Budget could force area’s state parks to close early | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Budget could force area’s state parks to close early

With the recently passed state budget calling for $11 billion in cuts, the California Department of Parks and Recreation Sierra District is gearing up to be hit hard.

Park attractions such as Sugar Pine Point’s Ehrman Mansion and Emerald Bay’s Vikingsholm will most likely close after Labor Day, and interpretative activities could be canceled until next summer, officials say.

State Parks doesn’t yet know by how much its coffers will be slashed, but the agency expects there will be serious shortfalls. The $99 billion state budget, signed by Gov. Gray Davis last Saturday, makes cuts in almost every government department. Last fiscal year, State Park’s $275 million budget was reduced by $35 million, though the agency was able to make up $20 million through fee increases. This year, the cuts could be as much or more.

It could be as late as October before state funds are allocated and the Sierra District knows exactly how much money it has to work with, says district Superintendent Marilyn Murphy. In anticipation of losing revenue, the Sierra District is already starting to reduce expenditures. All four of its main activities — public safety, maintenance, resource management and interpretation — will be affected. With the elimination of 16,000 state employees required by the budget, State Park seasonal workers will have to be let go early. Visitor centers would shut down as well.

“We have to reduce spending now if we want to be able to open next year,” said Murphy.

Concerned about the negative impacts of shutting down park programs, the Sierra State Parks Foundation is racing to raise money to keep tours and school activities afloat.

Foundation Director Susan Fitzgerald Reichert worries the closures could impact tourism.

“It’s like any restaurant or retail operation,” she said. “If they don’t keep regular hours, people stop coming.”

Reichert said it’s a shame to close down Ehrman Mansion, celebrating its 100th anniversary, after State Parks spent $2.3 million last year to restore the grounds around the estate and put a new roof on the building.

“In my mind it’s not about the money, it’s just about everyone who’s coming to Vikingsholm and Ehrman Mansion and they’re closed,” she said. “No one’s there greeting them, explaining Tahoe to them.”

Although visitors start to drop off after August, Vikingsholm continues to see a large number of tourists in September. In August 2000, 9,700 people toured the Emerald Bay chateau; that number only dropped to 5,450 the following month, according to Reichert. She believes these numbers could be even greater for 2003 because of the increase in road travel after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Most disturbing to Reichert is the possibility that all year-round interpretative programs will be canceled. These include elementary school tours, learning days, as well as interpretive walks at Emerald Bay, Sugar Pine, D.L. Bliss, and Tahoe State Recreation Area. As the Sierra District braces for cutbacks, the Sierra State Parks Foundation is frantically trying to raise enough money to keep the visitor centers and mansion tours open through September. Reichert estimates at least $15,000 is needed.

“This is just for the bare bones. We would have to raise more money for school attendance,” she said.

In light of the parks’ impending budget crunch, a celebration to mark Ehrman Mansion’s 100th anniversary on August 16 may turn into a fund-raiser, said Reichert.

Although campgrounds will remain open, State Parks says its already lean budget can’t afford to be trimmed much more.

“We can’t be cut too much further or we will have to close parks,” said State Parks spokesman Steve Capps.

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