Seventy of California's 278 state parks will be closed under a plan announced Friday by Gov. Jerry Brown's administration, a historic blow to the state's storied natural heritage that may actually get worse as lawmakers scramble to fix the budget crisis.
Although state parks officials initially said Friday the padlocks would go up starting in September, they revised that later in the day, saying instead none would close until July 1, 2012.
The list includes a significant number of Northern California parks, including Henry W. Coe State Park near Morgan Hill; Castle Rock and Twin Lakes State Beach in Santa Cruz County; Portola Redwoods in San Mateo County; Moss Landing State Beach and Limekiln State Park in Big Sur; and Samuel P. Taylor State Park in Marin County.
"We were working night and day to keep this day from coming. Nobody wanted to have to do this," state Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said.
Laird made clear that even more parks could be closed in an effort to balance the state's $15.4 billion deficit -- especially if lawmakers fail to place Brown's proposed tax extensions on the ballot or voters refuse to approve them. He noted that Friday's list is based on budget cuts the state Legislature already approved in March, which cut the parks budget by $11 million this year and $22 million next year.
State parks director Ruth Coleman said the list -- which includes beaches, forests and historic sites visited by 5
Several details remained unclear on Friday. For example, Coleman first said "we would expect to start seeing padlocks after Labor Day." But by late afternoon, state parks spokesman Roy Stearns was saying the closures wouldn't begin until next summer because of the time needed to relocate or lay off staff.
When parks eventually do close, nothing will prevent people from walking or cycling into parks to hike on trails or visit beaches. That has privately led to fears of increased poaching, marijuana growing and fires, which could spread to nearby private properties.
Parks that will remain open account for 92 percent of the parks system's annual visitation and 94 percent of its annual revenue, Coleman said. "This is our way to in effect do some triage, and keep what's left open as a high-quality experience for visitors."
Republican leaders called the announcement a political gimmick to generate public pressure for putting tax extensions on the ballot.
"Is Jerry (Brown) really trying to convince us that he's already cut every penny from the nonessential parts of the budget and only the essential parts are left unscathed?" said Mark Standriff, a spokesman for the California Republican Party.
Laird noted that since 2007, the general fund portion of the state parks budget has fallen 37 percent to $99 million. Asked if Brown couldn't have found $22 million in cuts elsewhere, Laird said: "The governor is doing things across the budget, cutting money to education, lowering prison populations, dealing with health care. When you have reductions like that at the state level, everyone
Under Friday's announcement, some of the state's most visible parks -- including Hearst Castle, Big Basin, popular beaches in Southern California and parks around Lake Tahoe -- will remain open.
Other prominent parks on the closure list, however, include: Benicia Capitol State Historic Park, Benicia State Recreation Area, the California Mining & Mineral Museum, Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, Castle Crags State Park, Del Norte Redwoods, Garrapata in Big Sur, the Governor's Mansion and Leland Stanford Mansion in Sacramento, Malakoff Diggins, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve, Morro Strand State Beach, Point Cabrillo Light Station, Salton Sea State Recreation Area, the Santa Cruz Mission, Tomales Bay State Park, and Zmudowski State Beach near Watsonville.
"It's clearly a sad day for parks," said Ruskin Hartley, executive director of Save the Redwoods League. "We are talking about places that have been set aside by past generations, and now the state is closing the gate."
State parks already had a maintenance backlog of $1.2 billion, and operate with the same number of rangers and maintenance workers as it did in 1979, despite an increase of 10 million visitors a year and roughly half a million acres in new land.
Hartley said the impact of the cuts will fall disproportionately on rural communities, which depend heavily on tourism.
Coleman said her department hopes to reduce the closure list by entering into partnerships in the coming months with cities and counties to run the parks slated for closure. New partnerships with nonprofits are not allowed, however, unless the state Legislature passes new laws, because state employee labor unions view such arrangements as attempts to privatize jobs.
If the closures take effect as expected, Brown would become the first governor in California history to close state parks to save money.
Prop. 21 rejected
In the past two years, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed closing 220 of the state's 278 state parks to help close the state's budget deficits. He reversed course, however, after receiving 135,000 letters, calls and emails in opposition. Instead, the state reduced hours at more than 150 parks.
In November, voters rejected Proposition 21, which would have charged an $18 annual fee on vehicle registrations, to provide new funding for parks.
Hartley said environmentalists will try to help find some partnerships to keep some parks open, and that parks lovers are looking for new funding sources, including future ballot measures.
"But the political and economic climate is tough," he said.
Contact Paul Rogers at 408-920-5045.