This past week, NBC News showed a video of a 300 foot tall, 1500 year old Sequoia falling to earth in the Sequoia National Forest. Visitors to the park were stunned to see such a magnificent giant so suddenly brought down, the result of natural causes. Across the state, however, what has stunned Californians is the politically made crisis that threatens to destroy the future of the State Parks System as a whole. This threat has been at least a decade in the making, created by both Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Most Californians did not see it coming. For the communities in Mendocino County, the planned closing of Hendy Woods is but one harbinger of things to come. While this article is focused on the State Park System as a whole and Hendy Woods as a case in point, there are equally important reasons to consider the other State Parks in Mendocino, Sonoma, Humboldt, and Trinity Counties that face closing.
In order to grasp the significance of the threat to close one quarter of the 279 State Parks over the coming months, some perspective is needed. What Governor Jerry Brown proposes is to shutter 70 State Parks in order to carve 22 million dollars out of his currently projected budget deficit of $12 Billion+ for the coming fiscal year. That is, to achieve a savings of one quarter of one percent in budget deficit reduction, the Governor proposes to close down 70 State Parks. This does not take into account that the State Parks return to the state $4.3 Billion in spending by park visitors (Sacramento State University Report, June 2009). An earlier report by UC-Berkeley (2002) estimated that $2.35 in tax revenue is generated by State Parks for every dollar budgeted by the state. In another analysis, Matt Finley (June 5, 2009, see About.com) estimated that in order to cut $150 million from the budget, the state would lose $350 million in revenues. Finley did not factor in the spending in surrounding communities of 100 million visitors to the State Parks. Any way one looks at such figures (and these are the most conservative estimates available), one conclusion is inescapable: State Parks return more money to the State budget and to local communities than it costs to run and maintain them. Whatever estimates one uses, this conclusion is inescapable.
The current proposal to close 70 State Parks is but the latest salvo by the political establishment’s campaign to erode and dismantle the system as a whole. In a recent interview, a state park ranger noted that budget downsizing and cutbacks in maintenance and necessary equipment has been under way for a decade. It has gone so far, the ranger noted, that a massive transfer of heavy equipment is slated to occur over the coming year. To a ranger, even a riding mower to cut grass is considered heavy equipment. When asked his opinion as to just where all this equipment is bound for, he noted that it is slated to go to other state agencies, to be mothballed, or outright auctioned off. Once such basic equipment necessary to manage and maintain the parks is gone, it is highly unlikely that new funding will be found to replace them. The investment would be prohibitively expensive.
Throughout his tenure, Governor Schwarzenegger targeted the State Parks for closures, at one point suggesting as many as 200 needed to be closed. Even one of the most critical estimates at the time that claimed that 88% of State Park visitors were in-state residents, had to admit that the other 12% were out-of-state visitors who generated $1.6 billion dollars in taxes and local spending. Thus, any claim that there are no new or net taxes or spending generated by State Parks is unsupportable. Nevertheless, the governor’s efforts went far beyond speculative ideas. On the ballot in 2010 was Proposition 21, which proposed an $18 annual vehicle registration fee to fund State Parks. If, indeed, the State Park System budget as a whole was $121 Million at the time, why put forth a funding mechanism that would generate in the neighborhood of $576 million? The proposition was soundly defeated, of course. It did not make sense to 90% of California households, which on average own 2.28 vehicles (to say nothing of commercial vehicles) to bear a cost of $41 per household in order to both fund the park system and have $400 million siphoned off for other purposes. In California, 89% of the 12.5 million households own vehicles. If one wanted to craft a proposition that was certain to be defeated and at the same time erode support for California State Parks this proposition served its purpose.
The current radical reductions in budget funding are not the only attacks on the California State Parks. Ruth Coleman, the Director of California Parks, has recently admitted that the list of closures may grow as more budget cuts are announced. At the ½ day legislative hearings on the matter of proposed cuts, on November 1, 2011, the Sheriff of Sonoma County, Steve Freitas, testified that there is no money for policing closed parks. The best that the State Assembly chairman of the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee could muster was a comment that “We need the administration to step away from this.” These are strong words, but in and of themselves do nothing to push back the proposed closings. The State Assembly is well positioned to withhold legislation and funding to achieve its ends. A little leverage could easily resolve this crisis, provided the right leadership is there.
What if a park, or 70 parks, is closed? What happened to an unvisited, unmaintained park? Again, Ruth Coleman, California Parks Director, has made a gloomy observation. “And if you think the effect on natural resources will be minimal just look at any home that’s been foreclosed.” (Tony Barbosa, 9/11/2011,Los Angeles Times).
Before turning directly to the reasons to keep Hendy Woods open, consider what a $121 million budget (before the current proposed cut of $22 million) for California State Parks achieves. The entire state park system employs 2300 full-time employees. With all the idle talk in recent years about bloated government, what other agency can boast that a mere 2300 employees (500 of those positions are currently not filled) serve 100,000,000 people each year? In the aggregate this translates into 434,782 visitors served per park employee. What a bargain! But let us not forget that behind these 2300 dedicated souls stand 20,000 volunteers. Without the volunteers, the running of the parks would be impossible. Of course, one can argue whether 100 million is an accurate number for visitors. Exact numbers are incredibly hard to come by. But by any measure there is no doubt that visitors to California’s 279 State Parks receive both a bargain and a wonderful experience, for many an experience of a lifetime.
As a case in point, what does Hendy Woods State Park offer to visitors? The park is composed of 845 acres. The main attractions are the 40 acre Big Hendy Grove and the 20 acre Little Hendy Grove. Visitors find the trails to these old growth redwood stands easy to follow and traverse. As a redwood park, it is warmer, less windy, and more conveniently located than any other coastal zone location. The admission per vehicle is $8. There are 43 camp sites (each includes a table, BBQ stand, and food locker), at $35 per night. The local ranger notes that 12 or more people at a single camp site have been observed. Four small cabins, at $50 per night, as well as a PUMA cabin accessible for disabled persons, are also available. The campground has potable water, 4 showers, and an RV sanitation station. In addition, there is a hike and bike campsite. For day visitors, there are 12 picnic tables near the river. Besides enjoying the sight of old growth redwoods and hiking/biking trails, late winter and early spring canoeing and kayaking are available. For the local visitors, Hendy Woods also provides the only local access to swimming in the summer. While Hendy Woods is not full to capacity on every given day, it is capable of generating at least $2550 per day. Though not easy to observe, Hendy Woods is also home to black-tailed deer, bobcat, puma, gray fox, black bear, rabbits, raccoons, skunk, chipmunks, squirrel, and many species of birds.
What do 2011 visitors to Hendy Woods say when asked about their experience? A Vacaville family on their first visit in August says “Wonderful experience! Thank you to all and will return with my family.” A group of six from Spain comments, “It would be a crime to close Hendy Woods. Please keep it open!” An Illinois family says, “Thanks 4 taking care of Mother Nature.” A Sonoma family of 5, visiting since 1994, opines, “This is our favorite campground — even better than camping at Lake Tahoe! We have always loved Hendy Woods!” A local Mendocino couple was emphatic, “Please don’t close this beautiful park! What can we do?” A sampling of visitors in August 2011 shows that Hendy Woods is a favorite with campers and day visitors from Europe, the East Coast and Midwest, the Southwest, Canada, and a majority of counties in California. Given the universal praise Hendy Woods receives, how could state officials even think of closing it down?
There has to be a reason beyond the immediate state budget woes for closing State Parks. For years, squeezing the California State Budget has had little effect on the enthusiasm tens of millions of annual visitors have for State Parks. This is in spite of the increasing lack of funds to maintain and improve the facilities. The budget decline of 40% since 2007/8 has had little effect on attendance. Voters rejected Proposition 21 in 2010 not as a sign of disapproval for tax money spent for the park system. Rather, many saw the proposition as a cynical ploy to shift the burden on to those who drive cars and at the same time divert perhaps $400 into the general fund each year. The latest development is the taking away of equipment that park personnel need to do their job. Currently, officials are exploring the possibilities of shifting the running of some parks over to local communities or non-profit entities. Surely, the state officials must know that running State Parks piecemeal, by local governments or non-profit groups already struggling to make ends meet as it is, is a non-starter. But, by proposing to turn over some state parks to local government or private control, the door to privatization will have been opened, if only a bit. And there, perhaps lies the rub. This may strike the reader as unimaginable. Remember, though, proposals to sell off federal land have long been on the table, in good and in bad times.
Consider the bigger picture of an ever growing population in California and the real estate and development interests in search of prime land upon which to build. Can you picture a lush, gated community of retirement homes for the wealthy on the rolling hills of eastern Sonoma, the former Jack London State Park? Can you imagine the appeal of prime land just north of Novato for San Francisco commuters, such as a sold off Olompali State Historical Park? Of the 279 State Parks, many lie appetizingly close to major cities, close enough to make them prime targets for a California political system dominated by big money and special interests. The time to strike is always when there is a downturn in the economy and the state administration is desperate for cash. Think back to the move to sell state owned and occupied office buildings for short term cash and the assuming of long term debt obligations. Citizens of California need to speak out and hold accountable state elected officials for their failure of leadership that created the crisis State Parks face. Beyond the moment of budget crisis, the citizens of California need to make certain that state officials, both the elected and appointed, understand that selling off the jewels in California’s Crown is unacceptable, under any circumstances.
With respect to the redwood parks of northern California, they are rich in timber resources, in the midst of a collapsed timber industry increasingly desperate for intact, old-growth stands to log off. Imagine the appeal to the timber industry that is desperate to maintain what jobs remain by logging, even selectively, in the 845 acre tract of Hendy Woods State Park. Our logger friends will regret the need, but log nonetheless. If it is closed and deteriorates, with no commitment to re-open it in a short period of time, it is logical to fear the floating of a timber harvest plan for Hendy Woods State Park.
Until recently, this writer did not think any of these dire scenarios were serious enough to even speculate upon. However, as an anthropologist who has traveled to many sites of ancient, collapsed civilizations, he knows that the most popular explanations for a civilization’s failure are the degrading of the environment through deforestation and unsustainable land use practices. Hendy Woods is but one example of the redwood making its last stand on this earth. Redwoods have been on this earth since the early days of the dinosaur. Every visitor to a redwood park stands beneath such giants with awe and wonder. To threaten the continued survival of this magnificent natural heritage through neglect and disuse is a terrible thing to contemplate.