An unpopular proposal to close 48 state parks is now off the table after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger restored $13.3 million in funding to California State Parks in his revised budget proposal released Wednesday.
"The governor woke up to what thousands of people have been saying for months," said Traci Verardo Torres, director of legislation and policy for the California State Parks Foundation. The nonprofit organization advocates and raises funds for special projects on behalf of the state park system.
The governor's proposal calls for an $11.8 million infusion to California State Parks from the state's general fund in the 2008-2009 fiscal year. It also requires the parks department to raise $1.5 million in annual visitor and concessionaire fees, and Schwarzenegger proposed raising entrance fees by $1 to $2 at certain parks to help reach that goal.
Torres said the Save Our State Parks campaign launched by the foundation in February prompted more than 30,000 people to send postcards to politicians objecting to the proposed closures. Thousands also signed petitions to the governor, she said, and 8,500 sent messages through the campaign's Web site.
"And that's just our Save Our State Parks campaign," Torres added.
"More than 100 other local organizations did their own outreach," she continued, referring to the nearly 120 other organizations, including Audubon California, the California League of Conservation Voters, Greenbelt Alliance and Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, that joined the effort. Numerous newspaper editorials also advised against the closures.
"What's been great about this campaign is it really has awakened a sleeping giant, which is Californians and their love for their state parks," Torres said.
In January, Schwarzenegger asked state agencies to cut their expenditures by 10 percent to reduce a multibillion-dollar budget deficit — a changing figure that now stands at $17 billion.
The state parks department, deciding that further cuts in staffing, maintenance or programs would reduce the quality of visitor experience to unacceptable levels, decided its only tenable option was closing 48 parks, which comprise 17 percent of the 278 state parks. In addition, lifeguard staff at 16 state beaches would have been halved.
Parks slated for closure ranged from Del Norte Redwoods State Park near Oregon to Silver Strand State Beach in San Diego. In the Bay Area, Henry W. Coe in Morgan Hill; Portola Redwoods in San Mateo County; Candlestick Point in San Francisco; Tomales Bay in Marin County; and Benicia State Recreation Area in Solano County were on the list.
Lisa Page, a spokeswoman for the governor, didn't directly credit the public outcry for the governor's decision.
"The governor didn't want to have to close parks in the first place," Page said. "He was pleased to be able to come up with a solution that allows him to be able to restore funding."
The restored funding clearly relieved Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks.
"We're really grateful to the governor for reinstating our budget," Coleman said. "It reflects his understanding that parks are really important to Californians."
In the difficult economic times facing the state, with the real estate crisis and escalating food and fuel costs, maintaining free or low-cost access to state parks is crucial, she added. Coleman said the prospect of losing volunteer organizations affiliated with various state parks was the factor that most distressed her about the proposed closures.
"We would have lost the relationships with these nonprofit groups which have been nurtured over the years," she said.
At Benicia State Recreation Area, for example, a volunteer group maintains a native plant garden, Coleman said.
Torres also emphasized that the fight to protect state parks isn't over, and that the foundation's Save Our State Parks campaign will continue.
"It's an important victory to have won this fight to literally keep the doors open," she said. "But this fight didn't include a discussion about what it means to have excellent state parks," Torres continued, noting the decline in maintenance and park programs like campfire talks, curricula for school children, and added campsites.
Torres said her organization and others will be pressing legislators to find a more sustainable source of funding for state parks, which relies heavily on the general fund — a pool of money comprising income tax, sales tax and other revenue streams vulnerable to wide fluctuations year to year. "That's the most uncertain pot of money for any agency," she said.
Coleman also noted that revenue from concessions, such as a new restaurant, bar and sportfishing business opening this summer on the Malibu Pier — part of the state park system — will add to revenues.
Legislation is also pending to allow the parks department to sign 50-year contracts with concessionaires, up from the current 20-year limit, which would encourage a broader range of businesses to operate in state parks, Coleman said.
"We don't want to see overcommercialization of state parks," added Torres, regarding the interest in changing concession service policies. "It's a way of looking at what kinds of services are not being offered at state parks that people would like, and are consistent with the mission of the state parks."
The foundation does not plan to rest until the governor's newest proposal to restore funding to California State Parks is accepted by legislators during budget negotiations, which resume next week, although most expect broad support for it.
"It's not until the final budget is signed that we'll consider this battle over," Torres said.