A non-profit group is seeking to prevent closure this summer of Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville and also restore services at several beaches and campgrounds along the Sonoma County coast.
As with other proposals to save state parks from closure, the plan submitted by Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods hinges on whether park visitors are willing to pay more to use facilities.
Specifically, the organization is proposing to charge visitors for parking at day-use areas on the coast and to expand the paid parking area at Armstrong Woods State Reserve.
“We’ll do what we can to appeal to peoples’ goodwill and interest in keeping parks open,” Michele Luna, executive director of the Stewards group, said Friday.
The state is planning to close 67 of California’s 278 parks by July 1 to save $11 million this fiscal year and $22 million in succeeding years. The list originally included 70 parks, but the National Park Service has agreed to operate three parks, including Tomales and Samuel P. Taylor state parks in Marin County.
In Sonoma County, state parks slated for closure include Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park east of Kenwood. A total of 16 parks on the North Coast are on the closure list.
The Stewards group is one of several non-profits that have submitted proposals to operate Sonoma County parks and keep them open. The Stewards plan is the most ambitious, as it encompasses not only 5,700-acre Austin Creek, but also Sonoma Coast State Park, which is not slated for closure but has experienced major service reductions.
That includes the closures of eight day-use areas, two environmental campgrounds and two-thirds of Bodega Dunes Campground. Only a few day-use areas with restroom facilities remain open, in addition to 49 camping spaces at Wrights Beach and Bodega Dunes.
Luna said Stewards decided to include Sonoma Coast in the proposal that the group submitted to the state this week because of the public’s desire to see those services restored.
Also, the group is hoping parking fees collected at day-use areas on the coast can be used to subsidize operations at Austin Creek.
Luna said campground fees at Austin Creek are not enough to operate the recreation area, which she said has an annual operating budget of about $300,000.
In total, Luna estimated that it will cost about $1 million to operate the recreation area and the coastal facilities.
Asking Californians to pay more to use facilities they already support with their taxes is likely to generate discussion, as will the concept of asking park visitors to pay for parking by self-paying.
State parks in particular have struggled to enforce such parking rules, including at Annadel, where visitors routinely park outside the Channel Drive gate and walk or bike in.
But Caryl Hart, Sonoma County’s regional parks director, said such parking programs work well when there is adequate staff for enforcement.
She said the county plans to install an additional “iron ranger” cash box on Channel Drive if the state approves the county’s proposal to operate Annadel on a temporary basis.
“The fact state parks hasn’t been able to collect any fees for Annadel is why it’s on the closure list,” Hart said.
Stewards may face competition at Austin Creek from a for-profit company after the state Public Works Board last week approved giving state parks officials the authority to seek operating agreements from concessionaires in 11 parks, including six on the North Coast.
As part of that bidding process, Austin Creek will be bundled with Russian Gulch State Park in Mendocino, Hendy Woods State Park in Boonville, Westport Union Landing State Beach in Fort Bragg and Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area in Leggett.
Among the possible concessions are operation of campgrounds, restaurants and day-use facilities.
Sugarloaf also was to be bundled with five Central Valley parks for the purposes of seeking bids from concessionaires. But State Parks Director Ruth Coleman removed the Kenwood park from that process this week to clear the way for negotiations between the state and a consortium of non-profits, including the Sonoma Ecology Center, that is seeking to take over operations there.
A spokesman for Coleman said Friday that Sugarloaf in the interim remains on the closure list.
Luna said Stewards has an advantage over other potential operators of Austin Creek because of the group’s long history in Sonoma County and community support for its efforts.
The group’s plan also calls for raising revenue through donations, and to make it easier for people to purchase park passes or earn them through volunteering.
Luna said that will help “lessen the blow for locals” who will have to pay more to use day-use facilities under the Stewards plan.
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.