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California and the West

Davis to Cut State Park Fees in Half

Recreation: The governor, aided by a big budget surplus, wants to attract more low-income visitors to wildlands, museums and other facilities.


SACRAMENTO — Hoping to lure more low-income Californians into the state's sprawling park system, Gov. Gray Davis today will cut in half the fees visitors pay to use it.

The new fees, to be announced this morning in Tapia State Park near Malibu, will be reduced from as much as $6 for day use to as little as $2--the lowest in almost two decades.

Overnight camping fees, which now range as high as $37 for premium sites, will fall as low as $12, while the entry price for most museums, cultural centers and other educational facilities will drop as low as $1. Children younger than 16 will be admitted free to all museums.

"We created the park system for all Californians," Davis said in an interview. "We are blessed with a wonderful economy that provides us the resources to return California parks to the people, and I feel an obligation to do it."

The cuts--made possible by California's whopping budget surplus--will be phased in beginning July 1. They will apply throughout the state, from the beach parks of Orange County to Sutter's Fort in Sacramento and the groves of towering redwoods in the north.

Assemblywoman Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego), who has been pushing legislation to eliminate all park fees, said she would drop that effort. She applauded the governor's action.

"It's wonderful," Ducheny said. "It's a positive way to give a tax rebate to Californians and also bring more people into our tremendous parks."

The cuts spawned a few concerns as well. Some park rangers note that fees have been the department's most stable source of funding over the last decade. They fear that a dip in that revenue will make them vulnerable to the year-in, year-out legislative tug of war that determines the balance of their operating budget.

Kim Baker, a ranger at Half Moon Bay State Park, worried that an increase in visits caused by the lower charges could overwhelm park staffs' ability to maintain facilities and protect sensitive lands.

"We're all for opening up parks to more people, but we want to make sure staffing increases along with visitation," said Baker, president of the California State Park Rangers Assn.

State Parks Director Rusty Areias acknowledged that concern, estimating that the lower prices could boost visits by 15% in rural areas and as much as 37% at parks on the coast and near big cities.

But Areias--a strong supporter of the fee cuts--said steps will be taken to prevent Californians from "loving our parks to death."

"If we're going to make the parks more welcoming by lowering fees, then there will be more garbage to take out, restrooms that need cleaning more often and more visitors to provide programs for," Areias said. "That requires more people. We're committed to that."

Davis echoed that sentiment, and said his phased-in approach will allow the department to increase staffing before a groundswell of visitors becomes unmanageable.

Since taking office, Davis has championed a $2.1-billion park bond measure passed by voters in March and boosted funding for long-awaited maintenance projects. Project delays have caused the state system--once a national standout--to show signs of serious neglect.

Davis said his love of parks began during his boyhood in New York, where family outings often meant a trip to a park. He lamented that "because of neglect and the ravages of the recent recession, we've not done justice to our parks" in California.

"I'm trying to make the parks a more enjoyable experience at a more affordable price," he said.

Analysts said that, politically speaking, Davis' support for parks is a no-brainer: Unlike some environmental topics, parks rarely spark controversy.

"Cutting park entrance fees is a 100% winner," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic political strategist in Los Angeles. "It's simple, it's a good thing, there's a clear benefit. Davis will definitely put some points on the board with rank and file voters."

The fee reductions come on top of the elimination of two so-called nuisance fees at state parks: a $1 charge to visitors who bring dogs and a $1 levy on those toting small boats.

The rollbacks amount to sweet justice for those who watched parks get hammered in the early and mid-1990s, when fees were jacked up to help the recession-plagued state government cope with budget deficits.

"Parks were hit by big fee increases over the last eight years, and it hurt," said Susan Smartt, president of the California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit group that raises $4 million annually for parks.

Despite the anemic funding and deterioration of facilities throughout the 1990s, California's park system remains unmatched in size and diversity. Encompassing 1.3 million acres, it includes alpine lakes in the Sierra Nevada, the spring wildflowers of Anza-Borrego and some of the West's most popular surfing spots. The system includes 265 parks, beaches, museums and historic sites and draws about 60 million visitors a year.

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