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Gov.'s proposal to close 48 sites angers avid users

Times Staff Writers

When Will Rogers State Historic Park was rededicated in March 2006 after a $5-million restoration, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stood before a crowd of Rogers family members, state officials and media and proclaimed the park a jewel that held special meaning for him. It was there amid eucalyptus trees and meadows that he had learned to ride horses for his “Conan” movies and had romped with his children on the lawn when his family lived next door.

Schwarzenegger’s long association with the storied Pacific Palisades site failed to save it Thursday from inclusion on a list of 48 state parks and beaches slated for closure as part of a drastic budget-cutting plan.

That the governor would even dream of closing the legendary park dismayed Dianne Sax, who Thursday was completing one of the thrice-weekly hikes, prescribed by her doctor, at the facility.

“It’s very serious to me,” said Sax, 67, of Venice. “This is the safest place for me to hike all by myself. The people of Los Angeles need this park as an open and accessible area to enjoy nature.”

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Joggers, surfers, artists and other avid users of California’s state parks and beaches expressed outrage and disbelief as they absorbed word of Schwarzenegger’s proposal, which would shutter even famed San Simeon State Park near Hearst Castle. In addition to the 48 closures, the governor suggested cutting back lifeguards at 16 state beaches.

Of the state’s 278 parks, those slated for closure are the least used, produce the least revenue and are the easiest to secure, according to parks officials.

If the budget takes effect as written, gates would be put up at the entrances to 43 of the parks, which would be patrolled and maintained but would not be open to the public, said state parks Director Ruth Coleman. Others would be partially closed. For instance, one of the two campgrounds at Mt. San Jacinto State Park would be closed. The sites slated for closure include Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park in the state’s far northwest corner and Salton Sea State Recreation Area in the southeast.

Coleman said the closures would mean the loss of about 6 1/2 million visitors for a system that had 79 million visitors in 2007. Parks officials said they had not yet decided whether to issue tickets to people who venture onto the closed facilities.

Among the targeted parks are attractions popular with school classes, including Topanga State Park, Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park in Sacramento and Pio Pico State Historic Park in Whittier.

“It would be devastating,” said Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles). “A lot of school kids use these, and a lot of them are from parts of Los Angeles without a lot of open space.”

Some lawmakers saw the proposal as an opening gambit by the governor with the aim of forcing the public to pay higher fees to use parks or of turning the parks over to private operators.

“The governor is sitting at a poker table and is trying to show a poker face while saying he will close all the people’s parks in hopes that the Legislature will step in to save the parks by agreeing to higher fees,” said state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles).

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State Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) was among those who said he would consider approving higher fees.

“We’d all love to be able to go into state parks for free . . . but if it’s a choice between being able to go into a park and having some other service provided to somebody who can never get to the park, I’d vote for the latter,” Perata said.

Ann Notthoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, praised the governor’s budget for making investments in programs to fight global warming and enforce pollution laws. But, she said, it “unjustifiably targets the state coastline and parks. Californians won’t tolerate a budget that closes our state parks and beaches.”

On Thursday, Santa Monica artist Dale Weiss, 59, was working at an easel in Topanga State Park. “To close a park like this would be tragic,” she said as she brushed cobalt blue acrylic paint onto a colorful canvas depicting live oaks and sycamores.

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Mike Genest, the governor’s finance director, said he hoped that local government agencies, charitable organizations and community groups would step in and take over operating the venues.

Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) said he is a member of the Central Coast Natural History Assn., a group that one year put in 50,000 volunteer hours guiding hikes, operating the gift shop and otherwise helping run Montana de Oro State Park, one of those identified for closure.

He said community groups would step up to help, if unions and private concession holders would drop objections.

Shaken by the news that Will Rogers might be shuttered, Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry, a great-granddaughter of the famed cowboy humorist, said she was briefed Thursday afternoon by Coleman. The deed that turned the property over to the state stipulates that if the state fails to operate the site as a park, the land would revert to the family.

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“If it does happen,” she said, “the family would gladly take it back.”

She said the family was attempting to build a foundation that could operate the park.

The governor’s budget also proposed cutting back lifeguards by half at several state beaches, including Doheny, Bolsa Chica and Huntington.

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martha.groves@latimes.com

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Times staff writer Mike Anton in Orange County contributed to this report.


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