Saving California State Parks
My wife and I recently returned from a camping/hiking trip along California's magnificent north coast. Our first stop was at the absolutely most beautiful park in Sonoma County, Salt Point State Park. We enjoyed a quiet camp, and several days of great hiking, including one stretch along the California Coastal Trail. We moved up the coast stopping at parks in Mendocino and Humboldt Counties. These parks and all the other state parks, about 278 in total have put aside some of the best, most pristine, historically significant landscapes, for public enjoyment and resource protection.
The mission of State Parks is this in part:
"... to provide for the health, inspiration and education of the people of California by helping to preserve the state's extraordinary biological diversity...and creating opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation".
So what did we find on our trip? We found beautiful landscapes, friendly camp hosts, closed coastal access parking lots, overgrown, damaged and closed trails, deteriorating campgrounds, high fees for camping and a lack of presence by State Park Rangers. Although still wonderful parks, the infrastructure supporting visitors and natural resources is in very bad shape. This is not the fault of State Park staff. One camp host told us that in the 20 years they had hosted, park Rangers were reduced from five on duty rangers to "one very pregnant ranger". Camp hosts clean bathrooms because maintenance staff has been severely reduced.
The blame for this lies directly in Sacramento, where the legislature has drastically cut Parks budgets for years and refused to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations, and the blame lies with the voters, who refused to add $18 a year to vehicle license fees to fund Parks, while at the same time demanding services.
An important aspect of this situation is the local economy, which politicians seem to ignore. Parks generate economic activity in the areas surrounding the parks. After a good hike or bike ride people will stop in for a drink or a bite to eat at local businesses, people will stop at the local deli for food to take on a picnic. Shut the parks and you hurt the businesses, lowering tax revenues. Take away healthy forms of recreation and you create more possibility for health problems, driving up health care costs.
Here is what the scenario looks like. The parks get shabbier and shabbier, the visitation goes down along with revenues, trails get little use, campground don't fill so then there is justification to close them. Finally, if some have their way, the parks get closed and leased out to corporations, or even sold, and then just become a tool of making executives and stockholders rich, instead of serving the public.
This scenario seems drastic, but the only way to insure that we won't lose our wonderful State Park system is to adequately fund it. Will the citizens of California meet this challenge, or should we just kiss it all goodbye? Do we really want to loose our open lands, our source of oxygen, clean water, peace and quiet? Has our society moved so far down the path of consumerism, that nothing else matters? Will our kids get educated to sit in front of a computer, become faithful consumers, and never see the wonders that keep the planet alive? Will legislators continue to ignore the disaster? And finally, can the state close facilities that the people paid for and own?
Postscript: A public interest tragedy has occurred as I write this. On Friday, May 13, 2011, state government announced the likely closing of 70 State parks. The valued parks that we the public paid for and own are being taken away.