The California state parks system will close 70 parks by July 12th 2012, as ordered by Governor Jerry Brown in a state budget released last March. The closures represent about 23 million dollars in cuts and are based on the relative significance of each park, as identified by the State History Plan and the California State Parks Survey of 1928.
As stated in the bill, known as SB 71, parks with lower visitation rates are more likely to face closures, as well as parks that require more funding to maintain than received from visitors. Closures are also based upon a park’s potential for partnerships that help support each unit, “including concessions both for profit and non-profit partners.”
Recreation Resource Management, a company based out of Phoenix, Arizona, already manages 25 public parks in California, including the 915 acre McArthur-Burney Falls State Park, which features five miles of hiking trails through Northern California’s Cascades. The company oversees a private-public system in which basic maintenance is overseen by the private company, while many of the ecological and environmental responsibilities are maintained by the parks agency.
“Some campgrounds can be profitable,” says Mike Lunsford, president of Gaviota Coastal Conservancy in California. “But when talking about larger land – wildland – this is not an economically viable thing to do. There’s potential for conflicting interest.”
The parks provision in the revised state budget also challenges a law that allows citizens to sue the U.S. government, known as the Federal Tort Claims Act, along with California AB95, which shields the state from liability claims from a closed park. The state may dodge personal injury or damage claims that happen at any park experiencing closure, partial closure or “service reduction”, and instead the burden may be placed on the federal government. However, the laws in this situation have yet to be interpreted by the courts. The issue of liability will be a key factor in whether park management decides to cite trespassers found on closed parks.
“We are working through this process on a trial-and-error basis,” says Ruth Coleman, State Parks Director. “We know there are liability issues. Our overarching goal is to preserve these resources. That’s our fundamental mission. If we can do that in a way that preserves public access, we will.”
Among the 70 parks set for closure are 11 state beaches, and some experts say the complete closure of these beaches violates both the state constitution and the California Coastal Act of 1976 – which gives citizens the right to access navigable waters. Peter Douglas, Director of the California Coastal Commission, has already said any citations given to the public at any of the closed beaches will be challenged. “If people are ticketed for walking across the state beaches, then we are going to be involved,” says Douglas.
Article ten, section four, of the state constitution gives citizens the right to access navigable waters, and the document calls for the legislature to “give the most liberal construction” for this provision. A liberal construction means a more expansive interpretation of the law, rather than a strict or literal construction.
Several parks on the closure list were featured as famous settings for Hollywood blockbusters, including Star Wars: Return of the Jedi – filmed at Salton Sea State Recreation Area and Palomer Mountain State Park in San Diego. According to the Los Angeles Times, almost 500 permits were issued in 2009 for shooting films in California state parks, and recent films include I Love You Man and Iron Man II.
“The legislators have done some very heroic work,” said Brown in a press conference. “It’s not the kind of thing I like doing – I don’t think it’s the kind of thing any of the legislators like doing, but when you have a deficit you have to do something.”
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