SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — While California found ways to keep open most of the state parks earmarked for closure due to budget cuts, the long-term future of its 279-park system remains murky as most of the solutions are short-term fixes.
With a busy Fourth of July week looming, California parks officials announced Thursday most of the 70 state parks once slated to close Sunday would remain open.
The reprieve came after the governor signed a bill allocating new funds for the beleaguered parks system for the next year, and the state said it had reached agreements with nonprofits, local governments and others regarding 40 of the parks that will keep them open at least for a few years. Deals with other groups were in the works for 25 more, which will stay open in coming weeks as the agreements are finalized, the California Department of Parks and Recreation said.
But some park advocates saw Gov. Jerry Brown's allocation of $10 million in new funds — rather than the $41 million approved by the Legislature — as a stop-gap measure that does little to ensure the parks' long-term future.
"I think it's a lost opportunity to take action to reclaim our parks before it's too late. I worry that once they're lost, they may be lost forever," said Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who co-authored the plan largely vetoed by the governor. "It's very hard to reclaim a resource like this once you've let it go."
Parks advocates believe a more permanent solution will lie in better public funding for the parks, not the deals with private operators the state is currently pursuing.
However, previous attempts to secure long-term public funding through the ballot box have failed. California voters in November 2010 rejected Proposition 21, an $18 registration fee for vehicles that would have raised an estimated $500 million for state parks.
"In most cases states trying to outsource management of state parks is a stopgap measure," said Phil McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors. "One way or the other, if those parks are to be maintained, someone will have to find a way to get public financing."
After being asked to cut $22 million from the parks budget, the state issued a list of 70 parks — nearly a quarter of its entire system — that it intended to close. The cuts came as California struggles to bridge a $15.7 billion deficit.
Ruth Coleman, director of the state parks system, said the parks financial crisis has been difficult, but she was buoyed by the response from people who are passionate about the sites.
"We have re-energized the people who love parks, and they are stepping up and contributing to parks in all sorts of ways," Coleman said during a conference call with reporters.
Thursday's announcement came after Brown partially vetoed the state parks funding bill.
"I cannot fully support this action because proposed funding either takes from other important purposes or may violate the state's agreement with the federal government regarding the State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund," the governor wrote in his veto, referring to a pot of federal money the bill had sought to access for the parks.
Officials say the new funds will buy time to finalize the deals in the works for 25 of the once-doomed parks and help as partners are sought for the five that currently lack prospects.
The sites that still do not have deals with private groups to keep them open — Benicia State Recreation Area, the California Mining and Mineral Museum, Gray Whale Cove State Beach, Providence Mountains State Recreation Area and Zmudowski State Beach — will mostly still be accessible when Sunday's deadline comes.
Coleman said people will still be able to walk the sands of Gray Whale Cove beach in San Mateo County or Zmudowski beach in Monterey County, but services such as trash collection or maintenance would be stopped. On Friday, the mineral museum in Mariposa County learned that it will stay open for at least a few weeks more as the department tries to find a group to take over operations.
The budget also gives the parks department $13 million in bond funds that can be used for projects meant to increase revenue at the parks to help make more money for the state.
Coleman said the money will fund better fee machines that take credit and debit cards. The state also is looking at making more cabins or alternative camping sites available.
The operating agreements allow the state to keep parks open, while transferring operating costs to private and public partners, at least for the short term, parks officials said.
"We're grateful for the Legislature's help," said John Laird, California's secretary for natural resources. "It will give us a path to keep most, if not all, of the parks open."
Jason Dearen can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/JHDearen. Associated Press Writers Don Thompson and Judy Lin contributed to this report from Sacramento.