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May 20, 2011 > Calif. officials propose closing 70 state parks

Calif. officials propose closing 70 state parks

By Adam Weintraub, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP), May 13 - A quarter of all state parks would close because of budget cuts approved by the state Legislature - from redwood groves along the North Coast to historic mining sites in the Sierra foothills and the Salton Sea in Southern California - under plans announced Friday by Gov. Jerry Brown's administration.

The state would close 70 of its 278 state parks, said California State Parks Director Ruth Coleman. The park system will cut services this summer and begin shutting parks in September, with all 70 closings completed by July 2012, she said.

The parks system hopes to minimize layoffs, possibly shifting some of the roughly 200 workers who would be affected by the closings into vacant positions within the department, said Tony Perez, the state's deputy director for park operations. There are almost 2,300 full-time positions in the state parks and about 500 of them are open.

"We regret closing any park," Coleman said in a prepared statement, "but with the proposed budget reductions over the next two years, we can no longer afford to operate all parks within the system." The state will start seeking partnerships with local governments and nonprofits that could keep some of the parks open, she said.

The cuts are the result of a bill Brown signed into law in March that trims $11 million from the parks budget in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and $22 million the next fiscal year. That trims the system's 2012-2013 budget from the state general fund to $99 million.

"This is a 40 percent reduction to the general fund parks budget since 2007-2008," said John Laird, California Secretary for Natural Resources.

The closings will be "devastating," said California State Parks Foundation president Elizabeth Goldstein, affecting sites in 36 of the state's 58 counties. "At a time when local communities are struggling to be part of the state's recovery, this proposal shuts the door to a vital part of our economy," she said in a statement.

The foundation questioned whether many of the parks realistically could be closed, even with roads blocked and buildings locked, because they have so many entry points. Unsupervised parks would be targets for vandalism and other illegal activity, jeopardizing the preservation of California's historic and natural resources, Goldstein said.

Coleman said the closed parks would be put in "caretaker status" with occasional checks for maintenance and security, but there will be a learning curve because the state has never closed parks before.

"I don't want to give the impression that we're just mothballing them and walking away," she said.

Among the parks scheduled to close are the Governor's and Leland Stanford mansions in Sacramento, the Antelope Valley Indian Museum, and the Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. The closings span the state, from the Morro Strand and Moss Landing state beaches to the Salton Sea State Recreation Area and Palomar Mountain State Park. They include popular recreation spots near cities, such as China Camp State Park north of San Francisco, and isolated nature spots including Plumas-Eureka and South Yuba River state parks.

The department said it based the decision on a variety of factors, including the parks' statewide significance, protecting the most important natural and cultural resources, public access, whether they have private or nonprofit partnerships and any grant or deed restrictions. The parks that will remain open account for about 92 percent of the visits to the system, officials said, but those on the closing list draw 5.6 million visitors a year.

The closings pose another challenge for communities around the state that rely on tourism dollars, said Gina Zottola, executive director of the Crescent City/Del Norte County Chamber of Commerce.

Crescent City's port was damaged by tsunami waves spawned by the March 11 earthquake in Japan, and the remote county has a jobless rate of more than 14 percent. Tourism is a significant part of the local economy. The Del Norte Coast Redwoods park - with more than 65,000 visitors in the fiscal year ending in July 2010 - is 7 miles south of Crescent City and is one of several state and national parks in the area that draw tourists.

"Closing the park, that's very disheartening," Zottola said. There's no guarantee that people who can't get campsites at the closed park will find them elsewhere or stay at hotels instead, she said. "Obviously, it's a cause for concern."

The park system will do its best to honor reservations already made for campsites and other services this summer but might have to shift some patrons to other sites because service cuts may shut some camping areas, Coleman said.

Brown is scheduled to release his updated proposal to close the remaining $15.4 billion state budget deficit on Monday. If the proposal includes additional cuts to the parks system, the list may grow, Coleman said.

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