SACRAMENTO – Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's approach to
padlocking state parks is rooted solely in economics,
rather than also recognizing the environmental and
recreational value of forests, museums and beaches.
But even from a pure business standpoint, the plan
may not be as easy to achieve or provide as much budget
relief as the governor suggests.
Desperate for revenues, Schwarzenegger has taken the
unprecedented step of proposing the closure of 220 of
the 279 state parks and beaches – from Lake Tahoe's
Emerald Bay to the deserts of Anza-Borrego – to save
about $213 million over the next two years.
Administration officials said the list of targets
came down to which parks generate more revenues from
fees and concessions than they cost to operate.
But the cost-benefit analysis is incomplete: The
state has hard specifics on how much money individual
parks generate, but officials said they aren't as
certain about operating costs.
Further, critics say the overall plan is
short-sighted. If the parks close, they say, the state
will lose millions in tax revenues generated by nearby
businesses in addition to more job losses.
“Our economy is the park,” said Dick Troy, a director
of the Anza-Borrego Foundation and representative of the
Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce.
Troy was one of about 100 park supporters protesting
the shutdown plan before a legislative budget committee
in Sacramento yesterday.
Last year, the governor conceded that he threatened
park closures to “rattle the cage” of lawmakers.
Now administration officials say the governor has no
choice, given the staggering $24.3 billion deficit that
is forcing him to call on legislators to carve deeply
into spending for vital public services, schools and
health care for children.
“There's nowhere else to cut,” said Aaron McLear, a
spokesman for the governor.
Under the Schwarzenegger's plan, major money-makers,
such as Old Town San Diego and Hearst Castle, will
continue to ring up sales, while less commercial parks,
such as Point Lobos near Carmel and the ghost town of
Bodie, will be off-limits.
In the San Diego Coast District, the 10 parks
together generated $9.73 million in fees and concession
income in 2007-08. That was $255,000 less than the $9.98
million in local operating costs, mostly salaries and
benefits. The state could not provide costs for specific
On the proposed closure list are several San Diego
County landmarks: Torrey Pines, Anza-Borrego, Cuyamaca
Rancho, Palomar Mountain, Silver Strand and Carlsbad
Remaining open would be popular beach campgrounds,
such as Cardiff, San Elijo, San Onofre and South
Carlsbad, officials say.
Those parks, among others making money, will be
counted on to generate enough revenue to subsidize the
costs of minimal patrols and maintenance for the closed
Those costs would cut into the savings. When the
governor proposed posting closed signs on 48 parks last
year, the estimated general fund savings was pegged at
more than $13 million. Associated costs would have
reduced that amount by more than $4 million.
Simply erasing the state's general fund allotment to
parks – proposed at $70 million in the fiscal year
beginning July 1 and $143 million in 2010-11 – does not
mean the state will save that amount once all of the
lost revenues and economic multipliers are factored in.
Depending on when the order is issued, probably after
Labor Day, the state would have to go through a lengthy
process to lay off a large share of today's work force,
which includes 650 rangers and hundreds of others, from
lifeguards to maintenance workers. Park officials
estimate that 700 pink slips could be issued statewide
this fiscal year and an additional 1,200 in 2010-11.
Campground fees, plus a $7 reservation charge, would
have to be refunded. Plus, there's likely a price to pay
for breaking concession contracts.
Many of these underlying expenses for the latest
proposal have not been estimated, parks officials
concede, because a shutdown of this magnitude has no
Schwarzenegger's team also has yet to factor in the
loss of sales tax and employment taxes once business
dries up at concessions and in stores near shuttered
parks. Out-of-state tourists could cancel plans if they
hear parks are closing.
A 2002 study funded by the parks department found
that for every $1 the state invested, $2.35 was returned
to the general fund. Parks, according to the study, far
outdrew all of the state's private amusement parks
combined, including Disneyland, 80 million visitors to
Alternatives, from raising fees to relying on more
volunteers, are more complicated than they appear.
Day-use and camping fees drive attendance, along with
weather and gas prices. Crowds fall when fees rise, but
just how much can be blamed on higher camping and
parking charges has not been quantified.
Politically, lawmakers are very much aware that
voters resoundly rejected broad-based tax increases in
the May 19 special election. Yet Californians also have
shown a willingness to pay more for programs they
support through targeted fees.
Increases, if found palatable, could not possibly
cover the entire general fund shortfall of $213 million
over two years. To raise that kind of money, state
officials suggest parking and camping fees would have to
Still, some influential Democrats want to review fees
as part of the budget mix, and some Republicans,
including the governor, say they are willing to listen.
“I'm certain fees will be part of the solution.
People do not want to see their parks close,” said Sen.
Lois Wolk, D-Davis.
Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego, said the
state needs a comprehensive approach, focusing first on
cutting costs and bringing in private contractors in
Then, the state needs to have a “tough but real
discussion” on camping and day-use charges, Fletcher
The parks department does have a “proud partners”
program for corporate underwriters and relies on 19,000
volunteers already credited with being the only thing
standing between the open and closed signs at some
McLear, the governor's spokesman, said the governor
is willing to listen to “creative ways” to rescue parks,
including targeted fees.
Critics of the governor's plan note that the loss of
rangers and other professionals could delay reopenings
for years as parks struggle to fix water pipes, train
new rangers, and undo vandalism and other effects of the
“You can't just flip the switch and have your park
system back when the crisis is over,” said Assemblyman
Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.
Regardless, Huffman warned that some parks may close.
“You can't pretend that parks will be immune,” he
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