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The announcement that 70 state parks would shut down July 1 because of budget cuts was made last May on, appropriately enough, Friday the 13th.

Shutting parks to let them rot, or worse, be taken over by vandals, pot growers and other ne'er-do-wells, sounded like the plot of a horror movie. Or Sacramento politics.

"I just couldn't believe it," Richard Dale, executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center, recalled about hearing the news of the closure list, which included 16 parks on the North Coast.

The announcement galvanized Sonoma County's parks and open space leaders into action. Out of that grew a new alliance of county government, nonprofit and private groups that, in conjunction with state lawmakers, developed a strategy to keep the parks open.

It worked. Come today, no state parks on the North Coast will close.

They are Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park near Kenwood, Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park and Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville, as well as eight Mendocino County parks, two in Napa County and one in Lake County.

"It was a pretty remarkable grass-roots effort and more evidence, if we needed any, of the way people in this county feel about their parks," said Ralph Benson, executive director of the Sonoma Land Trust.

Celebrations are planned today at Annadel and Petaluma Adobe, but they represent only a temporary reprieve for these natural resources.

To the dismay of park advocates, Gov. Jerry Brown last week vetoed $31 million the Legislature borrowed from other uses to help the California Parks Department deal with its estimated $1 billion in deferred maintenance. He left $10 million.

"Nobody should assume that we are out of the woods on park closures," Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said Friday. "This $10 million is basically going to buy time."

Huffman said his initial thought when Brown announced the park closures last May was, "here we go again."

Arnold Schwarzenegger made similar proposals when he was governor, but he always backed down in the face of protest. Huffman said he initially thought Brown would back down, too.

In November, the assemblyman chaired a hearing in Sacramento in which he and other lawmakers blasted state parks officials over how they selected the 70 parks for closure. Huffman told them to abandon the proposal. They did not.

"They were working on a detailed closure plan, which we hadn't seen beforehand," he said.

By then, the newly formed Parks Alliance for Sonoma County was meeting to develop a strategy for saving five parks in the county that were on the state's closure list.

The initial meetings were led by Benson, with the land trust; Caryl Hart, the county's parks director; and Bill Keene, general manager of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

Dave Gould, the former district superintendent of the Diablo Vista District for state parks, agreed to come out of retirement and lead the fledgling organization. The land trust paid for a part-time staffer. The alliance grew to include a number of nonprofits, government agencies and individuals.

"It was a place where everyone could come together to compare notes and work out a strategy for going to Sacramento," Benson said.

Huffman's bill to allow qualified nonprofits to run state parks on a temporary basis was signed by Brown, clearing the way for the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association to submit a plan to operate Jack London.

The operating agreement, which was approved in April, set the standard as the state continued negotiating with nonprofits, private concessionaires and other groups to keep parks on the closure list open.

Thanks in part to such

agreements, only five of the

original 70 parks slated for closure are shutting down today, and even those may get a reprieve.

"We were a model for everyone else," Keene said.

Huffman and state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, introduced other legislation aimed at both short- and long-term budget solutions for state parks.

The California State Parks Stewardship Act of 2012 authored by Huffman includes proposals ranging from California drivers being able to purchase environmental license plates with the fees going to parks, to buying annual park passes at a discounted rate through state income tax forms.

The proposed legislation reflects the growing sentiment that state parks will have to be more self-sustaining as Sacramento grapples with budget deficits. The state parks system receives about 28 percent of its funding from the state general fund, down from a historical high of 91 percent.

"We are but putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound," Keene said. "We have not solved the underlying problem, which is the long-term management of these parks."

He agrees with others who say groups such as Team Sugarloaf, which includes the Sonoma Ecology Center, will have to manage state parks long-term.

"I don't think we have a choice," Keene said. "I don't think the state is going to turn around."

Benson said the new partnerships will strengthen state parks in the future. But he said it ultimately comes down to what Californians value.

"Do we value parks? Are we willing to pay for them? Or should we let them go to hell?" he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com.

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