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Barbara and Duncan Smiths' weekend camping trip at Bodega Dunes State Campground was a little quieter this month because a group of friends who join them every year couldn't get camping reservations.

The Smiths, who live in the Sacramento Delta area, have spent an autumn weekend at Bodega Dunes for years, and in past seasons the campground had 90 spaces available. Now just one loop is open with a total of 20 spaces — and those get reserved well in advance for weekends.

An adjacent day use beach area that has been easy to reach for the couple and their two young children is closed this fall, meaning they'll have to drive a longer distance to play in the sand.

The Smiths lament service cutbacks by the California State Parks system, but that won't stop them from coming to the Sonoma Coast. It just means arranging reservations long in advance.

"We love this section of the coast. It's frustrating. One option would be to raise fees. We want to be able to access the beach. We work hard and pay taxes and want to enjoy it," said Barbara Smith.

With 70 state parks threatened with closure by next summer and services reduced in many parks staying open, campers and day-trippers will begin seeing noticeable changes along Sonoma and Mendocino county beaches.

The state has closed a few campgrounds and many day-use areas, said Jenny Donovan, public safety superintendent of the state parks' Russian River District. Some blufftop day use parking lots with restrooms, picnic tables and garbage cans, such as Schoolhouse Beach, are now barricaded.

Pat Essex, a campground host at Bodega Dunes, said this is the third autumn in a row that the campground has closed the majority of campsites.

"We get a lot of off-the-road campers in the evening looking for a space, and now we can't accommodate them because everything is booked. This is the fifth-busiest park in the state," Essex said, noting a popular beach access at Bodega Dunes is closed now for the winter.

In addition to closing day use areas and campgrounds, state parks has steadily reduced amenities like evening campfire and junior ranger programs. It is turning to volunteers with nonprofit groups like Mendocino Area Parks Association and Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods to do interpretive presentations.

Some rangers are trying to preserve interaction with park users by having informal "coffee with a ranger" talks instead of campfire programs, leaving them available to go out on emergency calls if necessary, Donovan said.

Park lovers throughout the state are trying to figure out ways to pay to keep their cherished parks open, and in Jenner, the Stewards group has operated the park visitors center for several years by staffing it with volunteers and raising money to pay the bills.

"We are doing more with less. We've literally taken budget cuts every year since I was a ranger," said Donovan, who began her parks career 17 years ago.

"But having to close parks is unprecedented. We were known nationwide as the parks system everyone looked at as a model. It's difficult for those of us who've taken it as a career and love the resource and want to protect it," she said.

Coastal campgrounds run by Sonoma County Regional Parks are fully open this fall, and campgrounds such as Doran and Westside at Bodega Bay have strong attendance through Thanksgiving weekend, according to county parks program manager Mary Clemens.

Shelters for Pawnee fire evacuees

Lower Lake High School, 9430 Lake St., Lower Lake, is the official shelter established for people evacuating from the Pawnee fire. It is equipped to handle animals.

The Clearlake Oaks Moose Lodge, 15900 E. Highway 20, Clearlake Oaks, is not authorized by the Office of Emergency Services but is also sheltering fire evacuees, mostly people in campers and RVs who want their animals with them.

There is an authorized Lake County animal services station in an open field at Highway 53 and Anderson Ridge Road in Lower Lake.

Attendance was strong this summer for the third consecutive year.

"With the downturn of the economy, it's a more cost-effective way to vacation," Clemens said.

Bert Whitaker, Sonoma County Parks manager, said nearly half of those who camp locally are from outside the area, with many coming from the Sacramento area or elsewhere in the Central Valley, especially in summer, to escape the heat.

Doran Beach's 130-site campground is one of the most popular destinations, and when every site is occupied as many as 900 people may be in the campground.

Unlike other parts of the state that are plagued with unclean ocean water caused by contamination, sediment and sewage spills, the North Coast beaches are consistently clean. The Heal the Bay organization's rating of coastal waters gave county parks beaches consistent "A" grades for water quality.

"The environmental health department is working hard to make sure the county beaches are clean," said Clemens, noting that vineyard owners and cattle ranchers have worked with government agencies to reduce potentially harmful water from flowing to the ocean.

Sonoma County Parks is gearing up to add more ranger programs based on what the public says it wants in its parks, although in some cases participants will be asked to pay.

The agency will be introducing a green environmental program, boosting teaching about natural and cultural resources. And it is starting a new "added value" plan in which people making reservations for campgrounds will have the option of paying extra for programs such as beach hikes with rangers.

"We want to give people a lot of reasons to come out to the parks," Whitaker said.

Janet Parmer is a Bay Area feature writer. She can be reached at jhparmer@comcast.net.



This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:


? A story published on October 13, 2011, incorrectly identified several state park closings. Greenwood day use and Jughandle day use remain open. Westport Union campground is partially open. And Point Cabrillo Light Station historic park is not scheduled for closure until July 2012. ?


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