Two years ago this month, the California Department of Parks & Recreation announced a list of 70 parks it planned to close. Park lovers rallied, giving their time and money to pick up the parks the state was willing to drop off. There is no closure list now, and the department is under new management, but the financial crisis has not passed. Those park lovers are now wondering how long they’re going to carry an extra load.
This time of year, Palomar Mountain State Park smells wonderfully fragrant, a mix of oak and pine and earth. Woodpeckers chatter with each other in the trees, and purple lupine dots the landscape. Twelve miles of trails offer stunning vistas of valleys to the north and south of the park.
Those simple charms won over Rick Barclay of Temecula about 15 years ago. Somehow, he went from casual day hiking, to trail maintenance, to running Friends of Palomar Mountain State Park, established two years ago, after park system officials put Palomar on a closure list.
"We’re like parents," Barclay says. "You may have a kid, but I love my kid, and this is my kid we’re talking about. I’m sure all of the other parks have a lot of things going for them. I haven’t been to all of them, so I can’t say that this park is worthy of staying open more than every other park that there is, but this is my park."
Friends of Palomar has raised $190,000 in the last two years from more than 300 people, most of them from San Diego and Riverside Counties. Signs of the group's involvement are everywhere. Even the $2 trail map for sale in the ranger’s kiosk is theirs. Recently, they organized and funded the replacement of about a dozen bathroom doors at two campgrounds.
"This is how bad things have gotten," Barclay muses. "We are celebrating bathroom doors being replaced the same way that we would if we were opening up a new trail."
Last year, Friends of Palomar set up a “donor agreement” with the parks department. The nonprofit donates $38,000 a year to the agency to cover Palomar’s operating deficit, along with a wish list of things to spend the rest of money they've raised on. Yes, there's a list. The Friends would like to see cabins installed at the campgrounds, the Boucher Hill fire tower restored, and Doane Pond cleared of the cattail trying to transform it from a watering hole with fish into a meadow.
"We’d love to have State Parks fix that problem," Barclay says. "We’d love to give them money to fix that problem. Our hope is the kind of improvements that we want to make will help to generate revenue as well. Then maybe, one day, the park can actually be self-sufficient. It can pay for itself."
Some folks have suggested some nonprofits might fully adopt the parks the state can’t afford to run. But the math doesn’t add up in most of the more than 50 cases where a nonprofit is helping or fixing to help a state park stay open. Take Palomar. It costs the state roughly $220,000 every year—and that’s only counting direct expenses, not costs like regional management—or hundreds of thousands of dollars of deferred maintenance. Just the same, it has occurred to Barclay that Sacramento might continue to lean on Friends of Palomar for that extra $38,000 a year indefinitely.
"Is this a state park or is not?" Barclay asks. "If it’s a state park, then the state should support it. Do whatever it takes to keep it robust. Not limping along the way it has been over these several years. It’s been a long time."
In the meantime, Friends of Palomar—and the state—are going to continue to rely on generous local donors like Bob Wilson of Rancho Santa Fe. He grew up in Escondido, looking up at that mountain every day, going up there with his parents to visit the famous Palomar Observatory, see snow in the wintertime, and in warmer weather, camp a mile high in the sky. Even if he did get the worst case of poison oak he ever suffered from Palomar Mountain. Fond memories like that one inspired Wilson to give Friends $30,000—its biggest donation—to help seed the group’s fundraising.
"I hope that people will step up," Wilson says. "Certainly, I’m of a mind to challenge them if they want to do that. I think that they’re out there and we have to make sure that they understand what the conditions are, what they could be, and what they should be doing."
The issue is likely to remain a live one for at least another year. Governor Jerry Brown’s latest budget proposal doesn’t include the kind of money it would take for the parks department to re-shoulder the load for Palomar and parks like it.
After news broke of as much as $29 million dollars unreported at State Park headquarters in Sacramento, a number of people who’d pledged money to Palomar pulled back. That money has since been set aside as a pool of matching grants for groups like Friends of Palomar, and the group is applying. That said, it doesn't hurt local fundraising efforts to point out that every dollar donated to the nonprofit is directed to Palomar park, not some general operating fund in Sacramento.
Both Barclay and Wilson lament the way California's infrastructure is fraying. "My concern is that now we’re in maintenance mode," says Barclay. "We’re just trying to cobble the bridges back together, and cobble the streets back together. Why aren’t we opening more state parks? You know, we’re talking about just staying open. Why aren’t we expanding our territory?"
It's not just an issue with the Department of Parks and Recreation. The 6th grade school camp (aka Palomar Outdoor School) closed in 2011 because its operator, the San Diego Unified School District, can't afford it any longer. "Those fond memories are not being generated now," Barclay says. "That’s a facility that’s going to waste, and it’s an opportunity that’s going to waste as well."
In the meantime, Friends of Palomar Mountain State Park is doing what it can to get the word out to Southern California: first, that there's a state park up on the mountain; and second, public donations help it thrive.
Funds for coverage of California state parks are provided by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.