California state parks navigating uncertain future
It was Mother’s Day, and as she has so many times in the past, Maria Dominguez had brought her family to the Sonoma Coast, where her problems always seem smaller when cast against the vastness of the ocean.
Dominguez, a divorced mother facing eviction from her Santa Rosa home because her landlord wants to sell, gathered her three teenage kids and made the 45-minute drive to North Salmon Creek beach, where her family has free access to a wide swath of sand edging the Pacific just north of Bodega Bay.
The popular beach is part of Sonoma Coast State Park, which has encompassed 17 miles of this lightly developed coastline for more than 80 years. It was here, 21 years ago, that Dominguez, then just a 17-year-old girl recently arrived from Mexico, first saw the ocean.
“Don’t look,” a boy who’d ridden out to the coast with her said as they approached the cliff overlooking the beach. Moments later, she opened her eyes.
“Ay, Dios mío,” she said.
Oh, my God.
Generations of county residents and visitors have been similarly awestruck and enthralled during visits to the Sonoma Coast and 10 other state parks, nature reserves and historic sites within the county.
Now, to sustain California’s parks into the 21st century, state officials say the system needs an overhaul. The transformation, as outlined by a panel appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, is meant to move past a management scandal that engulfed the parks system in 2012 and to extend the promise of places that serve as playground, refuge, classroom and museum for up to 75 million visitors a year.
That future hinges in part on a plan to improve fee collection statewide. But the Sonoma Coast is the only place in California where the state is seeking new fees, advancing an unpopular plan to impose day-use charges of up to $8 at eight coastal sites that have always been free.
The infusion of money would help parks offer more services, protect more land and open new sites for future generations to enjoy, explained John Laird, California’s secretary for natural resources, overseeing state parks.
Laird was an assemblyman during the recession, when a budget gap decades in the making for the parks department became a crisis. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration floated a plan to close dozens of parks. To stave off that scenario, Laird backed a proposal in the Legislature that would have pumped millions into the parks system through an increase in vehicle license fees. It failed to gain support, and in 2010 California voters rejected a similar measure at the ballot box.
Laird took the defeats personally. Born in Santa Rosa, he has fond memories of time spent at his grandparents’ ranch on Gravenstein Highway and trips to the Sonoma Coast with his dad, where the pair tossed tennis balls into the ocean and let the waves carry them back.
“That’s a precious resource that we have to turn over to future generations, and really, is the reason I wanted a long-term fix,” Laird said. “The voters didn’t agree, and we’re stuck in this position. We’re trying to figure out, within the context of the budget, how to do things more efficiently and how to get more money from the Legislature when we can.”
The latest, most significant bids to secure more money for parks include proposed taxes on marijuana - medical and recreational - and a bond measure that could go to voters in November. Each would generate tens of millions of dollars annually.
Fee opponents say the proposal threatens a history of unconstrained public access to the state’s coast, a guaranteed right under the state’s constitution and 1976 Coastal Act. That was the legacy of a pioneering movement launched in Sonoma County by environmental activists more than 50 years ago.
Richard Charter is a Bodega Bay resident who over four decades has fought to protect the North Coast from offshore drilling and preserve public access. Charter questions why visitors would pay extra at sites that offer few amenities beyond a parking lot and portable restrooms.
“People are used to paying for campsites or museums,” said Charter, a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Foundation. “It’s when the state, because of a certain amount of malfeasance in Sacramento, sees a gravel parking lot with an overflowing Porta-Potty as something they can start charging for, I think that raises the main questions now.”
The free park sites make Sonoma County an outlier compared with other parts of the state, where entrance fees are routinely charged, Laird said.
“If the people of Sonoma County went and stood next to all the people from Los Angeles who are paying entrance fees and said, ‘We don’t like it, why should we do it?’ I think they would get an earful,” Laird said. “It’s about balancing interests.”