State Parks Funding

Brown's Countdown, Day 125: California to close 70 state parks

State officials unveiled a plan Friday to shutter one-quarter of California's 278 state parks to cope with a proposed $33 million budget cut over the next two years.

The list of 70 parks targeted for closure includes beaches, campgrounds and historic sites across the state, including the Governor's and Stanford mansions in downtown Sacramento and Brannan Island State Recreation Area in Sacramento County.

The affected parks are slated to be padlocked July 1, 2012, but service cutbacks – including reduced hours and amenities – will start this summer, officials said.

"We can't continue to manage our system as we have been with the budget that we have," said Tony Perez, deputy director of park operations. "It's just a reality."

While park closures have been proposed as a budget fix in years past – former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger once suggested shutting down more than 200 sites – the move will mark the first time in the park system's history that sites will be fully closed to the public.

The decision was triggered by cuts approved by the Legislature in March and proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown in January. The Democratic governor said in a statement Friday that the state is experiencing "turbulent times that necessitate deep – almost unthinkable – cuts to public services."

The Legislature could still revisit the plan, but park officials said they are anticipating that the reductions will stick. And they warned that more parks could close without Brown's proposed tax extensions or other new revenue to help fill the remaining $15.4 billion deficit.

"It would be a longer list," California State Parks Director Ruth Coleman said.

Officials were directed to consider a number of factors in deciding which parks to close, including visitation rates, revenue generation, and their historic, cultural and natural significance. Logistical concerns played a role for parks that met other criteria but would have been physically impossible to close.

They said the methodology will allow them to retain 92 percent of the 65 million annual visitors to the state's parks as well as 94 percent of existing revenue.

But the list still drew criticism from some parks supporters, who pointed out that 40 percent of state historic parks are targeted for closure.

Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, blasted the proposal as "a paradigm shift for California's state parks."

"This generation is on the verge of leaving California's state park system smaller and in every way diminished for the next generation," she said in a statement. "The message to our children and grandchildren is that we can't save their natural and historic legacy."

Goldstein's organization supported a failed ballot measure last year that would have instituted an $18 annual surcharge on the state's vehicle license fee to fund state parks.

She questioned the feasibility of closing the sites, saying that could lead to vandalism, theft and other illegal activities on park grounds.

Coleman said the department would seek to prevent those situations by putting shuttered sites in "caretaker status" and budgeting some funds for periodic maintenance visit and park ranger patrols. She said she also hopes to recruit volunteers to help monitor the closed parks.

Sen. Noreen Evans, whose North Coast district is home to more than a quarter of parks on the closure list, raised economic concerns about the proposal.

"To our communities this is more than losing a park; this is the loss of countless tourism dollars and their rippling economic impacts," the Santa Rosa Democrat said in a statement.

Officials pledged to work to keep some parks open through partnerships with cities, counties and nonprofits, though the latter would require legislative approval.

"We're hoping that Californians will step up to the plate and help us fill this gap," Coleman said.

But some legislation to aid such agreements has yet to gain traction in the Legislature. Despite the threat of closures, the Assembly recently rejected a Republican-backed bill aimed at helping cities and counties enter long-term agreements to manage parks.

"We're hoping that under the new Brown administration and after today's announcement that the administration is going to go back to Parks and say, 'You've got to be more flexible, you've got to work with local government,' " said Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, author of Assembly Bill 64.

Jeffries, whose district includes one park slated for closure, said that while Californians cherish their parks, he believes they understand the budget shortfall calls for unprecedented cuts.

"Overall, I think Californians are going to accept we're going to need to find new ways to handle some of these challenges," he said.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee