The news the California State Parks Department had been secretly squirrelling away $54 million shocked and frustrated many community members who've scrambled to keep open local state parks.
"It was a gut punch," said Cindy Lashbrook, the associate director with the East Merced Resource Conservation District. "The perception is really bad."
"I think it's distressing for anyone who works for state parks because we all believe in the department we work for," said Darci Moore, curator for the Mariposa Mining and Mineral Museum, a state park facility.
Fundraising efforts, privatization deals and government intervention have staved off the closure of almost all 70 state parks that were intended to be shutdown by the parks department to save $22 million a year.
However, many fear the recent scandal could undermine future efforts to raise money for state parks.
"I don't want to overreact to it," said Richard Jantz, volunteer with a campaign to save McConnell and Hatfield state recreation areas in Merced County. "This causes a lot of people to second-guess the need for additional funds."
Lashbrook, who worked with Jantz on the Save Our River Parks campaign, echoed that concern: "To get people excited to donate for year two and three, that's going to be our big problem," she said. "It's going to make it harder to convince local residents and businesses that it's really needed, that this really isn't a game."
The Legislature will determine how the recently discovered state parks' funds will be allocated, according to state officials.
"With so many cuts to important programs in the recent budget, the Legislature needs to take time to examine how the money can be best put to use," said Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres. "As this is a one-time infusion of funds, we should not use it to support a program that requires ongoing spending, but ensure that it funds a program that will make the greatest impact to Californians."
A number of regional parks have been fighting to stay open over recent months.
McConnell and Hatfield state recreation areas were scheduled to be closed July 1. But the parks were able to remain open and hire a new ranger after $65,000 was raised.
The parks received $5,000 from the city of Newman, $10,000 from Merced County, $20,000 in additional funding from the State Parks Foundation and numerous private donations.
The Mariposa Mining and Mineral Museum is currently bracing itself for closure. The museum houses the official collection of gems and minerals for California. It needs $80,000 to remain open, officials said.
In Stanislaus County, Turlock Lake State Recreation Area found an alternative to closure by privatizing the park under a deal with American Land & Leisure, a recreation management company in Utah.
Henry Coe State Park, southwest of Newman, received a three-year reprieve due to donations. Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown was saved from closure.
The East Merced Resource Conservation District will hold a meeting next week to discuss the future of McConnell and Hatfield state recreation areas, which have secured funding for only one year.
The Central Valley Regional Superintendent for State Parks, Jess Cooper, and Sector Superintendent for State Parks Bill Lutton will be on hand to answer questions.
The meeting starts at 1:30 p.m. Aug. 9 at 2135 Wardrobe Ave., Suite C, in the city of Merced. For more information call (209) 761-0081.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.