For state parks in Merced County to stay open, fund raising might be needed

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comMarch 25, 2013 

Despite having received enough money to remain open until next summer, McConnell and Hatfield state recreation areas continue to face uncertainty.

"We feel like we're over the worst hump, but we'll know in a month or two whether we'll go for a third year of fund raising," said Cindy Lashbrook, associate director with the East Merced Resource Conservation District.

When the State Parks Department announced almost two years ago it would close about a quarter of its parks, saving roughly $22 million a year to help patch a significant budget deficit, local outdoor advocates took action.

Members of the conservation district and others launched the Save Our River Parks campaign to help keep the recreation areas open and hire a new ranger to collect gate fees.

In the midst of the campaign, about $54 million was discovered in hidden parks department funds. The scandal shook public confidence in the agency, leaving local fund-raisers concerned that many donors would back out.

However, not only were almost all of the parks saved, but the Legislature also allocated $10 million of the uncovered funds to match money collected from donations.

"We've entered into a partnership agreement with the East Merced Resource Conversation District to keep those parks open," said Bill Lutton, State parks superintendent overseeing Merced County. "We have an alive-and-well, good operating agreement."

The state money doubled the roughly $64,000 raised locally, providing Merced's river parks enough funding to stay open until June 2014.

Not only is funding for a third year uncertain, but a recent report released by the state's Little Hoover Commission recommends completely turning over some of the state's 278 parks to local control.

"If our budget situation doesn't improve, and we aren't allocated any additional match money, the question becomes, 'What do we do?' " said Roy Sterns, state parks department spokesman. "The park system continues to have the same budget crises it had before that money was found."

"It certainly wouldn't hurt to fund raise," he added. "The need for good strong partners is not going to go away in the foreseeable future."

It's not clear how the parks department would identify which parks it would abandon. But officials said it would likely take approval from the Legislature.

"If transitioning parks to other entities will make our parks system stronger, then we should be very careful in how the surrounding communities will be impacted," said Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres.

At the same time, local advocates and park officials continue to improve McConnell and Hatfield state recreation areas in hopes that an increase in public entrances fees will help support the facilities.

The parks have seen repairs to vandalized wires and electric fixtures, as well as upgrades to the restrooms and picnic areas, Lutton said. There are plans to expand campsites, including installing accommodations for travel trailers and motor homes.

There's only one ranger for the two parks, so often payment operates on the honor system. It's $8 for day use and $30 for camping.

"We try to keep personnel in the kiosks to collect fees," Lutton said. "If there's no one in the kiosks, you put your fees in an envelope and deposit it in the payment location known as an iron ranger at the entrance station."

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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