State Parks Funding

Viewpoints: Twilight for a state park

The tree had toppled over onto the picnic table, crushing it with its weight.

In the campground the silence was total except for the chatter of blue jays. The roadway, previously a stretch of pavement busy with the comings and goings of camping families, was covered with a blanket of leaves.

To arrive at this ghostly place – Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area's Redwood Campground on the South Fork of the Eel River – my friend Doug and I forded the river, holding our daypacks above our heads. The portable bridge, regularly installed for this state park's camping season to link the lower Redwood Campground with the park's upper campground, was not there. Redwood Campground had been closed in 2010 due to budget constraints, and as California's budget crisis ballooned, the site remained shut.

So far, nine of the state's 70 parks targeted for closure have found partners to help them remain open.

In three cases, the National Park Service has stepped in to take over parks' management; in other instances, donors, local government and local operators have reached agreements with the state to run parks in their areas. At this point, however, Standish-Hickey, about 170 miles north of San Francisco in a thinly populated rural region without a thriving economy, has no partner. Although almost 20,000 people visited the park in 2010, its attendance figures were low relative to many other parks that will remain open in the state system that had a total of 63 million visitors that year.

Described as "the gateway to the tall trees country," Standish-Hickey is named in memory of the Standish family, which donated more than 500 aces at the site in the 1950s, and Edward Ritter Hickey, a local lumberman's son who died of influenza while caring for victims of the epidemic of 1918 that claimed an estimated 50 million lives worldwide.

Later this year, all Standish-Hickey's campgrounds will be closed unless the state finds a partner to run the recreation area that was first established through a 1922 land purchase by Save the Redwoods League.

The closure is part of the California Department of Parks and Recreation's move to cope with the Legislature's $22 million cut in its budget for 2012-13, following an $11 million reduction in its 2011-12 budget.

Even if Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed tax revenue measure wins voter approval in November, state park funding will not be increased. If voters reject the measure, the parks department would be required to cut 20 percent of its ranger staff and all its seasonal lifeguards who staff about 50 beaches across the state.

In this grim budget time, my journey to the park was an homage to the years when Doug and I brought my two young sons here to hike through forests, loaf on the river's sandy banks, dive off rocks into its deep pools and toast s'mores over a fire before retiring for the night under a star-studded sky. As I looked at the deserted campsites with their fire rings and empty food storage cupboards, I recalled where we had pitched our tents.

For me – an agnostic – this redwood grove at Standish-Hickey is a church of sorts, and in the near future I may well lose it.

This fact sets me musing about what sort of society I come from – one that in recent decades poured millions into prisons and now could not find the money to fund scores of parks where for decades Californians and their children enjoyed affordable vacations.

Throughout my childhood, my family traveled often to parks from Big Sur to Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara. As I grew older and covered politics in Sacramento, I admired California's leaders for having the vision to purchase and set aside some of the state's most beautiful mountains, forestland, lakes, rivers and beaches for all to enjoy.

This musing in turn brings to mind a mental game I often play as I look at society's doings – everything from wars to Barbie dolls and violent video games: I wonder what aliens landing here would make of our value systems.

My visit to the Redwood Campground – now in its early stage of decay – told me that when shuttered parks are left untended, soon enough the structures defining those parks will rot, and there will be nothing at those sites to tell aliens that this was a society that valued nature and spent millions providing parks for its people.

On a more intellectual level, author Alan Weisman asks similar questions in his 2007 book "The World Without Us": "What of our finest creations – our architecture, our art, our many manifestations of spirit?" he writes. "Are any truly timeless, at least enough so to last until the sun expands and roasts our Earth to a cinder?" In a haunting manner, Weisman's book recounts how readily decay would occur when mankind was no longer doing maintenance on everything from its subways to its towering hotels.

When I think about the state's closure of Standish-Hickey and other parks, I remember the years I covered the California Legislature during the end of Ronald Reagan's governorship and Jerry Brown's first two terms as governor. In that era, compromise – however bitter the fighting between Democrats and Republicans over many vital social issues – was still a fundamental, accepted piece of the process involving legislation and battles over the shape of the state budget. For reasons I only partly grasp, that willingness to compromise is mostly gone, and complete stalemate often is the order of the day. So the state now wrestles with a multibillion-dollar shortfall.

I don't pretend to know the road out of this swamp. I do know, though, that in part the Legislature is responding to a public that wants maximum services without any corresponding rise in taxes. So I do not consider the public entirely blameless.

I also know the hurt that's been caused in just one realm out of many receiving state dollars. On my visit to Standish-Hickey last summer, I chatted with a camper I met, Diana Weilert, who has been coming to the park since she was a child.

"Camping was economical for my family – we couldn't go to Disneyland," she recalled.

"Every year since my boys were babies, we brought them here," she added. "We wanted to share it with our grandkids, but they aren't old enough yet. So the state is taking away my vacation, my memories, my history."