COURSEY: Beach fees an insult to voters

Sometimes you have to wonder if Sacramento is really in the same state as the rest of us — particularly the portions of Sacramento with the Great Seal of the State of California emblazoned on the front door.

The question arises along with the news that the state Department of Parks and Recreation still is pushing to impose new fees on visitors to 14 popular beaches along the Sonoma Coast.

This leaves me in a state of disbelief, and indicates that whoever is running the state Parks Department is in a state of denial.

Or possibly in a state of complete and utter stupidity.

State parks officials, you might recall, are the same people who told us earlier this year that dozens of parks throughout California, including many of the most popular in the North Bay, would need to be shut down this year after the department saw its budget cut by $22 million. And they are the same people, it was later revealed, who were sitting on more than $50 million in hidden funds in the department's budget that could have been used to prevent those park closures.

This was a scandal of major proportions, a breach of the public trust so brazen as to take your breath away. Wisely, leaders in state government acted quickly to stanch the bleeding. Heads rolled in the Parks Department, legislation was written to put the hidden money to work keeping parks open, Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a bill preventing the department from closing — or even threatening to close — any state park for the next two years.

All of which is fine and good, and — given the state parks department's credibility problem — absolutely necessary. But the damage control being practiced on the one hand in Sacramento is being torpedoed on the other hand by the department's insistence on pursuing user fees on historically free state beaches.

I'll admit that when these fees were first raised earlier this year I thought the backlash against the idea was knee-jerk shortsightedness. After all, just because the beaches had been free and open to all in the past shouldn't necessarily mean they have to always remain that way. We live in different times, I thought. The state can't afford to keep parks open; shouldn't users be willing to pay a few dollars to access some of the most beautiful and dramatic coastline in the world? Isn't that the price we have to pay for keeping public land public?

But, as we later discovered, I and my fellow Californians had been lied to and duped by our state parks bureaucracy. The fiscal crisis was inflated. The threats to close our beloved recreational lands were dishonest. The grass-roots fund-raising drives to keep parks open were allowed to proceed by a cynical state bureaucracy that knew they were unnecessary.

And now they want to charge us $8 to park a car at Portuguese Beach or Campbell Cove or Goat Rock?

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