Seen through a dive mask from the surging kelp beds near Mendocino on a recent weekend, the sunlit coast was a glorious smudge of redwoods, sea caves and the iconic bridge that carries Highway 1 arching over Russian Gulch State Park.
Combine that with the sound of pounding surf and the delicate flavor of abalone freshly pried off the rocks and you’ll understand why my wife, Pam, and I were so happy when a group of friends invited us, three years ago, to join the ritual Labor Day weekend feast that has brought them to this campground every year since 1985.
But what really inspires me as I write this defense of the California State Parks system and the November ballot measure that just may save it are memories conjured by the antiseptic aroma of bleached concrete in the campground showers and restrooms. It’s a scent I experienced as a sunburned kid at San Elijo State Beach near San Diego, and as a hitchhiking college student on a rainy morning at Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park near the Oregon border.
Along with the sight of rangers in snappy hats and well-maintained signs and stairways, that scent symbolized responsibility. It made me proud that I lived in a state where people took care of the property they shared.
In his recent PBS series, filmmaker Ken Burns declared the national parks “America’s Best Idea.” California has had at least a dozen great ideas, including the kosher burrito, aerospace and flip-flops as semi-formal fashion. But even as an alumnus of our excellent university and college system, I’d have to put our state parks at the top of the list.
The first fence probably went up in California soon after those first European explorers bumped into this place. Trees continued to topple as people, quite naturally, scrambled to parcel up the spectacular landscape. Today, however, even the relatively few folks with the means to own a piece of rocky shore, oak savanna, boulder-strewn desert or forested mountainside must feel blessed that leaders had the good sense to set aside such a fine sampling of the state’s bounty for everyone. If it weren’t for state parks, all most of us would see of the coast, for example, would be tall and tasteful redwood fences.
Over the years, however, the state’s budget has grown increasingly battered ,and many of California’s 278 state parks, beaches and historic parks have fallen into disrepair. Railings have rotted. Trails have washed out. Parks are at risk of closing, and the state has cut hours at more than a few. I’ve read that sewage leaks have turned some parks into odiferous health risks. More than $1 billion worth of maintenance and repairs are long past due.
Proposition 21, the State Parks and Wildlife Conservation Trust Fund Act of 2010, would raise $350 million or more a year for our parks. Anyone registering a vehicle in California would pay an extra $18. That would raise enough money to hire back rangers, boost interpretive programs and mend plenty of those ubiquitous cast-iron grills.
And we’d get something in return: Vehicles registered in the state would be entitled to free day-use of the parks, which, according to the state’s legislative analyst, could lure more visitors who would spend more on concession sales and camping fees, boosting revenues even more.
Tellingly, there’s no official opposition to this measure. If you browse the Web you’ll find a few crabby posts along the lines of “Don’t ask me to subsidize the hippies and their tree-hugging madness.” Such people need to push back from their computers and visit a park.
I’ve watched at-risk urban kids dive screaming into a cold creek while on their first backpacking trip at Henry W. Coe State Park near San Jose, and I’ve surfed with investment bankers at San Onofre State Beach in southern Orange County. Pitch a tent at Malibu Creek State Park and you sample a landscape Halle Berry pays millions to inhabit; Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park provides uplift from within a notoriously downtrodden neighborhood.
Stumbling out of a Costco tent to the scent of sizzling bacon, on a cool morning with fog lifting off the forest, you won’t miss the fluffy robes and pillow mints of a Ritz-Carlton.
Our own kids pretended to be impoverished miners swaggering down the dusty, ghost-town streets of Bodie State Historic Park and eccentric billionaires surveying the gilded fountains at Hearst Castle. They’ve stroked sea urchins in tide pools, watched meteors blaze across the desert sky and heard scrub jays squawking from trees with trunks as big around as the body of a 747.
Walk through a state park and you’ll notice something: People tend to be happy there. In just the past two months I have danced at an Asilomar State Beach wedding reception and barbecued burgers at Doheny State Beach while, in the distance, a pastor baptized new Christians in the waves.
At Russian Gulch last weekend, I passed a campsite packed with Harley-Davidsons and pickup trucks plastered with imaginative anti-environmentalist slurs. These campers couldn’t have missed my Sierra Club hat. Still, following campground etiquette, several called out friendly “hellos.”
Parks, after all, are the state’s egalitarian pressure relief system. They’re where otolaryngologists and fry cooks go to shed stress, hang out with friends and live for a few days in ad hoc neighborhoods defined by picnic tables and fire rings rather than socioeconomics. At this moment, when people lucky enough to have jobs are working harder than ever, our parks provide an indispensible boost to our collective morale.
Because feelings and memories tend to burrow deeper into the mind after nature has relaxed us, the relatively small amount of time most of us spend in the parks we love plays a disproportionately large role in shaping our identity as Californians. That’s why, as the state’s budget continues to wobble out of control, it makes sense for us to make our parks the places where we draw the line, the institution we rally behind. Each yes vote on Proposition 21 will be a small but symbolic gesture that Californians can again be counted upon to take care of what’s ours.
Bob Sipchen is the Sierra Club’s national communications director and editor in chief of its Sierra magazine.