As you've no doubt heard, California's parks are in peril.
Responding to the state budget squeeze, the Department of Parks and Recreation last year released a list of 70 parks slated for closure this summer.
A number of nonprofits and other groups have stepped up to take nine parks off the list. A couple of dozen other groups are in negotiations but there's little question that the entire system is underfunded and has been for years.
So today we begin a special month-long series called "California State Parks: On the Rocks."
To get the big picture, we started with Ruth Coleman, Director of California's state parks system. Here are some highlights from our interview:
RACHAEL MYROW: Take us back a year. What was the nature of the challenge your agency was handed down from the governor's office?
RUTH COLEMAN: Our budget has been reduced many times over the past 30 years. And so if you go back to the late '70s, about over 90 percent of our budget used to come from general fund taxes. And coming this first of July it'll be down to 29 percent. We have our infamous $1.2 billion backlog in deferred maintenance, and that really has built up over this 30 year period, and it comes from the fact that the department has been underfunded for ongoing maintenance. We have recognized that we can no longer operate all of the parks in our 278-park system.
MYROW: It sounds like you're saying that the state parks department is going to permanently divest itself of some of the parks.
COLEMAN: No, I don't want to communicate we're divesting. We have left money in our budget to continue our stewardship role. So all the parks in our system, we will continue to oversee. We will own them; we will ensure that we are looking at the natural resources and the cultural resources. But that day-to-day visitors' services are the tax that we can no longer afford to do in all of our parks. But we do not intend to divest ourselves, and we are also hopeful that this economic climate will someday turn around, and the governor and the legislature will develop a much more sort of systemic solution that we will not have to be in this situation permanently.
MYROW: In the meantime, you're looking at these numbers that have been handed down from the governor and saying, 'Okay, we need to close parks.' How did you go about formulating a game plan to cut the agency's budget?
COLEMAN: We developed a closure methodology that had three primary goals. We wanted to protect the most significant natural and culture resources; we wanted to maintain as much public access and revenue generation to the greatest extent possible; and then we wanted to protect our closed parks so they remain attractive and usable to potential partners. We try to steer away from parks that generate a lot of revenue. But we also wanted to ensure that we were telling the broad array of stories of California, so some parks that might have fairly high costs are not on the closure list because they have a very unique story. I don't want to suggest that any of the parks on the closure list are lesser importance, but we had to make some decisions. And so we are now actively looking for partners for those parks that are on that list of 70.
MYROW: So the factors are visitation, revenue, value to the state either in terms of history or wildlife, or culture. Does that sound about right?
COLEMAN: I'd add to that infrastructure; if we had some parks that had really, really weak infrastructure that was ready to collapse, then that would be a park that we knew would be very hard for a partner to keep open. In some cases, there are land use restrictions, donor agreements and other things that meant that you couldn't close that particular park. So there were a number of factors and it was sort of an iterative process. In order to reach our $22 million cut, we will also be making a lot of service reductions in the parks that are going to be remaining open. So I don't want to suggest that closing 70 parks gets us to the full extent of the impact.
MYROW: What happened in Mendocino County? Why are eight out of the 70 parks on the list from Mendocino? It seems like that particular part of California is taking it on the chin in this plan.
COLEMAN: We didn't use geography as one of our criteria. Mendocino does have a whole lot more parks than most counties. In fact, the North Coast in general, a lot of our parks are concentrated up there, so it wouldn't be a surprise to have a fair number of closures that would come from there. But having said that, Mendocino is one of those areas where that geographic proximity issue came up, because we have for years now, been reducing our staffing levels so much that we don't have single staff assigned to individual parks up there. And they also tend to have fairly low revenues, and visitation is not, not nearly as high, say, as it is down, say, in Southern California.
MYROW: Did the parks department consider the impact to local economies when it chose which parks to close?
COLEMAN: We did not use economic impact as one of our criteria. We're well aware that state parks play a big role in the California economy. We have to deal with the elements that affect our budget, which is our staffing costs and our revenue that we can generate ourselves. So we used factors that are directly relevant to the state parks system, which is what are the significant culture resources, the significant natural resources, the big revenue generators. But the fact that we are a net generator of tax dollars does not come into our budget.
MYROW: I'm wondering if you could sort of help the public understand what actually happens, step by step, when a park closes.
COLEMAN: That's a little bit tricky for any of us in state parks to answer because we've never done this before. Our expectation in most cases is that we will have closed the bathrooms and locked them, closed any buildings and locked them, removed trash cans, so all services will be removed. We will have staff that drive periodically. But there won't be any services. So if you go into that park, you're in essence doing it at your own risk. You can get vandalism very quickly if people who are, in essence, have bad intentions perceive that if they go in, they will be truly alone, and could get away with whatever they want to do. So what we've been advised by other directors who've had to close parks is to actually keep your gates open and communicate that people can still come in and walk around, but don't expect any services.
MYROW: You raised one security issue, vandalism. I can think of a list of others; drunken teenagers, pot groves ... they actually happen in state parks. What's being done to ensure the security of the state, let alone individuals?
COLEMAN: Well, as I said, we'll still have park rangers who drive by periodically. But remember, we are reducing our staffing by several hundred positions. So I think it would be misleading to suggest that the parks will be in the same condition that they are today. I think the taxpayers have made that decision through a number of their votes in the past. And we are no longer being given the kind of tax support that we used to. So people should not expect that same level of service that they used to.
MYROW: There's been a fair amount of email traffic among nonprofits panicked that the state is putting out requests for proposals from private contractors; a fear that they're going to be competing against private operations that might privatize some of the profits that can be made from parks.
COLEMAN: What I want to emphasize to the public is that we are going to be looking for the best overall management of the park that provides the most benefit to the public and achieves our mission. We're going to be using the mission of state parks as the underlying criteria to select whichever operator has the best proposal. Very few of our parks in the entire state system net a profit. And so I find it very hard to imagine how a private operator could entirely finance all of the elements of running a park without some infusion from some other area, say donors or something else, because it's not just running a campground – it's also preserving the watershed that that park resides in, or preserving the trail system. I think it's entirely possible that some nonprofits might partner with private campground operators because private campground operators know how to run campgrounds. And nonprofits know how to motivate and work with volunteers and how to attract donors. And together they might be able to put together the best proposal for a park to address the whole breadth of services that the public wants to see when they come into a park.
MYROW: Is there anything you want to make sure we make a point of expressing in a series that looks at this whole issue of park closures?
COLEMAN: These state parks are our cathedrals. This is what defines us as Californians to the rest of the world. But they are not cheap to run. And so I think Californians need to decide whether it's worth it to them to save these parks. I don't think that it's, it's reasonable to expect a state park to be fully self-supporting. A lot of places aren't fully self-supporting from gate receipts, and state parks are never fully self-supporting from gate receipts because they are a public good. It's something that we're bequeathing to future generations. They are what defines us, they tell our history, they are really significant, and yet they're not going to be ever self-supporting. And while we're trying to deal with this crisis as best we can, I think it begs a much deeper question of what we value as Californians.
MYROW: Does it make you feel some hope that so many groups have come forward with plans to save a lot of the parks on this list?
COLEMAN: Yes, I'm extremely pleased to see the response that we've received from donors, from nonprofit groups who have this incredible passion for their state parks. And their desire to ensure that we preserve these. And so in the short run, I am really optimistic that we're going to be able to find solutions for a lot of the parks on the closure list. But we expect these solutions will probably be of a fairly short duration. I think that Californians and the people who love the parks have been extraordinary, and they're helping us and helping this administration in dealing with this economic crisis that's on top of us.