Nearly all California state parks avoid closure - for now

The Sacramento BeeJune 28, 2012 

As Californians head out for summer vacation, state officials said Thursday that most of the 70 state parks once slated for closure will remain open after an outpouring of private support.

The announcement came even though Gov. Jerry Brown removed $31 million in funding that Democratic lawmakers had placed in the new budget to keep state parks open. That rollback was among the most notable of Brown's line-item vetoes announced Thursday, along with cuts to child care and Cal Grants for college students.

Parks advocates lauded the administration for keeping properties open but voiced concerns that reliance on private support will not resolve permanent funding woes. And some Democrats who pushed for state budget dollars rebuked the governor for axing public support, suggesting that Brown was trying to privatize state parks.

"We knew this wouldn't be a permanent solution, it would only get us through this year, and that's why it's kind of a mixed bag," said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. "We're very happy the parks are getting a reprieve. But the governor has been disappointing on the parks issue."

The state Department of Parks and Recreation has struck deals in the past year with private donors, foundations and nonprofit groups to continue operating 40 parks that were on the endangered list. One such agreement spared the Governor's Mansion in Sacramento this week, with a $75,000 donation from Raley's and $25,000 from the Church of Scientology of Sacramento County.

At the direction of Brown and lawmakers, the parks department created a target list last year based on attendance and how much revenue they generated.

Besides the 40 parks that have firm agreements, an additional 25 parks have drawn enough interest for the state to deem them worthy of keeping open past the original Sunday closure date. To keep them running, the state will rely on $10 million in special off-highway vehicle and energy funds that Brown retained in the budget he signed Wednesday night.

"What this does is give us the money to allow us to focus on the next 30 (parks) without a tight June 30 deadline," said Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird. "We will work through every agreement that is possible with a proposed stakeholder. And then when we get to the end, I expect that there will likely be a few parks for which nobody has stepped forward."

There remain five parks for which the state has struggled to find donors or other agencies willing to chip in: Benicia State Recreation Area, the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa, Gray Whale Cove State Beach near Montara, Zmudowski State Beach near Moss Landing and Providence Mountains State Recreation Area in San Bernardino County.

At least one - the Mining and Mineral Museum - is planning to shut its doors and pack up more than 13,000 objects in its collection, according to curator Darci Moore.

Despite being a storehouse of valuable minerals and rare nuggets from the American River dating back to the Gold Rush, the museum has run into financial troubles in recent decades. The collection moved from San Francisco to Mariposa in 1983 after the Department of Conservation that oversaw it couldn't afford rent at the Ferry Building.

In 1999, the Department of Parks and Recreation took over the museum. In the past three years, the museum has been closed for three days a week to save money.

"We are the official state collection of gems and minerals," Moore said. "It has been important to California's legacy, heritage and history. Basically it was the Gold Rush that spawned this collection."

Brown also kept $13 million in parks bond funding for projects that can generate more money. Those include credit card kiosks at entrances that make it more likely for visitors to pay, as well as adding water and electricity at some campsites.

Brown used his line-item veto authority late Wednesday to cut $128.9 million in spending from the $91.3 billion general fund budget. The governor signed all 27 budget-related bills that lawmakers sent him.

He vetoed an additional $66.8 million in spending from special funds and federal funds.

The governor's cuts affect child care and preschool for low-income children, as well as Cal Grant scholarship aid for college students, two areas that Brown wanted lawmakers to slash deeper than they did.

The Cal Grant cuts largely affect students at private schools, though some public college students will see a drop in support for living expenses.

All told, the state will cut 14,000 child care slots for low-income families.

"I wish the governor hadn't used his blue pencil, especially on the child care and parks, but we will find a way over time to restore them," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat.

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