Closing CA Parks Proving Costly

Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News reports that California Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to close 70 state parks is more costly and complicated than originally expected. (See here for a full list and interactive map of proposed park closures compiled by the California State Parks Foundation.) Complications specifically arise from a state law mandating residents have access to coastal areas and from the burden of keeping residents out of shuttered parks, Rogers reports:

  • Beach Access Laws: Eleven state beaches are marked for closure… [But] under the 1976 Coast Act, the public cannot be legally blocked from walking along the shoreline.
  • Trespassers: Last year 5.6 million people visited the 70 parks on the closure list. (Some of them) will simply walk around closed gates. State parks rangers could write trespassing tickets with fines of up to $400. But that requires leaving rangers at parks, which could under the $22 million in annual savings Brown hopes to achieve with the closures.
  • Liability: In March Gov. Brown signed a bill, AB 95, that absolves the state from liability if a person in a closed park is injured or causes damage. The new law has not been tested in court, however.

The San Jose Mercury News reports California State Parks Department director Ruth Coleman saying the agency is considering:

(Leaving park gates) open and (removing) all services — no trash, no bathrooms, no services — and (seeing) how the public treats the land. If the public treats it well, that’s a sustainable solution. If (the agency finds) enormous amounts of trash, (they) would try gating it. After that, if there is illegal use, (they would) write tickets. It [would be] a process of trial and error.

Elizabeth Goldstein, executive director of the California State Parks Foundation, is appropriately critical of this option citing the consequences of deferred maintenance and infrastructure degradation. “(The agency will) have to repair the roofs and check the plumbing systems. If (the agency leaves) trails, they’ll get overgrown. There are costs that way exceed the savings.”

Overall, Coleman notes the California State Parks Department is hoping for partnerships with cities, counties and nonprofits saying, “(The agency) is looking for creative solutions right now. (Their) goal is to close as few [parks] as possible and to keep as much public access as possible.”

Why not add for-profit private operators to that list?

In my recent Orange County Register op-ed I advocate for public-private partnership lease agreements to keep state parks open. In that piece I also highlight how California is already partnering with the private sector throughout its parks system. According to Parks Department spokesman Roy Stearns, there are over 190 park service concession contracts in the state parks system. California policymakers should expand this approach to keep all 70 parks open. (The full op-ed is available online here.)

Reason Foundation has long advocated for market-based policy solutions for parks. For more, see our recent related research, commentary and media:

” video: Prop 21: Why Californians don’t need a car tax to save their state parks

” Reason blog post: Balancing California’s Budget and Preserving State Parks by Harris Kenny

” Reason commentary: Taking State Parks off the State’s Books (Part One) (Part Two) by Leonard Gilroy

” Reason policy study: Funding the National Park System: Improving Services and Accountability with User Fees by Adam Summers