Shelling out to use Sonoma Coast beaches

California State Parks is planning to charge for day use at 14 popular beaches on the Sonoma Coast, 20 years after a similar effort sparked months of furious protest that ultimately forced the state to rescind the fees.

State parks officials now want to charge visitors $8 a day for parking at Goat Rock in Jenner, Bodega Head, Salt Point State Park and at several other beaches where access now is free.

State officials say the fees are necessary to keep beaches open and to reopen those that are closed as the park system grapples with budget cuts and a deferred maintenance backlog of more than $1 billion.

"I would hope that eight bucks is reasonable for people to come out and enjoy the parks and to help keep these areas open," said Linda Rath, superintendent of the Russian River District for state parks.

But opponents, including veterans of the "Free Our Beaches" protests in the early 1990s, argue that charging for parking could limit access to beaches.

"You can't charge people to breathe the ocean air and to see the sunset. It's an unconscionable act," said former Sonoma County Supervisor Ernie Carpenter, who helped lead the effort to defeat the state's plans two decades ago.

State Parks is seeking to install self-pay stations at Stump Beach, Russian Gulch, Blind Beach, North Goat Rock, Goat Rock Arched Rock, South Goat Rock, Shell Beach, Portuguese Beach, Schoolhouse Beach, North and South Salmon Creek, Campbell Cove, Bodega Head Upper and Bodega Head Lower.

The state provides services at these beaches ranging from restrooms to picnic tables, although Campbell Cove, Schoolhouse, Blind, Russian Gulch and South Salmon Creek beaches technically are closed because of budget cuts.

If the state collects the fees, the money will go into the State Parks and Recreation Fund for use anywhere in the system, Rath said. A concessionaire, on the other hand, could retain a larger share of that money for local operations.

Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods is negotiating with the state to collect those fees as part of the group's proposal to take over operations at Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville and to prevent the park's closure.

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