By GREG HAYES
Greg Hayes worked at Jack London, Sugarloaf Ridge and Annadel state parks as a ranger for 25 years. He volunteers at the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, which is accepting tax-deductible donations to help stave off closure of the three parks. Go to jacklondonpark.com.
Welcome to an all-cuts budget. If you weren’t shocked by the promised permanent closure of 70 state parks, then maybe you’ve given up on our elected leaders.
Over the past 30 years they have systematically neglected and starved state parks into worse than caretaker status while increasing deferred maintenance to $1.2 billion. Didn’t we entrust these public servants with our irreplaceable heritage parks with the expectation that they would preserve them in perpetuity?
Turns out forever isn’t very long. In 1971, tax-paying citizens and public agencies working together inspirationally raised $5 million to buy the 5,000 acres we call Annadel State Park. We did so with the understanding that we would not be barred access due to legislative negligence.
Also closing are Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, home to wilderness camping and the awesome Ferguson Observatory, and Jack London State Historic Park, with its monumental Wolf House ruins. Who knew how insignificant the internationally famous author’s unique legacy was to the state of California? What exactly do officials plan to do with the park’s 10,000 precious artifacts? Pack them off to Sacramento, never to be viewed again? Let Sotheby’s auction them off?
Where do we go from here? Is there nothing left for these “non-essential” parks but subdivisions or privatization?
Protected parklands are not designed to make money. Even concessionaires find it tough to turn a profit in state parks. LandPaths and the Sonoma County Open Space District are already over-laden with acreage such as Willow Creek and Calabazas Creek — areas that they ironically hope park agencies will some day take over with tax-supported funding.
Educational nonprofits such as the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association don’t have the money to operate parks. (Full disclosure: This group supports the three above-mentioned parks that are about to be shut down, and I am currently its president.)
Without passing Assemblyman Jared Huffman’s proposed new law, raising money for park operations would violate our nonprofit charter. It would also turn us into entrepreneurs staging fundraisers targeting mega-donors. If you think ballot box budgeting is a bad idea, just how many Russian billionaires like the one who saved Fort Ross do you think we can we count on popping out of a hat?
Because of the limitations of homegrown nonprofits, strange hybrids (think HMOs) are likely to spring up when those 70 park-quality properties suddenly hit the market. Groups affiliated with KOA-like companies would have to crowd in a few more campsites and possibly introduce our Sugarloaf Ridge campers to miniature golf to make ends meet.
A stinging irony of the announced closures is that the bulk of them are in areas that approved Proposition 21, the November ballot initiative to fund state parks through an increase in vehicle registration fees. In Southern California, where the measure failed, few parks are closing. But our neighbors to the south should not feel overly secure. Saving the state’s general fund $23 million will not make a dent in the billion-dollar maintenance backlog that threatens to sink the entire park system. Inevitably, unless a better solution is found, the next list of closures will include their favorites too, the ones they thought they had already paid for and had been promised access to forever.
So what’s a better solution than magic billionaires and privatization? Ask your legislator, ask your governor. We elected them because they said they had the answers. Demand that they find $23 million somewhere else in the $85 billion budget to keep all the state parks open. And, failing that, demand that they at least not auction off a quarter of them to the highest bidder.