SAN FRANCISCO -- When the state's Department of Parks and Recreation announced last year it would be closing a quarter of its parks due to budget cuts, millions of nature-loving Californians were devastated.
But there may be some relief ahead.
With the July 1 closure deadline looming, nearly half of the 70 parks originally slated to be shut down have been saved, and the state is in the process of negotiating agreements to keep nearly two-thirds open past that deadline.
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The methods used to rescue the parks are varied, but they fall into a few distinct categories. Some received large donations from private individuals or conservation organizations, others were taken over by local municipalities or the federal government and a small handful, most controversially, are being privatized.
Though private companies (both of the non- and for- profit varieties) have long operated inside virtually all of California's green spaces, having non-governmental groups handle the operation of an entire state park is relatively new. Last year, the legislature passed a bill allowing private organizations to take over the operation of California's parks without first having to gain approval for each individual decision.
A recent report by the Legislative Analyst Office estimated that, by privatizing the operation of many parks, the state could save tens of millions of dollars each year.
Parks Department Deputy Director Roy Stearns admits that the idea has been met with some hostility. State Senator Noreen Evans, for example, said that park privatization is "inconsistent with serving the public."
"We've gotten some pushback, but people are more and more coming to the realization that our budget has serious problems," Stearns told The Huffington Post. "There are private companies in the Parks and Rec business that do it well. People shouldn’t see private enterprise as a dirty word. Our main goal is to get though these tough times."
Other states have considered going the privatization route, but California is the first to actually implement it. Currently, the state is in final negotiations on private operation for six parks: Castle Crags, Benbow Lake, Woodson Bridge, Brannan Island, Turlock Lake and Limekiln.
Mr. Stearns said companies would be able to collect user fees and--pending departmental approval--raise them. He added that California would collect a percentage of each park's annual revenue or a flat-rate bid from the companies, whichever is higher. The state will reinvest any revenue raised into long-term park maintenance, he said.
The nonprofit California State Parks Foundation, which advocates for the preservation of state parks, said it didn't expect most park visitors would notice a difference if private companies manage a state park. Jerry Emory, a foundation spokesman, said: "We're not talking about a private company putting up billboards."
Over the past two years, the state has defunded its parks system by over $22 million.
Most of the agreements allowing the parks to stay open are temporary, the majority lasting only a few years. However, many hope these new funding sources will provide a long enough bridge to allow the spaces to survive until California comes out from the other side of its current fiscal nightmare. (Stranger things have happened, right?)
"I'm delighted for the year reprieve," Sempervirens Fund Executive Director Reed Holderman, whose organization donated $250,000 to keep Castle Rock State Park open for at least another year, told the Peninsula Press. "But I’m worried and anxious about what’s next."
Some also fear this temporary change to certain parks' funding models could become permanent, especially if the Golden State's budget mess doesn't clear up any time soon. NPR reports:
[Wealthy businessman Dan McCranie, who donated $1 million out of his own pocket to keep Silicon Valley's Henry W. Coe State Park open] figures that now that private donors have stepped up, state money will never come back to Coe Park. So it will be up to them to create an endowment fund big enough to keep this park open in perpetuity. But this model is precarious if enthusiasm flags or fortunes shift.
Getting the state off the hook for funding parks may also set into motion a slippery slope, says Rob Reich, who is a co-director of Stanford University's Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.
Even though the parks are only saved temporarily, stopping their closure is crucial. If a park shuts its gates and regular upkeep grinds to a halt, the cost of its reopening rises. As that price tag increases, the likelihood of once again allowing in members of the public decreases.
Governor Jerry Brown is working with a group of Democrats, led by Senator Evans, on a bill that would deliver $65 million to the parks system through a combination of increased revenue generation measures and diversion of funds from other parts of the budget.
If passed, the proposed bill would not only save all of the parks from closing, but provide additional money for millions of dollars of deferred maintenance work. Evans said she hopes to have a plan in place in the coming days.
Check out this slideshow showing some of the parks that have been saved so far: