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State parks face tough times

Susan Wood
Dan Thrift/Tahoe Daily Tribune/ Grover Hot Springs, a California state park, brings in visitors to its pools year-round. Work at the park for the spring season will begin next week.
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Raised fees, personnel cuts, fewer interpretative programs, uncompleted renovations and a bistate park behind the casinos possibly in jeopardy – all make up a parks department stretched to the gills in California budget cuts.

This is despite $2.6 billion spent at parks each year from visitors for tourism, California’s largest industry.

And with work for the peak season beginning as early as next week at Grover Hot Springs, the Sierra District’s parks superintendent, Hayden Sohm, wonders whether the increasing shortages and shortfalls will irritate visitors. Adding to the situation, gasoline prices have been predicted to reach all-time highs this summer.



Come Memorial Day, campers will find gate fees going up by 20 percent to $25 in the peak season that ends Labor Day weekend. The fee hikes are deemed necessary to offset budget cuts.

“We’ve had to raise fees to meet our responsibilities, but the downside is, the market will dictate what we’re able to do,” he said.



The Legislature cut $15 million out of the statewide parks budget this year, a little more than twice that of Sohm’s total budget in a district that spans from Plumas-Eureka State Park south to Mono Lake. Parks in the district at the lake include Sugar Pine Point, D.L. Bliss, Vikingsholm, Eagle Point, Emerald Bay at Eagle Point and the Boat Camp.

Sohm was forced to cut from seven to four the number of Tahoe-area district rangers, who are needed to keep the peace more often than the public may know. Having worked in metropolitan areas, Sohm stresses the parks can be hotbeds for crime activity – including cases of domestic violence and drunken driving.

“These campgrounds are like little cities when they’re occupied,” he said.

When rangers are occupied with administrative duties, the high priorities get shelved.

“We try to patrol areas with the staffing the way it is. (Wednesday), I’m doing the job of a supervisor,” Sierra District ranger Heidi Doyle said, while shuffling through seasonal job applicants. “There’s a misconception about what park rangers do. The reality is, we spend our days frantically troubleshooting. We end up being reactive versus proactive.”

Plus, it’s unknown whether he can continue to staff the parks with caretakers if budget cuts continue. And more fallout – only a quarter of the Vikingsholm property has been completed. Last year, the Ehrman Mansion also had reduced its hours.

Ken Anderson, district senior resource ecologist, takes issue with the district having to close campgrounds early like they had to last year.

“Before, we’d keep them open into the fall, but we can’t operate them without the money,” he said.

The district has more challenges down the road with developing a proposed 725-acre park on the former Van Sickle Ranch property, where the first bistate venture exists with Nevada. A caretaker at the end of Park Avenue, not Heavenly Village Way, watches the property for the district.

The problems have stepped up the interest among the California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has doubled its membership to 60,000 in the last three to four years. The group has chipped in $150,000 to the district’s $750,000 seasonal budget. The Foundation will sponsor a parks advocacy day March 14 in Sacramento to raise awareness of the parks’ dire circumstances.

“They’ve pretty much done what they could do,” said Sara Feldman, the Foundation’s Southern California director. Feldman said the level of fees that would keep the visitors from going to the parks is unclear.

The Foundation released survey results recently in which 63 percent of the 780 California residents polled said parks are a “very important” aspect to the quality of life. Over half called the lack of funding for continued operation and maintenanc the “biggest threat facing state parks.”

And marking a need for escape, 85 percent want the parks department to continue buying land. Seventy-three percent value the parks’ preservation of natural and historic resources.

Coming up

What: California State Parks Advocacy Day

When: March 14, noon

Where: State Capitol, north steps, Sacramento


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