That's the message from the National Park Service, which also has told Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that California will be blocked from receiving future money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the leading federal source of funding for parks, if it closes state parks now.
The warnings came in a letter June 8, obtained Tuesday by the Mercury News, from John Jarvis, the Pacific regional director of the National Park Service to Schwarzenegger.
In May, the governor proposed closing 220 state parks to save an estimated $143 million. The state is facing is $24 billion deficit.
With the warnings, the National Park Service has now waded into Sacramento's budget stalemate, arguing that California has more to lose if it closes state parks than it will gain in savings.
"We understand there is an economic crisis and cuts will be made in things. We are not unrealistic," said David Siegenthaler, a National Park Service manager who helped draft the letter.
"But we think there must be ways to keep these parks open, even if it means with reduced hours and services. That's better than closing them."
Schwarzenegger this week said he will veto a budget plan passed by the Assembly that would impose a new $15 annual surcharge on vehicle registration to keep the
However, the governor considers the $15 a tax.
"The governor has been very clear that he will not support additional tax increases," said Lisa Page, a Schwarzenegger spokeswoman.
Of the warnings from the National Park Service, she added: "The governor understands there are consequences to these difficult cuts, but with a $24 billion deficit, there are no good options."
National park leaders contend that California would be violating the terms of two laws if it closes state parks.
First, the state has received $286 million since 1965 from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. Created by President Lyndon Johnson, the fund collects royalties from offshore oil drilling and uses them to buy land for national parks, forests and wildlife refuges. The fund also issues grants to state and local parks to pay for everything from land acquisition to new trails, visitor centers and rest rooms.
Parks that receive the funds are required to remain open to the public. California has received Land and Water Conservation Fund money for 69 of the 220 state parks that Schwarzenegger has proposed to closet.
State parks that have received the federal funding include Henry Coe, Fremont Peak, Big Basin Redwoods, Castle Rock, A-o Nuevo, Bodie Ghost Town, Mono Lake, Andrew Molera, Humboldt Redwoods, Point Lobos, Hearst San Simeon State park, Anza-Borrego Desert, Sutter's Fort, Mount Diablo and Fort Ord Dunes.
Federal law does not allow the government to demand repayment from California if the parks are closed, but it can shut the state off from future funding, Siegenthaler said.
The second law California would be violating, he said, is a 1949 statute that created the federal Lands to Parks Program. That law allows surplus government property, such as old military bases, to be transferred to state parks.
But it also requires the parks remain open to the public in perpetuity. California has six state parks that were former federal property transferred under the law.
If the governor closes the parks, the feds will take the lands back, Jarvis warned. What happens then is unclear. They would likely be transferred as surplus property to the federal government and be offered to federal agencies, universities, even private developers.
The parks are: Angel Island, a former immigration station in San Francisco Bay; a beach and parking lot at Point Mugu State Park near Malibu; the summit of Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County, which was once a Naval microwave relay station; four miles of sandy state beaches at the former Fort Ord near Monterey; Point Sur in Big Sur; and Border Fields, a 418-acre state beach on the San Diego-Tijuana border.
Parks advocates said they are heartened that the federal government is stepping into the debate.
"This is a heads-up that the closure of parks isn't so easy. It's a shot across the bow that there are serious complications here, as if the public outcry were not enough," said Elizabeth Goldstein, executive director of the California State Parks Foundation.
Goldstein's group has been studying whether to launch a campaign to put the $15 vehicle license fee on the November 2010 ballot. It would require two-thirds approval if placed on by the initiative process and a simple majority if the Legislature puts it on.