By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sugarloaf Ridge State Park shut down entirely this week for the winter, a first in the park’s 47-year history and another troubling sign of the crisis enveloping California’s beleaguered parks system.
Parks officials said they are uncertain whether Sugarloaf can be reopened in the spring, or whether budget problems will force them to keep the popular 4,000-acre park east of Kenwood shut.
“I think it is fair to say that some parks that close for the season, if on the closure list and no partners are found, will likely remain closed when spring gets here,” State Parks spokesman Roy Stearns said in an email Friday.
Sugarloaf, Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville and the Petaluma Adobe are all slated to close July 1, as are several parks in Lake and Mendocino counties.
Parks officials contend closing 70 parks statewide will achieve $22 million in annual savings demanded by Gov. Jerry Brown last year to help solve a $26.2 billion deficit.
But with the state’s financial situation continuing to deteriorate, parks advocates are worried that parks are in effect being closed now, a concern underscored at Sugarloaf this week.
“The state is walking away from five state parks in Sonoma County and Sugarloaf is the first,” said Caryl Hart, Sonoma County’s parks director and chairwoman of the California Parks and Recreation Commission.
Officials in previous years have limited the use of Sugarloaf during winter months for budget reasons. But closure is a first for the park since it opened in 1964, according to Mary Pass, superintendent for the Silverado sector of Diablo Vista District.
The park, which drew about 105,000 visitors in fiscal year 2009-10, has 47 campsites and miles of trails. Those campsites are closed and no services are offered during the park’s closure.
Pass called the unprecedented shutdown “really sad.”
Programs at the Robert Ferguson Observatory at Sugarloaf are unaffected by the action because that facility operates under a separate contract with the state, Pass said.
And the reality is that Sugarloaf and other “closed” parks will continue to draw visitors.
A gate on Adobe Canyon Road leading to Sugarloaf is closed at a point where motorists can turn around. But officials said there is nothing to prevent people from walking or biking into the park.
Matt Muldoon of Petaluma simply lifted his bicycle over the closed gate Thursday to continue on his ride to the park’s main parking lot. He described his unease as several state vehicles approached him on the road, but then drove on.
He said he later stopped to chat with a park ranger and she informed she had no reason to cite him.
“She said the thing that’s not open is the parking lot,” Muldoon said.
Pass, superintendent for the parks sector that includes Sugarloaf, said there are no regulations to prevent people from hiking or biking at the park, even in its current closed state.
“They just need to find legal places to park,” she said.
But Stearns wrote that no one will be cited as long as the “gates are left open.”
Stearns and other parks officials did not respond to requests for clarification Friday.
The discrepancy reflects the ongoing difficulties officials are having in instituting what they prefer to call “service reductions” at parks, many of which have numerous access points that are not monitored.
The main gate to Annadel park, for instance, is closed during the week to prevent people from using the park’s main parking lot. The restrooms are not being cleaned during the week and staffing is limited, according to Pass.
But people continue to use Annadel during the week.
That’s led to concerns that parks will fall further into disrepair and will be used for illicit activity. Lawmakers last year passed legislation that provides qualified immunity to the state for injuries that may be caused in closed parks.
Stearns on Friday wrote that officials are considering leaving park gates open to try to prevent “those with bad intentions” from doing “their dirty work behind the protection of a closed gate.”
He wrote that officials also are hoping to partner with local groups to run patrols in the parks.
“We have not done this before and it would be an experiment to see how to best handle the park,” he wrote.
Local organizations in the meantime are working on proposals to take over operations at several North Coast parks until the state’s financial situation improves.
Stearns said state officials are still weighing a proposal submitted by the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association to operate Jack London park, which is now closed Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
The Sonoma Ecology Center is leading a consortium of agencies that hope to operate Sugarloaf, while county parks is taking the lead on a plan for Annadel.
Hart said the county-led group has received enough donations to operate Annadel for a year should it close July 1. She declined to say how much money that entails or to identify the person she said was responsible for a major contribution, saying she’ll make those announcements later.
Hart said she’s moving closer to submitting a formal proposal to operate Annadel to county supervisors and state parks for their approval.
“It’s not like we are sitting here letting this happen,” she said of park closures. “We’re mobilizing, and we need help.”