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Will Rogers' family gears up for fight to keep park open

The site is among 48 targeted for closure under governor's proposed budget cuts.

January 12, 2008|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Cowboy humorist Will Rogers was one of the biggest stars of his day when he died in an Alaska plane crash in 1935. So it was fitting that his widow, Betty, would leave the Pacific Palisades ranch where he played polo with Hollywood royalty to the people of California, who had helped enrich him by flocking to his movies.

The 1944 deed that turned the 186.5-acre property over to the state included a key provision: California would maintain the structures and grounds as a memorial to Rogers. If the property were not properly preserved, it would revert to the family.

Until recently, it had seemed a remote possibility that the family would ever take back the land. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget-cutting plan proposes closing Will Rogers State Historic Park, one of the jewels of the state parks system but one that operates at a financial loss.

Suddenly, family members are having to face the possibility that the park, fresh from a $5-million renovation that restored luster to the 31-room ranch house and expansive grounds, could land back in their laps.

"We're not fighting to take it back; we're fighting to keep it open," said Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry, who made the drive from foggy Bakersfield on Friday to visit the ranch her great-grandfather built, starting in 1926. She said family members -- including Bette, Chuck and Kem Rogers, grandchildren of Will and Betty Rogers -- would have no intention of selling the property for development. Nor would they want to pay the property taxes, she emphasized.

Rogers-Etcheverry said she and her father, Kem, and her aunt and uncle were shocked by Thursday's news that the park was included on a list of 48 facilities facing closure.

"We were prepared for a strong budget cut; we weren't prepared for closure," she said. "So much has yet to be finished. . . . The barn is unfinished, we just got custom redwood to build new fencing, and we're still planning to build a visitor center and gift shop. That's a source of revenue that has been ignored."

In proposing the closures, the state Department of Parks and Recreation said it selected sites that had the fewest visitors, produced the least revenue and would be the easiest to close off to visitors. In the 2006-07 fiscal year, the Rogers park took in about 245,600 visitors, about 28% of them walk-ins who, unlike drivers, paid no entry fee. The park generated $361,000 in revenues.

Also slated for closure is nearby Topanga State Park, which has nearly 15,000 acres and welcomed 455,000 visitors (most of them walk-ins), taking in $157,000 in revenues. The two parks combined had personnel costs of $1.4 million and operational costs of $330,000 annually, said Lynette Hernandez, superintendent of both parks. By contrast, Leo Carrillo State Park, which features camping sites and has not been slated for closure, had 507,000 visitors and generated $1.2 million in fees.

It remains to be seen whether any or all of the proposed budget cuts will come to pass. State officials said the parks proposal could be altered, and no closures would happen before the next fiscal year begins on July 1.

Rogers-Etcheverry said the state had not given Will Rogers State Historic Park time to get back up to speed after years of deferred maintenance and restoration work.

For years before he became governor, Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, were among the celebrities who boarded their horses at the park. Stalls and sheds were erected in pastures and canyons to accommodate the steeds of Billy Crystal, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Meanwhile, the house -- filled with authentic Monterey furniture, Western art and other artifacts -- and the grounds fell into disrepair, and the number of visitors dropped dramatically as the public complained that the ranch had become a private playground for a few influential people.

Amid the outcry, the state ended private horse boarding in 2001 and two years later began a restoration that culminated in a rededication of the park in 2006. Since then, park boosters have held Will Rogers movie nights and other events to encourage people to return. Today, the park attracts families, hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders and polo players, who regularly hold practice chukkers and tournaments there.

Rogers-Etcheverry and others recently launched the Will Rogers Ranch Foundation, a nonprofit group that aims to raise funds to help maintain and operate the park. Supporters include members of the Roy Rogers family; Patrick Wayne, son of John Wayne; Wyatt McCrea, grandson of actor Joel McCrea; Diamond Farnsworth, son of actor Richard Farnsworth; and Joe Tracy, grandson of Spencer Tracy, who learned to play polo on the field below the ranch house. The organization is well shy of the funds it would need to run the park on its own, Rogers-Etcheverry said.

Parks department spokesman Roy Stearns said the state has no plans to abandon the parks slated for closure. "We want to preserve and protect them in the hope we can get funds to reopen them," he said.

Randy Young, a historian and Rogers family friend, said the state recognized in 1944 that running the property as a park would be an expensive proposition. "It was taken in with the full knowledge it would be an onerous task," he said. "Maintenance is critical."

As she stood at the park's Inspiration Point admiring the view of the Pacific Ocean, the ranch and distant high-rises, Rogers-Etcheverry said she was determined to keep the park accessible to help honor her great-grandfather.

"The family," she said, "will do everything in their power to keep the doors open."

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