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Dozens of CA State Parks, Caught in Budget Vise, Slated to Close

by Alan Markow, published

California’s state parks are admired by visitors from all over. Tourists come and are amazed at the quality and quantity of the state park system and envy us our bounty. California is also broke, in part because of the many services it provides to its citizens.

Well, reality has set in at the state parks, and many may be closing over the next few weeks. As part of the belt-tightening across all of state government, the parks system has been trimmed back by some $22 million. This budget reduction is not just causing hard choices to be made, it is also bringing innovative thinking into the process of funding and running parks.

The Sacramento Bee reported on Sunday that dozens of parks are slated to close down in about three weeks, although there’s no way at this point to be precise about the specifics of how many and which ones of the state’s parks would actually be shuttered.

The reason for the confusion is that a number of alternatives to simply closing parks are now in play. One such possibility is outsourcing park operations to private companies, who would presumably attempt to run the parks profitably. Also, according to the Bee, “many local groups have raised money and rallied volunteers to rescue a state park in their community.”

As a result, the original plan to close more than 70 state parks has now become 48 closures. That number could fall to 34 or fewer if everything falls into place.

One example of a park saved through privatization is Brannan Island State Recreation Area in Sacramento County. After competitive bidding by three potential operators, the state awarded the contract to to American Land and Leisure of Utah.

The Leland Stanford Mansion and Governor’s Mansion state historic parks in Sacramento are also slated to close under the plan, but may be saved through private, non-profit partnerships. A large donation that would keep the Governor’s Mansion open is anticipated in the near future. Meanwhile, the Stanford Mansion may be kept open with the help of its non-profit volunteer association.

A similar association that supports the Benicia Capital State Historic Park will actually take over that facility on July 1. The Benicia State Parks Association will put up $50,000 toward the operating budget of $100,000. The remaining money will come from visitor fees and $25,000 worth of grounds maintenance donated by the city of Benicia.

"If there's anything positive out of all this, it's that it's connecting local communities back with their parks, making people pay attention to them, and realizing they don't just take care of themselves," said John Woodbury, general manager of the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District.

Woodbury will be partnering with the non-profit Napa Valley State Parks Association to operate two parks: Bothe-Napa Valley State Park and Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park. The Association has put plans in place to make both parks break-even affairs versus the money-losers they have been for the state.

Such private associations face an enormous task in converting themselves from support groups to park operators.  Among the challenges is paying insurance required to run the properties. The state is self-insured.

Of the 72 parks originally slated for closure, there are currently 22 with operating agreements signed that will definitely keep them open. Such agreements are in process at another 14 facilities. And 20 additional parks have been offered up for private concession contracts. That leaves only 16 of the parks definitely scheduled for full or partial closure next month, although it is doubtful that all of the proposed agreements will come to fruition.

"I think it's a disgrace the state is closing parks," said Bill Wells, executive director of the California Delta Chambers and Visitors Bureau. "But if (a park) has to go to a private operator to keep it open, I say OK. Whatever it takes."

The closing of numerous state parks and historical sites is symbolic of how California’s budget crisis is forcing changes in the way the Golden State must manage itself and its bountiful resources.

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