By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
SACRAMENTO — State parks officials faced withering criticism Tuesday at a hearing over how they selected 70 parks for closure next year to save money, with one North Coast lawmaker saying the process was so flawed the plans should be abandoned.
“We need the administration to step away from this,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, referring to Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to shutter about a quarter of the state’s 279 parks, including five in Sonoma County, eight in Mendocino County and one in Lake County.
Huffman was co-chairman of a half-day hearing at the state Capitol held to address the economic, cultural and environmental effects of park closures and to brainstorm how to keep them open.
The hearing included testimony from several North Coast stakeholders, including Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas, who warned lawmakers that his department and other law enforcement agencies around the state lack the money and resources to take over policing duties in closed parks.
“People are assuming that sheriffs can provide this service when most of us are not in a position to do so,” he said.
Parks officials contend closing 70 parks will achieve $22 million in annual savings demanded by Brown last year to help solve a much larger $26.2 billion deficit.
State parks slated for closure in Sonoma County include Annadel State Park, Jack London State Historic Park and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. The closures go into effect in July.
But several Assembly members at the joint gathering of the Water, Parks and Wildlife and the Accountability and Administrative Review committees expressed skepticism about the rationale that went into the closure list and whether the anticipated savings will be met.
Bill Herms, deputy director of the park system, described the process that went into crafting the closure list as about 12 “parks professionals” meeting over three weeks and relying on criteria outlined in legislation that provided the framework for Brown’s closure plan.
But Herms, who was filling in for State Parks Director Ruth Coleman, could not provide lawmakers with specifics on how parks were selected, saying the committee did not keep detailed records of what their analysis entailed.
“They threw the notes out after they left the room?” Huffman asked.
“That is correct,” Herms replied.
Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, said outside the hearing room that he would seek to have the Legislature revisit the issue at the start of its new session in January.
Asked if that meant he would be seeking to remove certain parks from the closure list, Chesbro said, “It’s hard to single one out. They’re all horrible choices.”
Chesbro said the closures disproportionately affect rural counties, citing as an example parks on the Mendocino coast where camping sites are almost always booked and yet the parks are on the closure list because overall they don’t draw as many visitors as larger venues.
The Mendocino parks include Manchester State Park, Russian Gulch State Park and Hendy Woods State Park.
Closing Hendy Woods would harm Anderson Valley’s tourist and recreational industries and deprive locals of their main venue for outdoor activity, said Kathy Bailey of the Anderson Valley Chamber of Commerce.
She said the community of 3,200 people lacks a public swimming pool and has no other recreational facilities other than a playground and a small county park. She said the closure also would wipe out 90 percent of the county’s available camping sites and would be especially damaging for low and middle-income people who use the park for affordable outdoor fun.
“Closing Hendy will rip the heart” out of the community, she said.
Patrick Tierney, a professor at San Francisco State University, cited a 2002 study that showed state parks generate $6.6 billion in economic activity for California communities and support an estimated 100,000 jobs.
“You are losing money by closing state parks,” he said.
Three state parks — Tomales Bay State Park and Samuel P. Taylor State Park, both in Marin County, and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park — were taken off the closure list before Tuesday’s hearing because they fall within the boundaries of national parks.
Several speakers Tuesday expressed worries that closed parks will fall further into disrepair and will be used for illicit activity, such as growing marijuana.
Lawmakers last year passed legislation that provides qualified immunity to the state for injuries that may be caused in closed parks.
But Freitas expressed concerns about that liability falling onto his department and that of other police agencies should they be asked to take on more policing duties at parks.
“I know where that responsibility lands,” he told lawmakers.
The hearing also included a discussion of the myriad public and private efforts under way to try to save parks from being closed
Caryl Hart, Sonoma County’s parks director and also chairwoman of the California Parks and Recreation Commission, described how a coalition of local groups has formed to counter what she characterized as the “blunt-force trauma” being administered to state parks in the region.
Outside the hearing room, Hart said the coalition has discussed the possibility of the county temporarily taking over operations at Annadel, which made the closure list despite being a popular destination for equestrians, mountain bikers, trail runners and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Hart said the county would have to find additional sources of funding to run the park. She said one idea is to sell regional park passes that could be used at Annadel.
“The county can’t spend a dime on this,” she said. “We don’t have it.”
Huffman said lawmakers also need to consider additional sources of revenue for parks. Some ideas presented Tuesday included voluntary vehicle license fees, specialized license plates and a dedicated sales tax on outdoor equipment.
Also at the Capitol on Tuesday, members of the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association formally submitted their proposal to parks officials to operate Jack London.
Such partnerships became a possibility with legislation introduced by Huffman that allows qualified non-profits to run state parks that are slated for closure for as long as five years or until the state’s finances improve.