"These state parks are our cathedrals. This is what defines us as Californians to the rest of the world. But they are not cheap to run. And so I think Californians need to decide whether it's worth it to them to save these parks ... I think it begs a much deeper question of what we value as Californians."
- Ruth Coleman, California state parks director
Last year Gov. Jerry Brown announced that 70 of California's state parks would permanently close by July 1, 2012. The proposal, intended to save the state about $22 million, would reduce the state's vast 278-site park system by roughly 25 percent, the first time California has ever considered such a massive shutdown of public lands.
Some parks saved
As of mid-March, 10 of the 70 parks had been saved from imminent closure, mostly through private donations. Castle Rock State Park, a sweeping expanse of more than 5,000 acres in the Santa Cruz mountains, was the latest site spared from the chopping block, after a private environmental group put up $250,000 to keep it open for at least another year. While these last minute private-public partnerships have been welcomed by the government, some state parks supporters view them warily, concerned that private influence will change the nature of what was created as a fundamentally public-owned institution.
In July, when the remaining 60 parks on the list are slated to shut down, the gates will remain open and people can still enter the property (partly in an effort to discourage vandalism and illegal activity that could result from complete abandonment). However, there will be no services available. That means no restrooms, no maintenance staff, no rangers, no emergency services.
The closure list includes towering redwood groves, stretches of pristine oceanfront, vast desert landscapes, and almost half of all the historic sites in the state's system.
"I think of it as unprecedented," says Joseph H. Engbeck, Jr., a veteran California's state parks writer and historian.
Two years ago Californian's had the opportunity to prevent this situation. In 2010, voters turned down a ballot measure that would have increased annual vehicle licensing fees by $18. Proposition 21, had it passed, would have generated $500 million for the parks system, and kept all current sites open and running. But the $18 out-of-pocket fee swayed the majority of voters from supporting the measure.
A sign of government dissatisfaction
Engbeck argues that the measure's defeat was not so much an indication of how much people value their parks, as it was a sign of increasing dissatisfaction with government.
“People have become disgusted with government, rightly or wrongly," he notes. "And it's rubbed off on the issue. People love parks, but they're still a part of government.”
So ... what is a park worth?
And that brings up some important questions: How much do parks really matter? And how much are they worth? Right now California's in the midst of a pretty major financial crisis; across the state, the unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation and our state's government is struggling to adequately provide
even some of the most basic services. So,
how much sense does it really make to use precious funds to keep open a bunch of parks?
A whole lot more than you'd think, says Engbeck.
“I think it’s more important than a lot of essential services,” he argues. "There’s urgent, and then there's important. State parks are important but not urgent. If you think about the role of parks in overall society … you pretty quickly get to the place of, hey, this is a really important function of government."
California's state parks, he adds, are a way of "preserving precious natural places, remembering who we have been and how we got to where we are, and of recognizing our various mistakes and successes." Closing them down puts us on a "path toward becoming a poor state."
Lincoln and the first park
Engbeck references an oft-overlooked watershed moment in the evolution of America's protected public lands. The year was 1864. The Civil War was raging. And in the midst of the crisis, President Abraham Lincoln quietly authorized a federal land grant that ceded the entire Yosemite Valley and surrounding area to the State of California. The act created the first state park in the nation (which, ironically, was poorly managed and later receded back to the U.S. government as part of the newly founded Yosemite National Park).
"He knew that more people would be more likely to support the Union if they were proud of their homeland," Engbeck says. “Parks give people a feeling of belonging and pride. They're not required, but they're more important than lots of things that are required."