerton Lake State Recreation Area northeast of Fresno, Aaron Lindgren, 25, backed a boat trailer into the chilly water after a morning spin around the lake.

"The water level goes up and down a lot at Millerton, so you get mud on these concrete ramps at the boat launches," he said. "But the next day, the mud is gone. I think they take good care of this place."

Park officials say appearances can be deceiving since they've prioritized day-to-day upkeep over deeper problems. This means keeping restrooms tidy, and facilities accessible, as much as possible.

"Our goal has been to make our parks look good to the public for their use, so that they still have a good experience in each park," said Roy Stearns, deputy communications director for California State Parks. "Yet, behind the scenes, there are serious deferred maintenance projects, the things they usually do not see."

Take a closer look at Millerton. The lake is scouring away roadway foundations. A popular trail is eroding. A stream flows through a crumbling maintenance building.

At the Millerton Courthouse overlooking the lake, daylight peeks through holes in the roof. A colony of bats has moved into Fresno County's first courthouse — originally built in 1867 and rebuilt with some original parts in 1966 — filling the building with the stench of guano.

Millerton's park superintendent, Kent Gresham, can't remember a summer holiday without a failure in the antiquated sewage and water-treatment systems. The park needs more than $9 million of work overall, including a $1.7 million upgrade of the north shore water treatment plant.

Failure of such "invisible" systems is rendering some areas off-limits, too.

At San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area near Los Banos, the Basalt Campground has been "under construction" since September 2009, while the park replaces a 30-year-old water treatment plant. The campground is expected to reopen this fall.

The problems go deeper

Armed with the department's maintenance data for reference, reporters found deteriorating trails, 19th-century buildings grown moldy from seeping roofs and, despite the department's efforts, many restrooms covered in graffiti and lacking toilet paper. At one state park near Sacramento, erosion has exposed bone fragments of long-dead pioneers.

Across all 278 parks, the fix-it costs range from minute to massive.

At Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in El Dorado County, officials asked to reframe a picture of James Marshall, who discovered gold here in 1848. Cost: $500. At the opposite extreme, Border Field State Park in San Diego needs 250 acres of salt marsh habitat restoration. Cost: $96.6 million.

The state's to-do list includes some less-urgent projects, such as landscaping a bike path or replacing interpretive panels.

But many of the worst problems are assaults on California's environment: State parks need at least $55 million to prevent sewer and water systems from polluting streams and sickening visitors. Many fall short of state and county health codes. Among the top offenders is Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley, which earned 78 pollution violations in 2009 alone linked to the leaking mine.

Few visitors would recognize the invasive fennel at Estero Bluffs State Park or on the craggy flanks of Cerro Cabrillo in Morro Bay State Park. But to scientists and naturalists, the fluffy, white-headed weeds represent a threat to native habitat that escalates daily.

"There's so much to do here, we can't even start on this until the funding is more stable," said John Sayers, a parks environmental scientist, gesturing toward grasslands at Harmony Headlands State Park near Cayucos. "Thistle, oats, hemlock. So much."

As it is, Sayers is in the park one day a month, and maintenance crews stop by briefly once a week.

"Thank heavens for the Harmony Ambassadors," he said of volunteers who staff the park on weekends.

Hearst Castle isn't exempt

Jarrell C. Jackman, 66, executive director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, has visited every single California state park.

"It's been a spiritual, inspirational journey, I'll tell you," Jackman said. "You see California at its most beautiful."

Today, though, even crown jewels such as Hearst San Simeon State Historic Monument face daunting difficulties. Hearst Castle generates more revenue than any other park: $8.8 million in visitor fees the year before last. That is not enough to prevent a maintenance pileup.

Besides the leaky Neptune Pool, there's a long list of waiting structural repairs at the former estate of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. The castle's Spanish tile roof needs replacing, estimated at $4 million. The visitor center also needs a new roof, estimated at $359,000.

Interior architecture and artifacts in the mansion and guesthouses, which hosted the likes of Winston Churchill, Charles Lindbergh and Charlie Chaplin, need attention. Security systems to protect the multimillion-dollar art and artifact collection need upgrading.

Dangers in plain sight

Signs sometimes tip visitors to less obvious trouble.

On a bridge leading to a beloved hiking trail at Montaña de Oro State Park, one sign apologizes for a temporary bridge and promises it will be replaced by 2009.

At Sonoma State Historic Park, with its scattering of 19th-century buildings in the heart of the city, a sign facing the plaza declares, "We Apologize!" The note explains an "unprecedented budget reduction" has shuttered the Toscano Hotel on Thursdays through June 30.

Monica Benuto of Stockton, who brought her 9-year-old twins to Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, said she found the park "clean and orderly," the staff helpful. She loves state parks but believes they are a bit of an "extra."

"We've been very fortunate in California, but extras are going to have to wait," said Benuto, 36, a cashier married to a schoolteacher. "Right now, there are families just trying to figure out how to put a meal on the table."

Benuto wasn't concerned about the chipping lead paint on some of the plaza's buildings. "No one's going to be licking the walls," she joked.

Yet park safety problems are posing serious dangers.

One of the most mesmerizing spots in all of California's state parks includes a stunning hazard. For visitors winding their way up to the East Peak of Mount Tamalpais State Park, with its vistas of the San Francisco Bay, the Verna Dunshee trail beckons with a gentle half-mile loop near the visitors center.

Billed as accessible for the disabled, the asphalt trail includes sections with steep, almost vertical, dropoffs. The state maintenance list calls for a $100,000 steel guardrail.

Danita Rodriguez, superintendent of the Marin parks district, said the trail is a "high priority" and will be resurfaced and resloped this summer for wheelchair users. A guardrail is not part of that planned work.

Many items in the state's maintenance backlog relate to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. State parks are under court order to fix problems, including access to popular hiking trails and other park facilities.

Hazards lurk in park structures, too – a destination for thousands of schoolchildren. Fourth-graders, in particular, flock to parks during the school year as they focus on California history.

At Sutter's Fort State Historic Park in Sacramento – California's birthplace as a state – two of John Sutter's 2,000-pound cannons brace the entrance atop heavy timber platforms about 10 feet off the ground. But sunlight blazes through cracks in the platform beams, degraded by age, climate and dry rot.

State records identify the risk of falling cannons as a safety hazard. Rebuilding the platforms will cost $64,000.

During a recent Living History Day event, hundreds of grade-school students from the Bay Area ran up and down wooden staircases on either side of the fort's central building to watch a volunteer in period costume describe 1840s surgical procedures. Few noticed the stairways also are at risk of collapse.

History hangs by a thread

Deteriorating parks threaten something less tangible: California history.

On Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, dilapidated former military buildings seem to be an intended part of the experience.

That's not necessarily the case.

At the hospital at Camp Reynolds, on the island's west side, an upper window gapes open to the elements. The porch surrounding the building is in ruins.

A notice informs the public that the roof was replaced to preserve the structure. Faded, it dates from Gov. Jerry Brown's administration more than two decades ago. Now the edges of that new roof are crumbling.

On the other side of the island, at the Immigration Station, a World War II barracks has tumbled during the last six months into a pile of broken lumber.

As bad as these examples seem, historian John Martini reported conditions far worse lurk behind the boarded-up windows and doors. Some interiors may be beyond repair.

The state's maintenance list estimates Angel Island needs $123 million for 213 projects. These range from restoring a military barracks at Fort McDowell to new interpretive signs at Ayala Cove.

"They're just in pretty bad condition and they're not getting any better," said Martini, a retired National Park Service military historian. "It's frustrating to staff on the island, and it's frustrating to preservationists, that we can't do more."

Building conditions also pose challenges at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, between Placerville and Auburn.

"There are leaking roofs all over the park," said park Superintendent Jeremy McReynolds.

In some of the 80 structures, leaks endanger a collection of artifacts dating from the discovery of gold on the American River and life in the town of Coloma.

McReynolds said many buildings need lead paint removal – a hazardous and delicate task that can run $100,000 per structure.

"The buildings are historic structures," he said. "You can't just get anybody scraping on them."

Bees have colonized both of the park's churches, where weddings are still held. Bats also have settled in, contaminating the churches with guano and posing health concerns.

A dish inside the Catholic Church solicits donations. Out back, erosion has damaged the pioneer cemetery, periodically exposing bone fragments.

"The parks have been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that it's going to be extremely costly to bring them back," said Marjorie Sanborn, owner of the Coloma Country Inn. "We're so caught up in catching up on the routine that there's no longer a vision."

This story was reported by Marjie Lundstrom and Matt Weiser in Sacramento, Mark Grossi in Fresno, John Holland in Modesto, Jamie Oppenheim in Merced, and David Sneed and Kathe Tanner in San Luis Obispo. It was written by Lundstrom and Weiser.

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