On a warm Saturday morning in Big Sur, Garrapata State Park is running as you might expect. Over 50 cars line a stretch of Highway 1 overlooking the Pacific while some remnant south swell breaks along the rocky shore. A few painters scattered along the coast point their canvases in every direction. Pods of hikers file through the park's east entrance to explore trails in the Santa Lucia Mountains. There is no indication that the park is set to close in one week, along with 42 others statewide.
Last May, it was announced that 70 of 279 California State Parks would close as a result of $22 million in budget cuts to the system. Since then, 27 parks have been saved by individual donors, nonprofits, local governments, and private businesses. More parks have a good chance of reprieve. Yet presently 13 coastal parks (and 30 more inland), including surf breaks at Moss Landing and Garrapata, face closure on July 1. "The chickens finally came home to roost," says Roy Stearns, the Director of Communications for the Department of Parks and Recreation.
After more than 25 years of underfunding, parks statewide have accrued $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance to keep the broken system running. "It's an easy place where you can say, 'Okay, we're not going to do that $10 million in maintenance this year to keep operating these parks," says Stearns. As a result, every park now operates under a "service reduction." According to Stearns, this could mean a decrease in staffing, hours of operation, days of operation, or keeping fewer trails and facilities open. In extreme cases, service reductions also mean the seasonal closure of some parks.
Drastic service reductions have offered a glimpse into the uncharted consequences of closing state parks. When Providence Mountain was left unsupervised this winter, it incurred $100,000 in damage from vandalism to its buildings and limestone caves. At Benicia State Park and Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, copper theft this year has cost the state thousands more in destruction and loss of property. A July 2011 report in the New York Times cited an illegal marijuana grow at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, where "a rifle was set up with a trip wire."
If the most essential purpose of state parks is to preserve natural resources, the recent illegal activity in parks on the closure list is a serious threat. Officials at the Parks Department have expressed concern that crime will bring about deforestation, pollution of watersheds, and rapid erosion.
"We are not confident that the state is going to see $22 million in savings from this," says Traci Verardo-Torres, Vice President of Government Affairs at the California State Park Foundation. "We think that it's going to end up costing the state more money directly and indirectly."
The state park system generates more than $6 billion in economic benefit for California and supports 56,000 jobs statewide. And the interest of private businesses in operating concessions at parks shows that many have the potential to operate profitably. Yet of the 27 parks removed from the closure list, just three have promising long-term solutions to remain open for more than five years. Many agreements may only keep a park running for one year, at which time it will again face closure. "We see this as a reprieve, not a permanent fix," says Stearns.
Some legislation in the senate and state assembly is evolving that may help restore economic stability to state parks. However, near term "trigger cuts" placed on the November ballot by Governor Brown threaten more untenable lay-offs. If voters choose not support his increase in sales tax, 20 percent of state park rangers and all seasonal lifeguards on state beaches will be cut from the budget immediately.
Bill Pfeiffer is one of just seven permanent lifeguards at the state beaches in South Orange County. The seasonal staff in his sector alone is made up of 70 seasonal lifeguards, all of whom face being cut from the budget. During the busy summer months, Pfeiffer relies on 20 to 25 seasonal lifeguards at any given time to keep the beaches monitored. One of three parks in his sector, San Onofre State Beach, garners over 2 million visitors annually, making it both an important source of revenue for California and a potential disaster if left unmanned.
In 2009, the South Orange sector logged more than 1,800 aquatic rescues. Pfeiffer says that's an "average" year, and that seasonal lifeguards account for the vast majority of these rescues. He also noted that the number doesn't reflect hundreds more first aid responses, some of which deal with major spinal injuries or heart attacks. If the trigger cuts are put into effect, he says, "You're not going to have anyone in the lifeguard towers, basically. You're not going to have anyone in the control units other than what the permanents can provide. It's unmanageable."
Government officials hope Californians will continue enjoying state parks that are forced to close. According to Verardo-Torres, who works in Sacramento representing the State Parks Foundation, "The state has said, 'Look, we aren't going to be the operator of [closed parks]. But we don't want to close off the public's access to them… We want good law-abiding people to go into parks and still enjoy them because that's going to keep non-law-abiding people out.'"
At Garrapata, some local community members clear overgrown brush and poison oak from the trails at the park's west entrance as the July 1 closure looms. The prospect of a few locked gates doesn't discourage them. Austin Keegan, the organizer of the clean-up, plans to continue orchestrating park improvement projects while visiting Garrapata regularly. "Coming here, the quality of life really goes up," says Keegan.
By lending smaller entities the management role, protection of California's parks now relies heavily on individuals. That reliance is most evident in parks due for abandonment, where visiting may soon count as an act of environmental stewardship.