North Coast officials bash state parks closure plan
Published: Tuesday, November 1, 2011 at 3:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 1, 2011 at 6:29 p.m.
California state parks officials faced withering criticism Tuesday at a Sacramento hearing over how they selected 70 parks for closure next year to save the state money, with one North Coast lawmaker saying the process was so flawed that the plans should be abandoned.
State Parks closure list
These North Coast state parks have been targeted for full closure in 2012. Some already operate on a reduced basis.
-- Annadel State Park, Santa Rosa
-- Austin Creek State Recreation Area, Guerneville
-- Jack London State Historic Park, Glen Ellen
-- Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, Petaluma
-- Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Santa Rosa
-- Greenwood State Beach, Elk
-- Hendy Woods State Park, Boonville
-- Jug Handle State Nature Reserve, Fort Bragg
-- Manchester State Park, Manchester
-- Point Cabrillo Light Station, Mendocino
-- Russian Gulch State Park, Mendocino
-- Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area, Leggett
-- Westport-Union Landing State Beach, Fort Bragg
-- Anderson Marsh State Historic Park, Clearlake
-- China Camp State Park, San Rafael
-- Olompali State Historic Park, Novato
“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 and eight in Mendocino County.
Huffman was co-chairman of a half-day hearing at the state Capitol Tuesday held to address the economic, cultural and environmental impacts of park closures and brainstorm ways 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.
State parks officials contend that closing 70 parks will achieve $22 million in annual savings demanded by Brown last year to help solve a much larger $26.2 billion state budget shortfall.
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 cost savings will be met.
Bill Herms, deputy director of the state park system, described the process that went into crafting the closure list as about 12 “parks professionals” meeting together over a period of 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 their 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.”
State parks slated for closure in Mendocino County include Manchester State Park, Russian Gulch State Park and Hendy Woods State Park.
Chesbro said the closures disproportionately affect rural counties, citing as an example state 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.
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 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 that 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 prior to Tuesday's hearing because they fall within the boundaries of national parks.
Several speakers on Tuesday expressed worries that closed parks will fall further into disrepair and 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, the Sonoma County Sheriff, expressed concerns Tuesday about that liability falling onto his department and that of other law enforcement agencies should they be asked to take on more policing duties at parks.
“I know where that responsibility lands,” he told lawmakers.
Tuesday's hearing also included a discussion of the myriad public and private efforts underway to try and 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 operate Jack London to state parks officials.
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.
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