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Valley Perspective | PERSPECTIVE ON PARKS

Making Our Dreamland Here

A vote to preserve and expand open spaces can help make our area a bit more like the Oregon of our imagination.

August 18, 1996|ELIZABETH A. CHEADLE | Elizabeth A. Cheadle is chairwoman of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and assistant dean for students at UCLA School of Law

Oregon, the "Last Best Place," frequently fills the dreams of urban Californians. Newsstands throughout Los Angeles entice with Oregon real estate ads beckoning Angelenos up north. And on a hot summer Sunday, driving up Pacific Coast Highway in search of a good public beach to park a towel, it is easy to imagine that we would be better off on the other side of the California / Oregon line.

To me, the availability of parks and open space is an essential quality-of-life indicator. A healthy community needs public places where its residents can safely hike the mountains, stroll the beaches, throw a baseball or just picnic on the grass. I have spent a good part of my adult life studying and advocating public parklands, so when my family and I recently vacationed in Oregon, I was eager to learn more about Oregon's public resources.

I learned something important, but not what I expected. Shortly after our arrival, the front page of the Oregonian sent shock waves through the state with the report that 65 of Oregon's state parks would be shut down after Labor Day, including 21 beaches up and down the coast. Another 32 parks would be closed part of the year or transferred to another agency, bringing the number of affected areas to almost 100!

These park closures, if they indeed occur, would mark Oregon's first retreat from a policy of open public beaches dating back to 1913. How can this happen? Although Oregon's economy is doing well, the state's parks are supposed to be self-supporting; without state general fund monies, though, a shortfall has developed and maintenance costs and payroll cannot be met. The Oregon Legislature has asked the state's Parks Commission to delay closures until after the November election in hopes that alternative funding can be arranged. The commission meets this month to decide; if closures are delayed but no additional money is found, the financial hole will be deeper and even more parks will ultimately have to be shut down.

Meanwhile, back in the San Fernando Valley, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has acquired and opened several parks in recent months, including one the same week as the Oregon park closure announcement. We have preserved 3,000 acres of the Santa Clarita Woodlands, dedicated Wilson Canyon in park-starved Sylmar for equestrians and hikers, and opened Big Sky Gateway Park at Reseda Ridge as a Valley entry to Topanga State Park. Other new parks thrive throughout Los Angeles County, ranging from the Elysian Valley Gateway Park along the Los Angeles River to Temescal Gateway Park in Pacific Palisades, where inner-city schoolchildren can take field trips and overnight camping trips for a wilderness adventure.

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Most of the new parks come courtesy of Los Angeles County Proposition A, overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1992. And the Conservancy is just one of its many beneficiaries; funds from the measure are renovating the Hollywood Bowl, fixing up the L.A. Zoo and improving the infrastructure at all county regional parks, including Hansen Dam and Sepulveda Basin.

Happily, we know that these parks will not face the fiscal crisis currently encountered in Oregon. An essential characteristic of Proposition A acquisitions is that long-term operations and maintenance funds are set aside at the time the land is purchased and initial improvements made. When a Proposition A park opens, we can be certain that the funds exist to keep it open and maintained for many years.

The same day the Oregonian announced the threatened park closures, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to place a new Proposition A on the November ballot to address other urgent county park needs. If voters again give their approval, agencies like the conservancy will be able to continue acquiring open space, dedicating parks with maintenance endowments and taking care of existing county parks for many years to come.

Oregon certainly still has more parks than we do; the civic leaders of Los Angeles County who failed in the past to ensure adequate parklands demonstrated unquestionable shortsightedness. But we should be proud of the fact that we are now doing our best to catch up in a fiscally responsible way. Those who care about parks in Oregon would be well advised to look south to Los Angeles for a bit of guidance on park planning and funding issues. And those of us in Los Angeles who aspire to make our area a bit more like the Oregon of our dreams should turn out in November to help make that dream a reality.

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