Maintaining state’s parklands requires creativity, community effort
By PETE GOLIS
It seemed like just another Sunday morning in Annadel State Park. Hikers, cyclists, joggers, families — all kinds of folks finding ways to enjoy this hometown treasure.
I didn’t have the heart to tell them they may soon be trespassers.
For the second time in two years, state officials are making plans to close Annadel and 69 others state parks. Annadel, Sugarloaf, Jack London, the Petaluma Adobe and Austin Creek in Sonoma County are on the list. So are five parks in Mendocino, two in Napa and one in Lake counties. All of them could be locked up and left to uncertain futures.
“Here’s the bottom line,” declared state parks department spokesman Roy Stearns. “We can no longer afford to operate all these parks . . . the money is no longer there.”
There remain skeptics who think state officials are only trying to scare people. Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart worried that the state has become like “the boy who cried wolf. People don’t think it’s going to happen.”
But she added, “My sense is, this is completely real. If we don’t do something within the year, we’re going to see significant park closings.”
She has a unique perspective on this. Hart manages the Sonoma County parks system, and she is chairwoman of the state Parks and Recreation Commission.
At mid-week, it was reported that agreements involving federal money might compel the state to keep Annadel and three Mendocino County parks open in some form.
But no one knows whether the federal government would sue California to force it keep the parks open, or whether a judge would order the state to spend money on Annadel when it is cutting aid to schools and low-income children. At best, it seems a risky business to leave the park’s future to the vagaries of federal law and state politics.
Stearns said state and federal officials are negotiating various options, including leaving parks open and untended with “no services, no bathrooms, no water, no sewage treatment, no programs, no staff.”
The hope would be that “the good citizens will likely help us keep an eye on it.”
In practice, this arrangement might be not much different than a decision to close Annadel. When you have 5,000 acres on the edge of a city and numerous access points, you may be closing the park in name only.
With a park operating on an honor system, I asked Stearns, who would maintain the roads and trails, guard against human wastes being dumped into nearby streams, provide for fire protection and law enforcement, or deal with all other problems that come along?
“All those are legitimate questions,” he said, “and I’m not sure how we address all those.”
If all this seems complicated and uncertain, it is because we never expected to be here. In good times, the idea of closing a California state park for financial reasons never occurred to us.
The issue is also complicated because every park is different in terms of size, access, cost and revenue. What may work at Annadel may not work at Jack London or the Petaluma Adobe.
The statewide savings, $22 million a year, amounts to what a Press Democrat editorial called a rounding error in an $85 billion state budget. But with budget cuts hammering our most vulnerable populations, Gov. Jerry Brown seems determined to make sure that there will be sacrifices all around.
For a long time, government in California expanded — acquiring thousands of acres of parks, building schools and universities. The acreage of state parks has increased 50 percent over the past 30 years.
Now the state can’t afford to operate all these facilities. The annual shortfall for park maintenance is estimated at $150 million — and the long-term costs of deferred maintenance at $1.2 billion.
What makes Annadel so great — its easy access — also makes it a target for closure. It’s simple to charge admission for people who arrive at a park by car. Most folks enter Annadel on foot or on a bicycle.
According to a state parks analysis, total revenues at Annadel in 2009-10 were just $17,590 — for a park that is said to cost $570,000 a year to operate. Accepting the state’s estimate of 120,000 annual visitors, that works out to less than 15 cents a visit.
Note that some think the state’s estimate of annual users is low. Just as it is difficult to charge admission, it’s also difficult to count the people who come and go.
Hart reported she’s pulling together meetings with state and local officials, nonprofit groups and potential funders to get a better understanding of what the state expects and how communities might respond.
It is easy to say this is a money problem, and it is. But it also becomes a test of a community’s capacity to adapt to a changed landscape.
Once upon a time, volunteers came together to build a ball field or paint a classroom. Later, we gave these tasks over to an expanding government. As government gets smaller, taking responsibility for the parks we enjoy might be its own reward. It also might be the only way to save them.
If you’re keeping count, 32 state parks are now operated by cities and counties, and nonprofits operate all or part of four state parks.
About the current austerity, Stearns reported: “We would like to hope it’s temporary, but at this point in time, there are no crystal balls that give us the information of when that might be. This could go on for a few years.”
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.