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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

California State Parks Face Closure Despite Innovation

Air Date: Week of

California plans to close 70 of its state parks, places that provide inexpensive green respite to urbanites, many of them kids. As Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, the closures come at a time when parks are pursuing creative solutions to climate and funding pressures. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Across the nation, states are trying to balance their budgets by slashing funds to schools, mental health facilities, prisons and anti-crime efforts. California goes even further. The new budget calls for closing a quarter of the state’s parks. Seventy parks are slated to be shut saving 33 million dollars over the next 2 years. But state officials aren’t sitting still while the budget ax falls - they’re trying innovative ways to save parks financially and ecologically. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet has our report.


LOBET: In her leafy backyard Shari Boyer unfolds a map on the patio table. The map shows the beaches of the California coastline, and all the rest of the 278 state parks. Boyer and her husband run a small company, Good Solutions Group or GSG, that produces these maps, free of charge, for the Parks Department. BOYER: We never take a dime from a park, and therefore from the taxpayer of public money. All of our money comes from corporations.

LOBET: Corporations are always trying to tap new audiences. And since Boyer had worked in marketing for Proctor and Gamble, she knew the Coca Colas, Odwallas and Subarus of the world would be hungry to reach park users.

BOYER: What we see is that there is a large audience that visits parks, 740 million visits to state parks across the country a year. So a very, very, very large audience. So these are not people who are sitting on couch thinking about going outdoors - they are actually outdoors. So that makes them a very attractive target audience for a corporation.

LOBET: Boyer's company now produces maps for 15 states, but has moved beyond that. They work with Northface, giving away park passes in Oregon and 6 other states. With Juicy Juice, they built a playground in New York. The company also turns out volunteers for workdays, like one at a major Orange County surf beach in April.

BOYER: We did the largest Earth Day clean up that the California State Parks Foundation has ever done. We had over eleven hundred people out, they were community members, but also Coca Cola and Stater Brothers employees, and we cleaned up 38,000 pounds of invasive species.

LOBET: GSG keeps a slice of the total corporate contribution. And do the companies get buildings or benches named after them? Not really. Logos tend to be small, on one corner of a plaque, or map.

BOYER: I think what we have to do is just make sure that if we do bring partners in, that we do it in a very acceptable way, and it doesn’t turn into massive billboards, and renaming parks.
LOBET: Boyer's company has channeled a total of 7.7 million dollars into parks since 2003. One of the largest has been the rehabilitation of a devastated park. And they're not alone in providing new channels for funding.


LOBET: Out on a wild hillside, chaparral bursts into bloom, strong from the spring rains. Nedra Martinez pulls a knife from her pocket. She kneels down before an 18-inch pine seedling and slices the orange mesh that protected it from browsing deer.

MARTINEZ: It’s impossible for me to be out here and not take these off…

LOBET: Martinez is the district superintendent for the sweeping Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in the mountains east of San Diego.

MARTINEZ: I’m very excited. You know, it’s just a miracle is what I think it is to see all the work we’ve done here come to fruition, and have these trees being so big that we have to take the Vexar off them. It’s just… it makes you smile (Laughs).

LOBET: The last eight years Martinez has worked amid a scene of devastation. In 2003 the hot burning Cedar Fire ransacked this park.


LOBET: Only black cindery spikes now stand where once there was once a forest of Incense Cedar and pine.

WELLS: The Cedar Fire was the largest fire in California’s recorded history.

LOBET: Mike Wells is a former district superintendent and fire manager.

WELLS: It was one of the worse days of my life to see how thorough the damage had been and to note that very little natural regeneration had taken place.

LOBET: Wells is also a scientist, and he had research plots in the forest. They were all destroyed.

WELLS: Just about the time that that happened, then we had another set of fires, including the Witch Fire, which I believe is the third or fourth largest fire in California history, and by end of that, sort of, episode of fire, over 6 of the ten largest fires in California history had taken place. So, completely unprecedented in our recorded history. And during that time over half the conifer forest in San Diego County burned. So this... is a whole new world.

LOBET: Scientists believe these frequent hotter fires are a result of fire suppression and climate change. Wells' research told him the Coulter Pines that did remain after the fire should produce new seedlings. But it wasn’t happening. There weren’t enough trees, and the survivors had had their seeds blistered by the fire.

WELLS: And so, after monitoring the park for about 5 years, we realized that natural recovery in this area was going to be very slow and maybe for some species not happen at all. And so we kind of came to the conclusion that maybe trying to recreate some patches would help to shorten the recovery time for the forest.

LOBET: Now, even in good times, the state doesn’t pay to replant after a fire. The practice is to just let things grow back. Foresters at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park wanted to try a novel ecological approach, replanting small “islands” of trees and hoping these would eventually reseed the park. Facing unpredictable fire seasons and the toughest economic times in memory, they turned to a non-profit. Scott Steen works with the American Forests, which funds reforestation.

STEEN: This is a really interesting pilot project for us. In this case, nature wasn’t running its course, you weren’t seeing the regeneration you would expect. And it’s an important ecosystem and it’s also a park. And it’s a park that’s been an important part of this region for a long time. I think a lot of people grew up coming to this park.

LOBET: The timing for this idea was also fortunate. The State of California had recently pressed ConocoPhillips about one of its refineries that was set to increase CO2 emissions. The company agreed to pay $2.8 million dollars toward reforestation. Those dollars were channeled through American Forests, together with funds from Shari Boyer's Good Solutions Group to fund the replanting here, 880 acres so far.


LOBET: But these efforts are not enough to head off the first parks closures in the history of the State of California. The Parks Department is actively looking for cities, counties and non-profits that might be willing to take over whole parks, but it expects many to close. Mike Wells says that will change lives.

WELLS: You know I’ve probably have seen tens of thousands of school kids come through state parks as part of field trips. And then they come back with their parents. And [pause] I think it’s, you know, very important to kind of create that bond so that people appreciate the natural world. And especially young people that are into their video games, and they go to school, which is a completely artificial environment. And then their parents take them to dance lessons or a soccer field, which is also an artificial environment and they never really develop that bond to the natural world. So, I think that’s probably the most important thing that state parks do.


LOBET: Or won’t do, if tens of thousands of visitors lose access to parks near them slated to close in July 2012. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.

GELLERMAN: Now Ingrid, stay with me for a moment, OK?

LOBET: Sure.

GELLERMAN: About closing these parks - how does California actually do that? Can the State Parks Department just lock the gates and walk away?

LOBET: Well, that’s what the parks department is looking at. For some parks they may not be able to do that, one reason would be - if they’ve received federal funds for certain parks, they may have to keep those open some minimal time. They’re looking at maybe one day a week.

GELLERMAN: What about people just hanging out or taking up residence in a State Park that’s closed?

LOBET: Yeah, that’s one interesting thing is they are actually considering leaving the parks open, since, as you say, it could be more convenient for homeless people or for criminal activity if the parks were locked. So one thing the parks department says it’s considering is, you know, many parks have a dedicated group of park supporters, they’ll often be called ‘Friends of X,Y,Z Park’- people who have been going to that park regularly for years - they could ask these groups of volunteers to keep an eye on the park and report if there is any suspicious activity, which would then become the problem of the police or the sheriff’s department.

GELLERMAN: What about maintenance, who does the maintenance or do they just stop?

LOBET: There wouldn’t be any more maintenance. That’s where a lot of the savings comes from, along with staffing. And in a few cases, these local groups might actually have the wherewithal to keep the park open and take over daily operations, but surely there won’t be groups with that kind of time and money for every park. Probably not even a majority unless people really make a leap in their commitment.

GELLERMAN: Well, thank you very much, Ingrid.

LOBET: You’re welcome!

GELLERMAN: Ingrid Lobet is Living on Earth’s West Coast Bureau Chief.



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