Most California parks likely to stay open

Associated Press

SACRAMENTO – Only a fraction of the 70 California parks originally slated to close this summer because of budget cuts are likely to be shut down, a senior state parks official said Tuesday.

Agreements already are in place with federal and local government agencies to keep 11 of the parks operating, and negotiations are under way to rescue about 40 other parks on the list, said Michael Harris, acting chief deputy director for the state Department of Parks and Recreation.

“We are working feverishly,” he told The Associated Press in an interview. “We may end up with 15 parks without anybody stepping forward.”

The 70 parks make up about a quarter of the state’s 278 parks, beaches and historic sites had been scheduled to close to save $11 million annually.

“We’re still talking 70 that we can’t afford to operate,” Harris said after testifying before the Little Hoover Commission, a state watchdog agency. But he said he expects the parks will be run mainly through cooperation agreements with for-profit concessionaires and nonprofit organizations.

The 11 parks already taken off the closure list are being funded in a variety of ways. The National Park Service is taking over operation of three parks, while the city of Colusa has agreed to operate one nearby state recreation area.

A donor gave the state $300,000 to continue operating a fifth park, and there are similar arrangements with donors or other governments for the remainder.

Later, state parks spokesman Roy Stearns cautioned that only the 11 parks with firm operating agreements are in the clear.

“Another 35 show some promise,” Stearns said. “That’s a long way from having a clear indicator that most will remain open.”

The department won permission last month to solicit private concessionaires to operate some parks currently slated for closure. The concessionaires would operate campgrounds, day-use areas, restrooms and educational kiosks.

About 83 organizations expressed interest in helping the department keep the parks operating in various ways, Stearns said.

Earlier this month, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended a variety of ways to help keep the parks open. That included transferring park ownership to cities and counties, allowing private and nonprofit companies to operate parks, increasing entrance fees and expanding concession contracts.

The analyst recommended the Legislature allow more private operators to take over parks, particularly as local governments struggle with their own budget deficits. While the state already contracts with businesses to run snack bars and operate boating marinas, contracting out the operations for an entire park would be a new venture for California.

Parks supporters and members of the commission said the department must foster the same sorts of cooperative and commercial agreements more broadly.

California has the nation’s largest state parks system and draws 65 million visitors a year, which Harris said is more than the 50 million annual visitors to the state’s top 10 theme parks combined.

Commission Vice Chairman Mitch Mitchell suggested the parks could mimic those theme parks by charging more money to visitors. Others said the department could rely more on volunteers, commercial advertising or public-private partnerships.

The long-term future of the parks is in paying their own way, Harris agreed – though how to do that remains unclear. Since the 1970s, he said the percentage of the parks’ budget paid through general taxes has declined from 90 percent to 29 percent.

“That represents a tremendous shift for us,” Harris said. “We need to reinvent ourselves. We need to accept that … we are going to be increasingly dependent on what we raise ourselves.”

However, the department has been unable to decide how that can be accomplished, he said. For instance, a consultant suggested the department turn historic buildings into lodging, Harris said, but at best that would help with 10 percent of the department’s $300 million budget.

“Honestly, I’m not sure what the long-term answer is,” Harris said.

Mitchell said the parks should form regional networks with local governments. Commissioner Marilyn Brewer said the parks should look to privatize more services.

“Concessionaires feel they could do it better for less money,” Brewer told Harris. “In today’s world, it’s incumbent upon your department to be open to that.”

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