Scrambling to keep state parks open

Paul Caldera's morning routine as groundskeeper at Los Encinos State Historic Park includes unlocking the gates at 10 a.m., raking pepper tree leaves and feeding the ducks that fly in each morning to lounge in a shady spring-fed pond.

Then he clears the pond drains of debris and checks on the resident geese, including one Caldera calls "Bad Boy" because, he said, "it tries to bite my ponytail."

"This job is my livelihood. It's a way of life. I feel at home here," said Caldera, 41, who landed the job nearly two years ago. Nodding toward dozens of ducks and geese preening at the water's edge, he added, "those are my babies."

Los Encinos, an urban oasis near the bustling San Fernando Valley intersection of Balboa and Ventura boulevards, is among at least five state parks in the Los Angeles area being considered for closure to help balance the budget. As many as 100 may be forced to close statewide, according to the state Department of Parks and Recreation.

"It's heartbreaking," Caldera said. "I always welcome visitors and ask them to please come back. Now, it seems, they may not be able to come back. But I ask them anyway."

On Thursday morning, supporters of Los Encinos gathered around a picnic table in the shade of an old olive grove and scoured the park's historical records in hopes they could find a way to challenge the parks department in court.

Among them were members of the Amestoy family, which owned the Encino site before ownership was transferred to the state, and longtime supporter Lil Bauer.

"We got out this big book of records and searched for a copy of the deed," Bauer said. "We didn't find it, but it was all so exciting we could hardly contain ourselves."

About 45 miles to the southeast in Whittier, backers of Pio Pico State Historic Park, which is also targeted for closure, were working hard to secure alternative resources needed to keep the five-acre facility groomed and secure.

"We're in anguish over this -- if they close it up and walk away, we figure it will be destroyed in no time," said Whittier Mayor Bob Henderson. "We're trying to see if there's a way to divide up the burden so that we can maintain it and keep it open at least on a limited basis."

Since 2001, more than $5 million has been spent on seismic retrofitting and extensive restoration at the park.

Friends of Pio Pico Inc. was expected to meet today with representatives of Pico Rivera and Whittier. The group's goal is to strike a joint powers authority agreement that would allow the sharing of operating expenses at the park, which costs about $66,000 a year to run. That includes about $4,800 for electricity, $3,500 for janitorial supplies, $3,000 for graffiti removal, $16,000 for water, $2,000 for telephone services, $4,500 for power equipment and $5,000 for trash removal, state officials said.

"It's a daunting task getting funding, but it's a labor a love," said Carolyn Schoss, president of both Friends of Pio Pico and the California League of Park Associations.

"In a worst-case scenario," she said, "we'll reach an agreement with the state to close it down, put all the historic artifacts in storage and do minimal maintenance with help from the nonprofit San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps."

Corps Executive Director Daniel Oaxaca confirmed that his group was "willing to do all we can, within reason."

"We're not the ultimate savior," he said. "But we'll cut, mow and blow to keep it looking inhabited and keep the vagrants out."

A sense of urgency pervaded the activities of state parks across California on Thursday. Other facilities targeted for closure in the Southland include the Rio de Los Angeles State Park, which embraces 40 acres of open space featuring sports fields and wetlands, and the mile-long, secluded Point Dume State Beach in Malibu.

"It's good that they are worried," said Roy Stearns, a spokesman for the state parks department, "because the reality is we've been cut by a huge amount and the laws of the land are that we must live within our allotted budget."

Still, Rich Rozzelle, state park regional superintendent, was wrestling with the implications of having to mothball the 1,900-acre La Purisima Mission State Historic Park near Lompoc until the economy improves.

Closing down La Purisima, the 11th of the 21 Spanish missions established in what became California, he said, "means we'll have to end a school program that buses in more than 10,000 students a year from San Francisco to Los Angeles."

"We've already met with local cities and counties, and none said they could provide dollars to keep the park open," he said. "So I've got a significant problem. Our historic adobe structures must be constantly monitored for water damage and rodents, among other things."

At Los Encinos, actors participating in the monthly "Living History Day" on Sunday will infuse their presentations with pleas for help to keep the park open. Among them will be Michael Crosby, president of the Los Encinos Docent Assn., who said he plans to "dress up as a 1870s-era sheep ranch foreman trying to deal with a 21st century state budget crisis."

"I'll talk about how the property has changed hands many times over the decades," he said, "and about what a precious resource it is, and the budget crisis and why we need to preserve it as a historic monument, open and flourishing."


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