The water's like glass. There's not a cloud in sight. We're at one of the planet's gems--Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe. And the boat dock is an ugly hazard.
It's symbolic of California's state park system--in sorry disrepair after years of cost-cutting and neglect.
Millions of Californians who use--try to use--state parks no doubt have their own gripes this July Fourth weekend: filthy restrooms, rotted tables, eroded trails, broken barbecues. The Emerald Bay dock is my gripe.
This bay is a spectacular natural wonder. Carved by a glacier, it sits in a granite bowl behind towering peaks and waterfalls. To reach the popular beach requires a steep, one-mile hike or a boat. But the dock is an embarrassment for California and its government.
Last summer, I wrote one sentence about the dock as an illustration of deteriorating state park facilities. Later, officials said it would be fixed. But it hadn't been when I took a look the other day. One section, a floating dock, still was listing badly. It will be replaced this summer, I was told. But there were no plans to fix the adjoining stationary pier, an abysmal menace.
Rusty Areias, the new state parks director, shook his head in disbelief when I showed him a jagged piece of metal jutting from the pier where you'd want to tie a boat. There were no cleats to fasten a line anyway. Protective bumper strips also were missing. And where barefoot kids walk, there were protruding nails.
In the midst of stunning natural beauty, there are distracting--sometimes dangerous--government blemishes.
On shore, the historic Vikingsholm Castle--probably the finest example of Scandinavian architecture in America--suffers from extensive rot, a leaking sod roof, crumbling plaster. . . .
Up the road at Sugar Pine Point State Park, I watched two disgusted visitors trying vainly to coax water from an inoperable drinking fountain.
Worse, at nearby D.L. Bliss State Park, alongside one of the world's clearest lakes, campers must boil their water because of unhealthy sediment. A new well is needed.
"It's frustrating," says Bob Macomber, the Sierra District parks superintendent. "We see what needs to be done, but we haven't had the money. We've gone through 20 years of declining resources. . . . We've been putting Band-Aids on cancers."
Now, there's a relief package on the way.
Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature have provided $137 million in the new state budget for parks repairs, about half of what's needed. But it's nearly five times what Gov. Pete Wilson allotted last year. "I'm thrilled," says state Resources Secretary Mary Nichols.
Assembly Republicans had tried to add another $75 million to reduce the need for borrowing, but Democrats objected. Says Assembly GOP budget negotiator George Runner of Lancaster: "It doesn't make sense to have to tell your children, 'We painted state park outhouses 20 years ago and that's what you're still paying for.' "
On that, the GOP makes sense.
Two parks bond bills are before the Legislature, both sponsored by L.A. Democrats. One, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, is for $1.5 billion; the other, sponsored by Sen. Tom Hayden, is for $2.2 billion. There'll be a compromise on next year's ballot. Each would benefit both urban recreation and vacation parks. Hayden's also would provide money to buy suburban open space.
"We have to do more than repair toilets in dilapidated parks," Hayden insists. "We have to invest in the future expansion of parks and preservation of habitat."
Parks don't show up on most politicians' radar--that is, their polls. "Parks are a mid-to-lower level priority, in there with libraries," acknowledges Jim Moore, a Democratic pollster and camper.
Yet, with a revved up economy, the public may be in a mood to spruce up and expand its parks. Pollster John Fairbank recently found 69% of voters supporting a $2-billion parks bond issue. The key, Fairbank notes, will be to prove a need and assure voters their tax money won't be wasted.
Davis could become the governor who fixed the parks, a political plus among middle-class swing voters who cannot afford to rent fancy lake-shore homes or beach cottages. "A relatively few bucks could buy a lot of good will," notes GOP political consultant Ray McNally.
Park users might appreciate that more than the wispy tax cuts pushed by Republicans.
Actually, one sensible tax cut would be to simply eliminate nuisance parks fees--like $1 each for a raft or an overnighting dog. "That ticks people off no end," Areias notes.
Meanwhile, somebody should just grab a screwdriver and a claw hammer. Then walk out on a pier, rip off a metal hazard, screw in some cleats and pound down the nasty nails.