Central Valley

State ax threatens outdoor favorites

Forty-eight state parks, beaches and recreation areas all over California -- including five in and around the Northern San Joaquin Valley -- could face closure this year as part of Gov. Schwarzenegger's efforts to shore up an anticipated $14.5 billion budget shortfall.

Released Jan. 10 as part of the state budget proposal, the list of proposed park closures constitutes nearly one in every five of the 278 parks open in California.

The California Parks Department was tasked with coming up with a 10 percent reduction and made its decision based on revenue and visitor numbers, but park spokeswoman Sheryl Watson said other factors were considered.

"Some parks are so big and have so many ungated entrances, we physically can't close them," Watson said. "Also, some parks will have caretaking costs whether they're open or not, so it would make no sense to close those."

The state's famed park system attracts 79 million visitors a year.

The proposal has outraged conservationists, politicians and many residents who count on taking affordable trips to state parks as the cost of living rises.

"The reality is millions of Californians are going to be shut out of their state parks," said Traci Verardo-Torres, the California State Parks Foundation's director of legislation and pol-icy.

Mark Hada, superintendent of Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown, among the 48 parks proposed to be closed or partially closed, said parks must continue to adapt to what visitors want if they hope to keep attendance strong.

"There has to be more recreational opportunity, but the nostalgia associated with parks is something that is still important to a lot of people."

Hada says parks won't lose public support because residents share a desire to escape their everyday lives, if only for a few hours.

"A lot of us grew up thinking there would always be parks, and we'd always have access to them," Hada said. "It's kind of a treasured institution."

Here are the five area parks facing possible closure:

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park

Location: Jamestown

Home of the famous Sierra Railway No. 3 steam locomotive (which has appeared in many films, including 1990's "Back to the Future III"), this 26-acre park is host to more than 60,000 visitors each year, including more than 6,000 schoolchildren. Seasonal weekend excursions operate out of Jamestown, where railroad enthusiasts can find one of the nation's oldest train roundhouses.

Great Valley Grasslands

Location: 5 miles west of Stevinson

This 2,800-acre park is part of the Grasslands Ecological Area, which is the largest remaining contiguous block of wetlands in California. More than 17,000 people visit this undeveloped park each year to see the endangered wildlife and plant life, as well as the springtime flower displays.

McConnell State Recreation Area

Location: 5 miles southeast of Delhi

Frequented by 41,000 swimmers, anglers and campers each year, McConnell was the first state park in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. The 74-acre park offers year-round recreation, and is known for its bounty of catfish, black bass and perch.

George Hatfield State Recreation Area

Location: 5 miles northeast of Newman

Though relatively small at 47 acres, and almost completely surrounded by the Merced River, almost 230,000 people visited Hatfield last year. Attractions include lush tree cover, great year-round fishing, camping, wading and nature study.

Henry Coe State Park

Location: Straddles Diablo range west of Gustine

More than 200 miles of dirt road and trails snake through Coe's 90,000 acres of largely undeveloped terrain. Popular among hikers, backpackers and mountain bikers, Coe is host to 35,000 visitors each year. It's also the home of the annual TarantulaFest, which pays homage to the famous arachnid.

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