As many as 25 state parks within an hour of San Francisco, including redwood forests, beaches, coastal woodlands and historical sites, could be closed in a desperate attempt to reduce the state's giant budget deficit.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest proposal to tackle the state's $24.3 billion shortfall includes the elimination of all general fund contributions to California's 279 parks within two years.
It is a nightmare scenario that would mean the public could be barred from visiting 223 parks - that's 80 percent of the state-owned parks, according to park officials.
"That's just horrendous," said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation. "It could impact these environmental and cultural resources for decades and decades."
The proposal, which will no doubt be subject to intense lobbying in the Legislature between now and July 1, when the fiscal year starts, is to cut $70 million of the $150 million the park system receives from the state's general fund in fiscal year 2009-10. The remainder would be cut out in the 2010-11 budget.
Eliminating state contributions, most of which go toward paying staff, would mean maintenance workers, office technicians, park superintendents, landscapers, rangers, environmental scientists, administrative officers and bookkeepers would have to be laid off. Camping, boating and day use fees would also have to be raised, said Roy Stearns, the parks spokesman.
Parks that would close
Stearns said parks that cannot be operated with minimal staffing or become self-sustaining through fees or other sources of revenue would have to be closed.
If Schwarzenegger's cuts are adopted by the Legislature, they would be enacted July 1, but park officials said that they would keep the parks open at least through Labor Day to collect user fees throughout the summer. Stearns said camping reservations have been sold through November.
The governor also has proposed deep cuts to public education, health and human services, and prisons.
The latest proposal is far more severe than last year's budget proposal, which would have cost California parks 129 jobs and closed as many as 48 state parks, including nine in the Bay Area, saving the state close to $14 million.
Based on that list, the Bay Area parks that are most threatened by closure include Henry W. Coe State Park near Morgan Hill, which, at 87,000 acres, is the largest state park in Northern California.
Forest near Guerneville
Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, a foggy primeval forest near Guerneville in Sonoma County, is one of at least four stands of giant redwoods that the public could be blocked from visiting. Visitors to quiet, leafy Tomales Bay State Park and windswept, 170-acre Candlestick Point State Recreation Area could be stopped at the entrance gates. Even the old governor's mansion in Sacramento could be shuttered under the proposed budget.
"That is a good starting place, but it is going to be a much, much bigger list than that," said Goldstein.
Among the iconic locations that could potentially see campgrounds or facilities closed, she said, are Mount Tamalpais, China Camp and Samuel P. Taylor State Park in Marin County, Mount Diablo, Angel Island and several coastal beaches along the Peninsula.
The parklands of the East Bay Regional Park District and Golden Gate National Recreation Area would not be affected.
Reasons behind the cuts
Drastic cuts are necessary, the governor said, because of the slipping economy, declining revenues and a deficit that deepened after voters rejected five budget measures designed to help close the gap. Goldstein argued, however, that the savings derived from cutting the parks out of the budget would amount to 0.26 percent of the $24.3 billion budget gap.
"It's a very, very tiny portion of the financial need, but the impacts would be draconian to say the least," Goldstein said. "Not only is this bad for people who are relying on state parks more than they ever have for recreation and vacation, but it is also bad for the communities surrounding these parks."
Stearns said 79.6 million people visited state parks last year. A huge number of reservations for campgrounds have already been made throughout the summer and into November, he said. Analysts estimate park visitors spend roughly $2.6 billion a year in and around the parks.
Goldstein said for every dollar spent, the state parks generate $2.35 in tax revenue from economic activity in the local communities surrounding the parks. That means the state could potentially see a reduction in revenue by closing the parks.
That's not even counting the loss of day-use fees and the cost of patrolling the closed parks to make sure arsonists, vandals, transients, hunters and marijuana growers don't move in, she said.
Yet another blow to parks
The latest proposed cuts are yet another blow to the largest state park system in the nation. California state parks cover 1.5 million acres. Already, they were operating on little more than a shoestring budget, having absorbed years of cost cutting and staff reductions.
As it is, the state parks have $1.2 billion in deferred maintenance on the books, said Stearns and others, who contend that the proposed cuts would cause that number to increase.
"We really reject the basic premise that this is an appropriate way to close the budget gap," Goldstein said. "The potential implications for the state park system are very dire."
Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
Fresno and Madera counties are home to only two state parks