Here we go again, Del Norte.
State park closures are being considered as part of Sacramento’s belt-tightening, just as they were two years ago.
In 2009, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wild fiscal gyrations in the face of massive state debt included a plan to close up to 220 of California’s 279 parks while cutting parks spending by $70 million. It never happened.
You might think that, by comparison, Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to cut parks spending by $22 million is less significant. The problem is, while Schwarzenegger specialized in launching trial balloons and changing his budget-balancing schemes almost daily, Brown may be serious.
What hasn’t changed since 2009 is the fact that Del Norte County’s economy is uniquely dependent upon its parks staying open. Our redwood state parks attract close to a million visitors a year, and about a fifth of those visitors stay in the area for at least one night, according to park data. We’re not just talking about park jobs at risk, but much of our hospitality industry.
Park officials point to a statewide study that found park closures would actually cost the state government a lot more than they would save. The study stated that every dollar spent on state parks generates $2.35 in general fund revenue, primarily from taxes on the travel and tourism industry.
And it’s not as if you can just close the parks during hard times and then reopen them when Sacramento deems them affordable again. Without constant maintenance, park infrastructure quickly starts breaking down, whether it’s rotting bridges, overgrown trails or trees falling across roadways.
“I estimate that if the parks close for two years, it will take 10 years to get them back to the point they are today,” Redwood State Parks Superintendent Jeff Bomke said in 2009. “That doesn’t take into account all the deferred maintenance that we are behind on.”
There are similar concerns at Tolowa Dunes State Park, a wide-open treasure trove of environmentally sensitive plants and wildlife. Shutting off park funds won’t keep people out, it would simply make it impossible to maintain and protect the area.
Del Norte has already felt its share of pain from state budget cuts, and more is inevitable. Social services are taking a pounding, and a proposal to eliminate redevelopment agencies and enterprise zones may thwart revitalization efforts. Even the public library is being targeted.
The possible closure of state parks is far from our only concern, but it’s a vital one. The Parks Department is preparing a list of closures to accommodate the proposed $22 million cut. We need to urge our legislative representatives (see how to contact them below) to do everything they can to keep our redwoods and Tolowa Dunes off that list.
Two years ago, Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro championed our cause, calling state parks “critical to the local economies of counties in the First Assembly District.” Our state senator at the time, Sam Aanestad, was far less helpful, with his spokesman saying, “there just can’t be any sacred cows.”
Let’s hope his successor, state Sen. Doug LaMalfa, is willing to do his part to keep Sacramento from cutting off Del Norte’s economic lifeblood. This is a separate issue from the debate over whether tax hikes should be part of the solution to the state budget woes. The fact is, in a remote county of mostly publicly held land, our opportunity to profit from tourism should be a sacred cow.
When the threat of redwood park closures loomed two years ago, the National Park Service stood ready to pick up at least some of the slack in areas such as Del Norte where state and national parkland is intertwined.
The political landscape has changed, and we’d be foolish to depend on a federal bailout this time around. These are state parks. These are the state’s responsibility.