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Closing California's state parks: too costly?

The state will still have to care for the wilderness areas, and one fire caused by illegal activity could more than wipe out any savings.

June 03, 2009

Whether Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is making a serious proposal or indulging in a bit of grandstanding, the temporary closure of at least some state parks isn't unthinkable in a budget year this dire. What the number crunchers must realize, though, is that "closed" isn't the same as "no cost." The state must patrol and minimally maintain the parks with or without visitors or it almost surely will incur worse expense, not just long term but in the immediate future.

Closing parks doesn't mean that people won't use them. It means that law-abiding people won't use them. Among those who will: meth lab operators, marijuana farmers, the homeless, taggers, poachers, rogue mountain bikers and off-roaders, as well as just plain campers who think the rules don't apply to their personal visits. Wildfire danger would increase from illegal, unsupervised campfires, sparks from off-road vehicles and drug operations. The cost of a single catastrophic fire could wipe out most of the savings from closing parks. Crime could turn the parks into expensive public nuisances.

That's on top of the long-term expense caused by erosion problems from illegally cut trails, vandalism, deterioration of park buildings and the need to bring back overgrown trails once the parks reopen.

There are budgetary downsides to shutting out legitimate visitors. Not only would the state lose the visitor fees, but hikers and bikers act as a sort of volunteer patrol. The probability of encountering passers-by is enough to deter many illegal activities. Park closures would save, at most, $140 million a year. Closing them properly might be more trouble and expense than it's worth. Before putting out scare lists, the administration should do some real-life figuring with a calculator.

Though details haven't been worked out, so far the proposal calls for putting up to 220 parks on "caretaker" status, which means turning off the water and power, boarding up the windows and sending regional patrols in every now and then to look for damage that needs immediate attention. This isn't a workable scenario. Imagine trying to "close" the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in San Diego County.

Like any homeowner who moves but has a legal responsibility to keep the vacant property in decent order, the state cannot simply lock the gates of state parks and walk away. Nor is this a long-term solution to the state's budget crisis. Californians expect to see these treasured resources reopened within a couple of years, and they must be maintained with that in mind, not as potential lots for the auction block. The state is hurting badly, but it is not for sale.

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