Money grows on trees

Pub date February 19, 2008
WriterDavid Carini
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion


GREEN CITY A lone fisher casts his line off the wooden dock of Candlestick Point, his favorite spot and one at risk of closure from state budget cuts.

"The tide is too low today to catch anything, but supposedly there’s halibut now after the rain," Ernesto Perez told the Guardian as he walked back to his car empty-handed, hoping to return later.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office has proposed closing 48 of the 278 state parks by July 2009 because of a projected $14.5 billion state deficit. A big chunk of that shortfall is from the car tax Schwarzenegger repealed when he took office, triggering threats to schools, parks, and social welfare programs.

The parks with the lowest revenue or highest maintenance costs were placed on the closure list. Nine Bay Area parks could be affected, ranging from the small Candlestick Point to Henry W. Coe State Park near San Jose, the largest in Northern California.

Although the state could save $13.3 million if the parks close, the governor hasn’t calculated how much would be lost in tax revenue from the businesses these parks sustain, nor does he seem interested in the intrinsic loss of valued public assets.

"Look at how important Hearst Castle is to the central coast’s economy," Roy Stearns, spokesperson for California State Parks, told the Guardian.

The agency was asked to reduce its 2008–09 budget by about 10 percent, achieved mostly through layoffs and closing parks. Rangers will provide rudimentary maintenance of the closed parks, mostly monitoring illegal campers and fires. The state does not know how much money it would need to reopen the parks or when such funds might become available.

"In essence the state is abandoning the parks," Barbara Hill, vice president of the California State Parks Foundation, told the Guardian. She fears poaching, arson, and illegal dumping will proliferate. "How will they be able to properly secure the borders?" she asked.

The CSPF, a nonprofit that helps to preserve state parks, recently secured $17 million to restore tidal marshes in Candlestick Point. If implemented, the project would create the largest contiguous wetland in the city. The plan is now on hold, forcing the area into further decay.

Nature lovers are not the only ones concerned about the state parks’ cuts. If the 48 parks do close, the expected 6.5 million person drop in visitors will certainly impact the revenues of cities, counties, and the state. According to the California Division of Tourism, 73 percent of visitors come to the state for leisure purposes, and each county earns about $1.5 billion per year from tourism.

"It’s a shame to close Candlestick. I don’t know how it will affect my business," Andy Hung, owner of 88 Fishing Tackle on San Bruno, told the Guardian. "Even now there aren’t enough public piers to fish from." If Candlestick closes, Hung believes fishers will migrate somewhere else.

Across the bay in Benicia, people are worried. The city’s main attraction, the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park, is on the parks closure list. "It’s our most significant building, and we’re lobbying so the final budget cut won’t include it," Amalia Lorentz, Benicia’s economic development manager, told the Guardian.

A 2001 study by the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo found that visitors to Morro Bay State Park contributed $15 million to the local economy over two years and were responsible for the creation of 364 jobs. Benicia has almost three times the population of Morro Bay. Although the Morro Bay park will remain open under the budget cut, eight other parks in the area will close.

Officials say they doubt higher entrance fees are the solution to saving the parks. "We’ve raised fees three times in the last seven years. They’re the highest in the nation, and we don’t want to price people out," Stearns said. Funds to the state park system have been slashed consistently since the 1980s, and parks have been relying more on entrance fees than state funding. Because of a 233 percent increase in day fees in the past six years, California park attendance has dropped by about nine million people, according to state park officials.

Several organizations, including the CSPF, are collecting signatures and donations to encourage Schwarzenegger and the legislature not to sacrifice California’s parks to political expediency.

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