Cutting Back

California State Parks Try to Survive on Even Less.

Visitors pan for gold at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, which has been forced to reduce its hours.

Credit: Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

"Sort of closed, sort of open." That's how Greg Retsinas, an editor at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, summed up the cutbacks to California's beleaguered state park system. Faced earlier this year with a controversial proposal to close many locations—helping reduce the state's whopping budget deficit—parks are now submitting to partial shutdowns and service reductions system-wide.

Some may consider this change, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called "fantastic news for all Californians," a reprieve. But others say it's business as usual for an agency that has suffered too long from too little money.

"This is a very dire moment for the parks. After 20 years of under-funding, it's kind of the last blow," says Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation. "The inability to take care of these resources is potentially devastating." The foundation is pushing for a state parks "access pass" that would provide reliable funding through a new vehicle-registration fee.

California's 278 parks, the nation's largest collection, encompass 1.5 million acres of natural preserves, beaches and coastlines, lakes and rivers, and historic places ranging from colonial adobes to Hearst Castle. The most visited is Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, one of 51 units designated as historic. Architectural and cultural features distinguish many of the natural locations, too. All told, the system oversees 3,200 landmarks and 10,200 archaeological sites.

Daily closures, reduced hours, locked restrooms, and slashing of school programs, docent training, and maintenance are common. Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park will be shuttered three days a week, to save its popular "environmental living program." California Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside, remnant of a once-dominant agricultural landscape, is open weekends only. "The closing of parks—even on weekdays—undermines the concept of preserving and providing parkland for everyone," the Marin Independent Journal pointed out in a Nov. 9 editorial.

11 most markCiting a $1 billion maintenance backlog, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the system to its 2008 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The Trust had already listed Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay in 1999 for its "shabby condition … common throughout California's underfunded park system." The station has since been restored (see, but renewal of other state landmarks has faltered.

"We grow frustrated over the sad and transparent shell game being played out with the funding of these remarkable parks," says Anthea Hartig, director of the National Trust's San Francisco-based Western Office, which is lobbying the state legislature for relief, encouraging members to do the same, and helping parks earn income by, for example, using buildings as conference centers and restaurants.

The National Trust has joined the Parks Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, and other groups to campaign for the access pass, which would add an $18 surcharge to vehicle registration fees, sending the proceeds to a parks trust fund. Failing to gain legislative approval, supporters now want the proposal submitted to voters next November. The foundation is also promoting short-term remedies, like raising cash through corporate sponsorships and enlisting volunteers to monitor park conditions. "We're really asking people to stretch in ways way beyond their normal capacity," Goldstein says.    

Replica of Sutters Mill at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, where James Marshall found gold in 1848

Credit: Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, in the Sierra foothills, preserves the place where James Marshall found gold in 1848, changing American history.

"People from all over the world come here, throughout the week, because it touches their lives in some way," says Lois Fortress, president of the Gold Discovery Park Association. But they now have fewer hours and days to do so, and a smaller cadre of rangers, maintenance workers, and other staff to enhance their visits. (Furthermore, the entry fee has tripled.) School trips have been cut in half—a blow to education, sales at the association's park store, and ultimately the local economy. "We're working with other nonprofits to get a private-public partnership going," Fortress says, "to get alternative funds into the park."

At Monterey State Historic Park, which includes Cooper-Molera Adobe, a National Trust Historic Site, "the biggest impact of the cuts is a huge reduction in our maintenance budget—regular upkeep and larger repairs," says Matt Bischoff, who supervises cultural resources for the Monterey district. Deferred maintenance, he says, "has gone on for years. This year, it just has an exclamation point on the end." Guided tours at Cooper-Molera and other adobes in the park have been eliminated. The park benefits from volunteers, Bischoff adds, "but lacks a strategic group out there with a 10-year plan and a capital campaign." 

Current cuts of $14.2 million could swell next year to $22.2 million, depending on the 2010-11 budget, to be released in January. "We've been underfunded for long-term maintenance for more than a decade," says Roy Stearns, spokesman for the parks agency, "because this state has suffered hard economic times and up-and-down budgets for about the past three administrations. So we're hoping at some point we can have a future for the state of California, a more firm foundation for funding."

Meanwhile, the parks cope with daily problems—and turn to friends. "This is catching people's attention," Fortress says. "When they found out last summer that our park could close, the community came together. We just have to make the most of that now and not lose that synergy."

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Submitted by ozzie at: February 28, 2010
I have the perfect solution: stop all funding of the law breaking "illegal immigrants". Why should us good Americans suffer our liberties and country heritage to law breakers who don't even have the decency to speak the english language? They are desacrating this once great country and anyone who condones their actions are just as guilty. I am a legal German desendant who learned the english language and respect the American way of life!!! America-Love it or leave it-baby!!!!

Submitted by Amber at: January 28, 2010 wouldn't pay $18 a year to help keep the parks open? I agree government waste needs cut but that can't happen overnight.

Submitted by Greg at: December 14, 2009
Good article on the state parks drama. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat blog referenced in the first paragraph can be found at

Submitted by Anonymous at: December 13, 2009
I find the $18.00 surcharge a little too excessive considering many people own more than one vehicle in this state. Other western states have adopted a $ 5.00 surcharge to help their state parks with much success. With the population of California I think we could manage with the $ 5.00 to save our parks. What we do need is to cut the government waste at all levels and that includes the governor's office and his many not needed staff member

Submitted by Pat at: December 11, 2009
It is such a shame that the government doesn't realize what is important and such a treasure should be more appreciated.