Pio Pico park boosters make desperate attempts to stop closure

This storied adobe mansion outside Los Angeles was once a getaway for California’s last governor under Mexican rule, a landowner so wealthy he called the nearly 9,000 acres of land around it his “ranchito.”

Now, state budget cuts have reduced supporters of Pio Pico State Historic Park to begging for recyclables to cash in to keep the gates to the 1850s landmark from closing.

As California moves to close dozens of state parks by July 1 to save money, those fighting to prevent the closures are growing increasingly desperate.

When efforts to get L.A. County and surrounding cities to step in to operate the Pio Pico adobe failed, supporters moved on to Plan B: a last-ditch campaign to raise the $80,000 the state says it would cost to keep it open another year.

Friends of Pio Pico Inc., the park’s nonprofit association, is pleading for donors and sponsors, holding a money-raising Easter egg hunt and even seeking proceeds from bottles and cans they’re asking local schools to collect in a drive called Pesos for Pio Pico.

Successful or not, the campaign will culminate in June with a last hurrah called Fiesta de Pio Pico: Celebration or Wake?

Unlike some of the more far-flung parks on the closure list — most in Northern and Central California — the Pio Pico adobe is a short drive from millions of people in the state’s largest urban area. The 17-room adobe sits on a 41/2-acre grassy lot in a working-class Latino neighborhood sandwiched between the noisy 605 Freeway and the San Gabriel River, its grounds landscaped with the citrus orchards and herb gardens of a working 1880s ranch.

Visitors can tour a museum inside the two-story home that was once the base of operations for Pio de Jesus Pico’s Rancho de Bartolo, picnic on the grass outside, or watch living history actors perform during special events. School groups regularly visit for a window into California’s history and learn how to make adobe bricks.

Yet like dozens of other parks, light visitation marked Pio Pico for closure. After $5.5 million in renovations, the adobe celebrated a grand reopening in 2003 only to have cutbacks since then reduce staff to a couple of part-timers and the hours of operation to just two days a week: Saturdays and Sundays. Visitors have dwindled to about 2,000 a year.

Without the $80,000, the gates will be locked, the water shut off, and the adobe’s collection of artifacts — including the Pico family Bibles and fine china — trucked to a Sacramento warehouse.

“For a community like this to lose a historic treasure like Pio Pico would be a great tragedy,” said Carolyn Schoff, an anthropology professor and the president of Friends of Pio Pico. “It’s an incredible opportunity to be able to walk through California history in their own backyard.”

Statewide, agreements with donors, cities, counties and the National Park Service have saved at least 11 of the 70 parks on the closure list, according to the state Department of Parks and Recreation. Those averting closure include Henry W. Coe near Silicon Valley, the state’s second-largest park, and popular McGrath State Beach in Ventura County. Negotiations in the works could save another two dozen sites. The state is also asking for bids from private concessionaires to operate an additional 11 parks slated for closure.

A few dozen parks may not be so lucky. With no one in line to save them, some campgrounds, beaches, forests, nature preserves and historic sites could be closed or put into caretaker status before the summer, parks officials said.

Though the reprieves are welcome, “they’re just temporary fixes. They’re Band-Aids,” said Jerry Emory, a spokesman for the California State Parks Foundation, which has campaigned against the closures and made donations to keep sites like Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park near Chatsworth from shutting down.

Emory says the state needs a long-term, institutional fix to ensure that public land across the state is accessible to the public, maintained and kept safe from opportunistic interlopers like vandals and marijuana growers.

Indeed, those rallying to keep the Pio Pico adobe open are concerned that graffiti, break-ins and attempted thefts — already an occasional occurrence — will increase if the park is closed.

The adobe has dodged tough times before, however.

The mansion was nearly wiped out by floods in the 1860s and 1880s. After the turn of the century, volunteers saved it from being torn down, and in 1927 it became one of the state’s first historic parks.

It was almost destroyed again decades later in the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake, when the roof caved in. The 1994 Northridge quake caused additional damage. Now, deferred maintenance has the whitewash falling off the adobe’s exterior in chunks and its rain-swollen interior walls buckling in places.

Boosters say keeping the mansion doors open would help preserve the story of a man whose dramatic arc through a tumultuous period in California’s history could offer lessons for the Golden State today.

Pio de Jesus Pico, whose name lives on along Los Angeles’ busy Pico Boulevard, the city of Pico Rivera and Pico House, the lavish hotel he built near downtown’s Olvera Street, was born in 1801 at the San Gabriel Mission. He secured vast land grants in what are now the San Fernando Valley, Orange County, San Diego and Long Beach; became one of the richest men in Mexico’s Alta California; and ascended to its highest office as a two-time governor.

But even Pico was toppled by financial difficulties.

Beset by debt and swindlers, his fortune was wiped out by the time he reached his 90s. He died a U.S. citizen, spending his last days in poverty after losing his beloved Whittier ranchito.