A penny-foolish parks plan
Just because the state says the public can’t enter a park doesn’t make it so, and that’s the chief reason officials should reexamine their plan to close up to 70 parks starting in July. It’s not that open space is sacrosanct; as much as we love them, parks are fair game for budget cuts along with almost everything else. But the question that Gov. Jerry Brown must answer is whether California will really save any money, even in the short run, by closing so many parks.
The closures were originally supposed to save about $11 million a year, a small item in the budget. Already, according to a report this month by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, 10 parks are on track to be removed from the closure list because other agencies or organizations -- such as the U.S. Forest Service or nonprofit groups -- have agreed to operate them.
But the report also says that the process of closing several of the remaining parks would cost more than it would to operate them for the next year -- because of such expenses as locking down buildings and moving valuable items to safe storage. And these parks were supposedly picked in part because they were among the easiest to close.
That doesn’t take into account other expenses that could be incurred in the weeks or months after closing the parks. Numerous possible short-term costs were laid out in a Department of Parks and Recreation memo that was leaked in 2009, when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a far bigger parks closure. States are held responsible by the federal government for any harm caused to endangered species on land they own, for example. California’s lack of money to protect those plants and animals can’t be used as an excuse. It can be sued by people who are injured because of unsafe conditions in the parks, which is more likely when there is no staff to monitor or eliminate hazards -- and yes, that’s true even if the litigants are trespassing in a closed park. If the parks become havens for marijuana farms or just unruly behavior, neighbors have legal grounds to seek damages against the state for creating a nuisance.
The people who jump fences or smash locks to enter are, at best, not overly concerned about the rules and, at worst, looking to make trouble. The likelihood of getting caught is almost nil. In open parks, law-abiding visitors become extra sets of eyes that deter lawbreaking -- such as illegal campfires that could destroy thousands of acres and more than wipe out any savings to the state. Those visitors, not just the rangers, are lost when park gates are closed.
Vandals and thieves caused $100,000 in damage at the remote Providence Mountains State Recreation Area in the Mojave Desert within months after it was closed last year, well ahead of most other parks. If that much damage were incurred at each of the 60 parks or so still slated for closure, the state would lose $6 million -- more than half what it proposes to save -- as well as the sales tax it wouldn’t collect from tourists visiting the parks and spending money in neighboring towns. There’s no way of knowing whether such a fate would befall other parks, of course, but it’s a poor risk for the state. Trespassing and vandalism already are perennial problems during off hours. Complete closure means that patrols will occur only once every couple of weeks, on a rotating basis.
Our objection to closing the parks isn’t that it would be penny wise and pound foolish. With a budget situation this serious, the state will no doubt have to make such moves to reap short-term savings. The problem with closing parks is the high likelihood that it would be penny foolish as well.
The Legislative Analyst’s report lists several steps the state can take to reduce costs and raise revenue at all of its parks without closing them, including more public-private partnerships, assigning higher-paid rangers solely to law enforcement duties while having lower-paid employees lead hikes and educational programs, doing more to collect existing parking fees or, where feasible, switching to per-person rather than per-car entry fees. (Many people park on roads near state parks to avoid the charge for parking.)
After careful examination of the smartest options for reducing costs and raising revenue, the state might still conclude that it’s worthwhile to shut some parks, but it’s unlikely the number would be this high. In fact, one particularly wise suggestion in the Legislative Analyst’s report calls on the state to consider transferring permanent ownership of some parks to local agencies willing to take responsibility for them, when those parks lack important natural or historical significance but have strong support in their communities. Even in good economic times, the state parks system had a growing backlog of deferred maintenance work that by 2005 had reached more than $1 billion. Californians have been more enthusiastic about opening new parks than maintaining the ones they have; it’s time for a realistic assessment of what it would take to bring the state parks to a healthy operating level and keep them there.