State Parks Funding

State's park closure criteria murky, Assembly panel told

Leaders of the California parks department on Tuesday were unable to explain to lawmakers the full list of criteria they used to pick 70 state parks for closure.

One-fourth of the state's 278 parks are set to be shuttered by next July, a move required by budget cutbacks. The parks agency must trim $11 million in the current fiscal year, and another $11 million in the next.

Some of the parks slated for closure by July 1 are encumbered by legal restrictions that could result in lawsuits. Others are defined by the state as "outstanding" resources that require special protection.

Some house a wealth of historical artifacts that must be carefully packed, shipped and stored to protect them from vandals and thieves.

Parks officials said at an Assembly oversight hearing that the closure list was assembled by a dozen park executives who met for three weeks.

They looked at park revenue, visitation, maintenance needs and historical value – criteria approved by the Legislature in Assembly Bill 95 in March.

But they otherwise used largely subjective criteria and used no formal ranking method, said Bill Herms, deputy director of the department.

They kept no records of the process for lawmakers or the public to review, he said.

"There was a great deal of argument – arm wrestling," Herms said. "There was no rubric by which all the different criteria were put into a formula. We had to rely to a very large extent on the experience of our professional staff."

Assembly members expressed alarm, saying they wanted to evaluate why some parks were targeted for closure and others kept off the list. They said they had heard from constituents, concerned that their local parks had been singled out based on some obscure criteria.

"We're the 'show your math' committee," said Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, who chairs the Assembly Accountability and Administrative Review Committee and voted for the parks closure bill. "What's of concern here is that the department can't show its math."

Parks slated for closure in the capital region include the Leland Stanford Mansion in downtown Sacramento and Malakoff Diggins near Nevada City. Both are state historic parks with vulnerable artifacts and relatively low visitation.

Another is Brannan Island State Recreation Area, the only full-service state park in the vast Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

How were these factors weighed? The department could not explain.

"The process is beginning to seem downright arbitrary and capricious in the absence of any data you can show us," said Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who chairs the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. "People gathered in a room and rolled out a list and that's all we get to know."

Anne Malcolm, chief counsel at the parks agency, said the department had only three weeks to prepare the closure list. Staff resources were not available to develop clear ranking criteria, she said.

The agency's intent is to continue modifying the closure list. In all likelihood, Malcolm said, the final number slated for closure will be fewer than 70, and may well include a different mix of parks.

For instance, the National Park Service has agreed to help operate three state parks in Marin County and one in Del Norte County. The department also has received about 20 proposals from nonprofits to operate other parks.

In some cases, "closed" will not mean the public is excluded, only that no services are available.

Malcolm said the department is still evaluating legal problems, such as whether the state agreed to ensure public access when a particular parcel was acquired.

"Some parks have hundreds of deeds. We didn't have time to review them," she said. "We factored them in to the extent we could. But we're looking more closely on a park-by-park basis as we move along."