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Today’s Challenges for Parks and Recreation

By: T. Keith Gurnee

“Parks Make Life Better!” Month

Just a few years ago, the California Parks and Recreation Society (CPRS) adopted this slogan to brand its purpose as an organization of park advocates. CPRS recently sponsored legislation as State Senate Resolution SCR 14 Wolk to designate the month of July, 2011 as “Parks Make Life Better!” Month. If adopted as expected, the State Legislature will have taken one of the more ironic actions of recent memory. On one hand, the Legislature will have confirmed its agreement with this appropriate statement. On the other, it will be adopting a budget that proposes to close 70 state parks across the state of California, making our lives “less better” in 2012.

While the theme of this Resource issue is Recreation, these are tough times for parks in California. Buffeted by the budgetary winds of Sacramento amid the acute fiscal crisis facing state and local government, parks often find themselves on the short end of the stick. With Sacramento closing state parks and some local governments eliminating their Parks and Recreation departments entirely, “making people’s lives better” with parks is proving to be an elusive goal. But are the funding cuts in parks really getting at the structural fiscal problems we face? Or are they largely symbolic, penny-wise pound-foolish measures calculated to win support for Governor Brown’s proposed tax extensions?

The Closure of State Parks

While closing 25% of California’s state parks is unfortunate, it could be worse. As recently as 2009, then Governor Schwarzenegger proposed to close 220 state parks or 80% of its facilities. Also, in closing its least visited facilities, those remaining open will still serve 92% of last year’s visitors to state parks while retaining 94% of the revenue they generated. While these closures are less drastic than those proposed by Schwarzenegger, shutting down 11 state beaches and 40% of California’s historic parks is a serious blow to public recreation and to the economies of local communities that depend upon them.

But how much money will these closures actually save the state? What funding is needed to actually close these parks and what are the consequences of their closure? The governor’s proposal to shutter 70 state parks may save the state $22 million over the next two years, but that’s less than 0.3% of the state’s $9.6 billion deficit and it doesn’t even include the costs and implications of mothballing these facilities.

Brown’s proposal does not include having to get permits from the Coastal Commission to preclude public access to the beaches he wants to close. Nor does it take into account that 16 of the parks slated for closure –- over 20% of them – must be kept open as a condition of Federal funding or risk a breach of contract. But, how much it will cost in capital improvements and law enforcement to secure these facilities and ensure that they will not be vandalized, trespassed, and misused? Won’t this exacerbate the deferred maintenance that is already plaguing our parks? Will state parks become an attractive nuisance inviting those who would abuse these facilities? The cost of one big fire from an unattended campfire in just one of our parks would quickly consume the $22 million the closures would allegedly save. These questions must be answered before any parks are closed. Confronting the grizzly bear of our structural deficit on the backs of state parks is the equivalent to going after a flea on its coat. It is little more than a scare tactic designed to push voters into supporting the Governor’s tax extensions.

State Park Operating Agreements

With these challenges facing state parks, bills have been introduced in Sacramento to transfer the operational responsibilities to manage and maintain state parks to nonprofit organizations and local governments. AB 42 Huffman would allow the state to enter into operational agreements with qualified non-profit organizations, and AB 64 Jeffries and SB 356 Blakeslee would allow the state to enter into similar agreements with federal or local public agencies to manage a unit(s) of the state parks system. While these bills do not yet provide funding for such agreements, they are being reviewed by the appropriate committees. While CPRS is supporting one of them, they all seem worthy of the support of park advocates.

Parks and Tax Increases

With the ever shifting political tides in Sacramento and Governor Brown’s May Revise budget that included the unanticipated surge in tax revenues, the governor remains adamant about placing tax increases on the ballot at either a special election in September 2011 or at the general election in November, 2011. Even if he succeeds in placing them on the ballot– and recent polls suggest that the public wants to vote on them– there is no guarantee that they will be adopted. After all, these are the same taxes flatly rejected by voters in 2009. With Brown’s refusal to address pension reform, and with voters rejecting last November’s $18 per vehicle license fee surcharge (which is but a fraction of the increase proposed by Brown), we hazard to guess at their prospects of success. While there are those who claim that more state park closures will result if those taxes are not approved, remember that none of those revenues will be earmarked for parks or “making lives better” in California.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

With the budget mess in Sacramento still up in the air, those with an interest in the field will need to be nimble in dealing with the consequences –- intended and unintended –- that may come out of it. It is not too late to write your State Legislators immediately to advocate:

  • Providing a realistic cost accounting of what it will take to secure those state parks slated for closure
  • Utilizing a small portion of the surge in tax revenues to keep state parks open
  • Supporting those Legislative initiatives to enable the state to transfer its management responsibilities for state parks to non profits and local government agencies
  • Supporting the reformation and retention of redevelopment as a tool for making our lives better in California.
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