Californians are rightly outraged by Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal, which includes the closing of 220 of California’s 279 (nearly 80%) state parks, 70 of them near the Bay Area, including many of my favorites: Big Basin Redwoods near Santa Cruz (where I’ll be camping for the Fourth of July), Butano Redwoods (where I’m scheduled to camp next weekend), Armstrong Woods and Austin Creek (the parks we frequent by our river house), Fort Ross and Salt Point (where we went last weekend), Henry Coe, Henry Cowell, Portola Redwoods, Julia Pfeiffer Burns, Mono Lake, Samuel P. Taylor, Tomales Bay, and the list goes on and on and on.
Why? Because California is 24.3 billion dollars in debt and, according to Schwarzenegger, the state will stop functioning if the budget isn’t passed by July 1 (because the state parks already have thousands of camping reservations for this summer, they will close around Labor Day.) The main reason for cuts is to avoid raising taxes, to avoid taking out a high interest loan, and to avoid using the state’s entire $4.5 billion rainy day fund, which Schwarzenegger wants to reserve for emergencies like fire season. (The state sales tax already went up 1% this year, which puts sales tax in Alameda County at 9.75%.) Schwarzenegger called a May 19 special election to help balance the budget, but CA voters defeated all but one proposition–the one that freezes election officials’ salaries. So for all you who either didn’t vote in the special election or voted no on the props, guess what? Your favorite state park may close this fall. But is it fair to blame CA voters? Not completely. The failure of the special election added another $6 billion to the deficit, but there is still another $18 billion unaccounted for. Where could that money come from? Schwarzenegger suggests offshore drilling among other proposals and cuts, but Democratic opponents have other ideas.
According to SF Examiner blogger Ann Garrison, “California is the only state in the union that does not tax oil drilling profits, and … doing so could generate $1 billion.” Still, that’s 1/24th of the revenue needed to balance the budget. What about the other $23 billion? According to the California State Parks Foundation, eliminating state park funding could result in the state LOSING $350,000 in revenue because for every dollar spent, $2.35 is returned to the general fund through economic activity generated by the 80 million people who visit the parks each year. (By the way, click here for a list of ways you can help fight state park closures, including donating to the California State Parks Foundation. Something you can do immediately is send an e-mail to all of the Legislative Budget Conference Committee Members by taking ONE minute to fill out your contact information. The e-mail is already drafted for you by the CSPF.)
If the state parks do close, what does that mean? Will they be cordoned off? Will it be forever? Yes, and no. They will be locked off, and bathrooms will probably be locked, too, but there’s no way to prevent people from getting onto the land. From the Mercury News: “If the parks close, a small crew of rangers would patrol wide areas, checking in on closed parks. People still would park on highways and walk to beaches. But rangers, park managers and legislators are worried that with almost no supervision across 1.5 million acres of parklands, it is almost certain there will be vandalism, animals poached and a high risk of wildfires from trespassers.” Closures would be temporary (there’s no telling for how long), but reopening them will be expensive with the cost of grooming overgrown trails, etc.
With general funding to parks eliminated, they will be supported solely by entry fees, camping fees and small taxes. One solution proposed by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Santa Monica) to keep the parks open is to raise those fees, close some parks in winter, partner with nonprofit groups, and find other creative solutions. John Laird, a retired state assembly member, suggests putting a $10 increase in vehicle registration fees on the 2010 ballot. Unfortunately, his proposal to do the same this year was defeated. (Notice a trend?)
No matter what happens, legislators anticipate SOME parks will close. As Pavley says, “I’m going to work hard to keep them open, but not at the expense of things like insuring 1 million children in the Healthy Families program.” And that’s where the problem lies. SOMETHING has to be cut and voters don’t want to cut anything, or to increase any taxes or fees. Hmm …
The parks that will remain open are ones that can support themselves, like the touristy Hearst Castle and Asilomar (which is supported by its huge conference center), which aren’t anywhere near as charming as the hundreds of parks that will close.
To listen to Schwarzenegger’s own discussion of his proposed budget, click here.