Fourteen months ago, 70 of California's 278 state parks were slated for closure. As Parks and Recreation Department Director Ruth Coleman stated at the time, "With proposed budget cuts over the next two years, we can no longer afford to operate all the parks within the system."
But that was the dismal yesterday. Under Coleman's leadership, a much brighter today has emerged for California's parks -- a rare and welcome good news story for our beleaguered state.
State parks officials announced recently that 69 of the 70 parks once slated for closure will remain open for the foreseeable future. Only one, Providence Mountain State Recreation Area, which overlooks the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, has closed -- but only for infrastructure repair.
Park users can thank parks employees, private businesses, volunteers, philanthropists and ordinary citizens -- who all stepped up to rescue our state's park system.
Officials had five public meetings across the state soliciting funds, volunteers and ideas. From that effort, 89 organizations arose to offer local assistance. Among them was Raley's supermarkets, which launched a fundraiser called "NickleAid." Every time shoppers eschewed throw-away bags and used reusable cloth bags, Raley's donated five cents to the state parks. The $75,000 raised helped keep the historic Governor's Mansion open, among others.
In our region, six state parks and recreation areas were slated for closure:
McConnell State Recreation Area in northern Merced County
Turlock Lake State Recreation Area
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown
George Hatfield State Recreation Area between Newman and Hilmar
The Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa
Henry W. Coe State Park in Stanislaus and Santa Clara counties
In addition to donations, park officials sought partnership agreements with private businesses, nonprofit organizations and public entities.
While the state retains ownership and responsibility for all state parks, some campsites and other facilities will be operated by private concessionaires or nonprofit organizations. That's why Turlock Lake remains open; as of
July 1, American Land & Leisure, a recreation management company based in Orem, Utah, has been running the facility.
Donations will keep Henry Coe State Park, in the hills southwest of Newman, open for at least three years. The same is true for Railtown 1897 in Jamestown and the Hatfield and McConnell state recreation areas along the Merced River.
As wonderful as this news is, Coleman cautions that the current efforts are only a reprieve -- not a permanent fix. Most of the agreements negotiated will remain in place one to five years. Nonetheless, the partnerships with private concessionaires and nonprofit organizations, the donations and the volunteerism all represent a new model for how to keep state parks viable and vibrant in the future.
In 1979, during Jerry Brown's first term as governor, 91 percent of state park funding came from general fund tax dollars. Today, just 20 percent come from the general fund.
Even when state support was more robust, the parks system racked up more than a $1 billion in deferred maintenance.
When the state's finances improve, the partnerships forged during hard times are not likely to go away, nor should they.
Tough times have forced the state to look beyond state coffers for support. And a public that cherishes its parks has demonstrated a willingness to help out in countless ways. The innovation and enthusiasm unleashed should be encouraged in good times as well as bad.