State parks in SLO County will not close

California’s state parks will stay open after the Schwarzenegger administration on Friday backed off its threat to close dozens of them.

The plan announced by the governor’s office calls for saving $12.1 million this year by reducing parks maintenance and halting purchases of vehicles and other equipment.

An additional $2.1 million will be saved by cutting an undetermined number of positions and reducing hours and days of operation at many parks. Some parks will close on weekdays and open only on weekends; at other parks, certain sections will be shut down. It was not clear yet just how these reductions would be implemented at the parks in San Luis Obispo County.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had planned to shut about 100 of the state’s 279 parks, beaches and monuments because of California’s $24 billion budget deficit, slow economic recovery and lagging tax revenues.

The decision to keep the parks open may be based as much on legal constraints and contracts as on a desire to keep the public’s lands open, according to a recently leaked, 11-page legal memo.

The assumption had been that Hearst Castle, Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area and Pismo State Beach would not close, but other beaches, parks and campgrounds in the county were vulnerable.

Nick Franco, superintendent of the State Parks’ San Luis Obispo Coast District, said he believes “the true details of what a park closure really means is becoming more clear to those outside of parks.”

Contracts at issue

In June, The Tribune asked State Parks officials about the possibility of legal action by concessionaires in the parks, agencies with concerns about public access to public beaches and lands or people injured inside closed parks. Those officials had no immediate answers because they were researching the issues.

A recently leaked legal memo said that, if parks closed, the state could face millions of dollars in liability for breached contracts with concessionaires that operate gift shops, snack bars and other park facilities. The state might have to reimburse them for their losses, according to the memo leaked to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Jeff Ruch, the group’s executive director, said Thursday that closing parks would be “a shameful situation, certainly not a good thing to do from a public policy perspective. Parks are a public resource that the public paid for and should be able to enjoy. … Nobody’s looking at the State Parks system holistically, doing big-picture planning for it.”

The state also could face liability for injuries suffered by people using closed parks, even if those users were trespassing.

The state might win those cases in court, but legal fees to defend them could be higher than the cost of settling the lawsuits.

Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo, the Republican leader in the Assembly, said Friday in a meeting with The Tribune’s editorial board that the Legislature knew two years ago that closing parks would not work.

Besides the contracts with vendors and the legal liabilities involved, Blakeslee said there were also concerns about how endangered species found at the parks would fare if rangers were no longer on patrol to protect them.He likened Schwarzen-egger’s repeated vow to close the parks during the budget debate to “waving a bloody shirt.”

Managing Editor Tad Weber contributed to this story.