It’s great news that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday backed away from plans to close 100 state parks, including Annadel State Park and Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park. The thousands of Californians who urged the governor to abandon this wrongheaded proposal can take this moment to celebrate.
But don’t be lulled into believing that the threat to Annadel and other state parks no longer exists. Reacting to political pressure, Schwarzenegger scrounged the money to keep the parks open for now, but nothing else has changed. State government still faces years of budget shortfalls. In all the ways that matter, the state Legislature is still dysfunctional.
“I’m heartened to hear that parks won’t be closing,” said Craig Anderson, executive director of the local environmental group called LandPaths. “At the same time, my fear is that this is a Band-Aid, and we’ll face the same situation in another 9 to 12 months.”
Statewide, park organizations hope a proposed $15 vehicle tax will eventually become the dedicated, long-term, source of revenue for state parks. But no one knows if backers can raise the money to place the measure on the ballot – perhaps in November, 2010 – and no one knows if state voters can be convinced to approve a new tax. While park supporters believe fervently in their cause, it is not as if state parks are the only state enterprise facing budget cuts.
If nothing else, the threat of park closures has reminded people why these parks are meaningful to their lives and to their local economies.
What remains to be determined is whether communities will seize the opportunity to put this energy to work.
People who care about the state parks will need to make their opinions known to elected officials.
And communities that care about their state parks will need to be inventive. There is no one-size-fits-all model for creating partnerships in support of your local state park. It could be an association that raises money through dues and contributions. It could be a non-profit that trains a corps of volunteers to perform specific tasks. It could be a partnership with local government. It could be a brand new idea.
“We’re going to need some other models to keep these parks open,” Anderson told me.
“We would like to explore any possibilities,” said Liz Burko, superintendent of the state parks department’s Russian River District.
Both Anderson and Burko talked about the potential of “community-powered parks,” supported by the volunteer efforts of school kids, cyclists, hikers, equestrians, birders, neighbors and others.
On a smaller scale, LandPaths is already training volunteers who lead tours of the Willow Creek addition to Sonoma Coast State Beaches. Burko described it as “a great model.”
“People have taken ownership,” she said. “They’re identifying issues. And they’re coming back the following weekend (with volunteer crews).”
If communities develop a renewed sense of responsibility for local parks, that might be its own reward.
At a time when state government is shrinking, new models of stewardship may become the only alternative to neglected or abandoned parks.
At an Assembly hearing on Tuesday, Michael Harris, acting chief deputy director of the state Department of Parks and Recreation, sought to correct the impression promoted by politicians – that we all woke up one morning and the state parks were in trouble.
The system, he said, has been “in trouble for a lot longer than the last couple of years.”
For example, the acreage of state parks has increased 50 percent in the past 30 years, and the number of visitors has increased 40 percent, but staffing during that same time increased only 13 percent.
Harris estimated the annual shortfall for park maintenance at $150 million and pegged the long-term costs of deferred maintenance at $1.2 billion.
In the history of Sonoma County, the creation of Annadel State Park stands among this community’s proudest achievements.
Here was a moment in which optimism, public commitment and the private philanthropy of a Santa Rosan named Henry Trione led to the creation of a 5,500-acre treasure, right on the doorstep of the county’s largest city. It became a mecca used every day by hikers, runners, cyclists, equestrians and nature lovers of all kinds.
It was a legacy for the ages – or so we thought.
And it was typical of the time. A generation ago, California gathered the finest collection of public facilities in the world – parks, universities, highways, water projects.
Now, owing to a bad economy and failed leadership, in Sacramento, California is struggling to save that legacy.
These are not cheerful circumstances, but grown-ups make the best of it. It would a waste of time to pretend that state government will get its act together anytime soon.
It should be mentioned that no one closes Annadel State Park. All the “No Trespassing” signs in the world won’t stop people from using a park that is open from all sides.
So, Annadel needs its hometown to help out – while there is still time.
As happens, the new six-part Ken Burns series – “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” – begins today on PBS (noon, 4 and 8 p.m. on Channel 9).
If the national parks are our best idea, surely the state parks are a close second. For the many opportunities and inspirations they provide, we should never again take them for granted.
Final note: LandPaths, the environmental group that specializes in park stewardship, is gathering names and suggestions from anyone who wants to build a community-based network for Annadel. Click here to share your ideas.