One by one, state parks are being spared.
Almost a quarter of California's 278 state parks, beaches and historic sites are marked for closure by July 1, a cost-cutting move by Gov. Jerry Brown's administration that's more symbolism than savings.
The list is shrinking thanks to individuals such as Alden Olmsted, a Cotati filmmaker, as well as an array of nonprofit groups, private businesses and public agencies that are raising money or assuming responsibility for parks facing closure.
Olmsted has collected about $9,500 from boxes placed in coffee shops, grocery stores and, of course, parks. Coupled with a $19,000 donation from the California Parks Foundation, he raised enough to keep Jug Handle State Preserve open for at least another year.
"This is proof that you can fight City Hall," said Olmsted, whose father, the late naturalist John D. Olmsted, was instrumental in establishing the park south of Fort Bragg on the Mendocino Coast.
A tip of the hat to Olmsted, whose story is one part Capra, one part Kafka. His one-man rescue operation saved Jug Handle with nickels and dimes — spare change. But the projected savings from closing 70 parks — $22 million — barely qualifies as spare change in a $90 billion state budget. And, the projection is, at best, dubious.
A report by the state legislative analyst says the state will end up spending more to close some parks than it would cost to keep them open. Expenses include locking up buildings and storing museum exhibits.
There's also a risk of damage once a park is closed. Vandals caused $100,000 in damage when Providence Mountains State Recreation Area in Southern California closed last year, according to the Los Angeles Times. In addition, nearby communities stand to lose business — and related tax revenue — as tourists go elsewhere.
Jug Handle is one of 11 parks that have been removed from the closure list, and a high-ranking state official optimistically predicted that only a small fraction will actually close.
"We are working feverishly," Michael Harris, acting chief deputy director for the Department of Parks and Recreation, told the Associated Press last week. "We may end up with 15 parks without anybody stepping forward."
State officials say progress is being made on agreements to protect four Sonoma County parks — Annadel, Sugarloaf Ridge, Jack London and the Petaluma Adobe.
But the operating agreements completed so far are for one to three years, and it's unlikely that small groups and individuals will be able to keep up the fundraising momentum for the long term. It's even less likely that they will raise anything close to what's needed to address a deferred maintenance backlog of $1.3 billion.
Voters have authorized several bonds to buy park land, but there hasn't been a similar commitment from the public or the Legislature to take care of parks once we create them. We salute the Alden Olmsteds who have stepped forward, but the parks need a stable source of revenue.
There are options — higher entrance fees, a voluntary checkoff on state tax forms, long-term operating agreements with local agencies, nonprofit groups and private operators. Some or all should be explored, because the present trail leads to ruin for the park system.
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