Castle Crags State Park near Mount Shasta has towering granite peaks created by volcanic forces. On Memorial Day, it was packed with people seeking views of Mount Shasta, doing the strenuous crags trail, or fishing in the Sacramento River, while others backpacked on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Castle Rock Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains is equally significant, with numerous sandstone outcroppings that are a mecca for rock climbers. The trails draw people of all backgrounds and abilities. Though there are no roads in this park, it was crowded two weekends ago, with the parking lot full and dozens of cars parked along the road.
These are among 70 state parks that Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed to close by July 2012, a first in California history. Yet Brown has not said with any clarity whether he sees this as a permanent move or as a temporary solution while the state gets past the current economic distress.
When he announced the park closures, he made a cryptic statement offering no clues on this point: "Closing state parks is not a task that gives anyone joy, but we are experiencing turbulent times that necessitate deep – almost unthinkable – cuts to public services."
The issue of permanent vs. temporary closures makes a big difference in the solutions that policymakers and partners propose.
The public deserves straight answers:
Does Brown believe that the California state park system is too big? If yes, he should say so.
Does Brown believe, as he said in his State of the State address in January, that he sees a five-year horizon for recovery – and that his intention is that state parks on the closure list will reopen?
When Brown left office in his first stint as governor, the state had 24 million residents and 1.3 million acres of state parkland. Today, for a population of 37 million, the state has 1.6 million acres.
It's difficult to argue that the system is too big or too expensive.
The park system of today basically mirrors the vision presented in the Olmstead Plan of 1929 – with vast areas that still need parks, the Central Valley, for example. In terms of cost, the state general fund contribution to state parks (in inflation-adjusted dollars) was $151.6 million at the end of Brown's first stint as governor. It is $123.1 million today.
Park closures, if Brown's intention is to fully reopen parks as the state recovers, will be more difficult than it seems at first glance.
How do you close parks – or in current parlance, put them in "caretaker" status? People are going to go in (as visitors who respect parks or as vandals who don't), but there will be no restrooms or drinking water, no garbage services, no assistance.
Trees will fall on trails, erosion will take place, invasive plant species will take hold, maintenance of buildings will be placed on hold. There will be significant one-time costs to reopen. Yet no one seems to be counting those costs of closure.
Then, there are other issues.
Sixteen of the parks on the closure list have received federal Land and Water Conservation Fund grants, and the state made a commitment to public use in perpetuity. Eleven are state beaches, and the California Coastal Commission says the state cannot legally block public access. State officials now are parsing what the word "open" means – hoping that "gate open, no services" will do.
Other parks on the list have valuable art or historic artifacts that would have to be packed up, crated and moved to storage facilities in Sacramento – like the 98 paintings representing 100 years of California art at Shasta State Historic Park.
It's time to weigh whether this is really worth it.
Parks belong to the people and, especially during hard times, should be places where kids and families can find inexpensive activity.
Parks also are an inheritance that current generations safeguard for the future. If Brown wants partners to step forward with creative proposals and funding, he has to tell them what the project really is: downsizing the park system permanently or tiding it over for a few years.