Cracks in our parks: How California's budget shortfall is affecting our recreation areas

The images won’t appear in any California State Parks brochure.

MacKerricher State Park: Fifty elementary-school kids arrive for their annual end-of-year camping trip, only to find the drinking water contaminated.

Mount Tamalpais: A trail near the visitors center greets disabled visitors and families with a 12- to 50-foot sheer drop-off — and no guardrail.

Hearst Castle: The marble Neptune Pool at California’s most famous state park leaks so much that stalactites have formed in a cavity underneath.

Look beyond the crashing waves and towering redwoods, and California’s 278 state parks are a tangle of troubles. The nation’s largest state parks system is weighed down by a $1.3 billion maintenance backlog, according to a review of park records by McClatchy Newspapers.

Park visitors already have dealt with abbreviated schedules and services. Now decay and neglect in the parks endanger the environment, artifacts — and even public health, as the students and parents of Skyfish School in Redway recently learned.

“It’s been a real hassle,” said Mark Jensen, a parent and chaperone who had to keep 50 kids from drinking the water at MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg. “There were actually a couple kids who drank some before we could get the word out.”

Much of the park decay exists because maintenance has been largely ignored for more than a decade amid slim and slimmer state budgets. Buildings and infrastructure, subject to constant exposure and heavy use, just get worse until they fail.

As a result, the backlog has more than doubled since 2001.

The operating budget for state parks — which pays for day-to-day maintenance, law enforcement and administration — stands at about $330 million this fiscal year. In 2001, it was $314 million. Adjusted for inflation, however, that reflects a 15 percent drop.

During those same years, California added 12 parks and 100,000 more acres to its system.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to leave the $140 million general fund subsidy intact this year, after he was criticized in 2009 for requiring partial closure of 60 parks and cutbacks systemwide.

It remains to be seen whether the Legislature will agree to keep the parks budget intact — and status-quo funding will do little to shrink the mountain of untended maintenance.

Environmental groups think they have a partial solution in the recently qualified November ballot initiative that would levy an $18 annual fee on every California vehicle registration, raising at least $208 million a year. In return, residents with up-to-date registration would have free day use of all state parks.

Increasingly, volunteers also are stepping up to help care for California parks, going beyond their traditional work as tour guides and docents.

To examine the state of our state parks firsthand, seven McClatchy journalists fanned out in the first two weeks of June, visiting 42 parks.

Keeping up appearances

Park officials say appearances can be deceiving since they’ve prioritized day-to-day upkeep — keeping restrooms tidy and facilities accessible — over deeper problems.

“Our goal has been to make our parks look good to the public for their use, so that they still have a good experience in each park,” said Roy Stearns, deputy communications director for California State Parks. “Yet, behind the scenes, there are serious deferred maintenance projects, the things they usually do not see.”

At Millerton Lake State Recreation area northeast of Fresno, the lake is scouring away roadway foundations. A popular trail is eroding. A stream flows through a crumbling maintenance building.

At the Millerton Courthouse overlooking the lake, daylight peeks through holes in the roof. A colony of bats has moved into a replica of Fresno County’s first courthouse — originally built in 1867 but dismantled and rebuilt with some original parts in 1966 — filling the building with the stench of guano.

Millerton’s park superintendent, Kent Gresham, can’t remember a summer without a failure in the antiquated sewage and water-treatment systems. The park needs more than $9 million of work.

Montaña de Oro State Park is struggling with the same water-distribution system the park had when the state acquired the property in 1965.

Water tests continue to meet health standards, but the system’s main components are overdue for replacement, at a price tag of more than $333,000.

The problems go deeper

Armed with the department’s maintenance data as a reference, reporters found deteriorating trails, 19th-century buildings grown moldy from seeping roofs and, despite the department’s efforts, many restrooms covered in graffiti and lacking toilet paper. At one state park near Sacramento, erosion has exposed bone fragments of long-dead pioneers.

Signs sometimes tip visitors to less obvious trouble.

On a bridge leading to a beloved hiking trail at Montaña de Oro State Park, for example, one sign apologizes for a temporary bridge and promises it will be replaced by 2009.

Across all 278 parks, the fix-it costs range from minute to massive.

At Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in El Dorado County, officials want to reframe a picture of James Marshall, who discovered gold here in 1848. Cost: $500. At the opposite extreme, Border Field State Park in San Diego needs 250 acres of salt marsh habitat restoration. Cost: $96.6 million.

The state’s to-do list includes some less-urgent projects, such as landscaping a bike path or replacing interpretive panels.But many of the worst problems are assaults on California’s environment: State parks need at least $55 million to prevent sewer and water systems from polluting streams and sickening visitors. Many fall short of state and county health codes. Among the top offenders is Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley, which earned 78 pollution violations in 2009 alone.

Few visitors would recognize the invasive fennel at Estero Bluffs State Park or on the craggy flanks of Cerro Cabrillo in Morro Bay State Park. But to scientists and naturalists, the fluffy, white-headed weeds represent a threat to native habitat that escalates daily.

“There’s so much to do here, we can’t even start on this until the funding is more stable,” said John Sayers, a parks environmental scientist, gesturing toward grasslands at Harmony Headlands State Park near Cayucos. “Thistle, oats, hemlock. So much.”

As it is, Sayers is in the park one day a month, and maintenance crews stop by briefly once a week.

“Thank heavens for the Harmony Ambassadors,” he said of volunteers who staff the park on weekends.

Castle isn’t exempt

Today, even crown jewels such as Hearst San Simeon State Historic Monument face daunting difficulties. Hearst Castle generates more revenue than any other park: $8.8 million in visitor fees the year before last. That’s not enough to prevent a maintenance pileup.

Besides the leaky Neptune Pool, there’s a long list of waiting structural repairs at the former estate of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. The castle’s Spanish tile roof needs replacing, estimated at $4 million. The visitor center also needs a new roof, estimated at $359,000.

Interior architecture and artifacts in the mansion and guesthouses, which hosted the likes of Winston Churchill, Charles Lindbergh and Charlie Chaplin, need attention. Security systems to protect the multimillion-dollar art and artifact collection need upgrading.

Budget cuts have exacerbated the problems at Hearst Castle, and costs are mounting, with fewer employees to plan repairs or even track the needs.

“What suffers is resource management and interpretive work,” said Nick Franco, superintendent of the parks’ San Luis Obispo Coast District. “We can do this for a year, two years, and probably be OK. If we start doing it for three, four or five years, we’ll have a serious problem and everything will wind up costing a lot more.”

Dangers in plain sight

Monica Benuto of Stockton, who brought her 9-year-old twins in June to Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, said she found the park “clean and orderly,” the staff helpful. She loves state parks but believes they are somewhat of an “extra.”

“We’ve been very fortunate in California, but extras are going to have to wait,” said Benuto, 36, a cashier married to a schoolteacher. “Right now, there are families just trying to figure out how to put a meal on the table.”

Benuto wasn’t concerned about the chipping lead paint on some of the plaza’s buildings. “No one’s going to be licking the walls,” she joked.

Yet park safety problems are posing serious dangers.

One of the most mesmerizing spots in all of California’s state parks includes a stunning hazard. For visitors winding their way up to the East Peak of Mount Tamalpais State Park, with its vistas of the San Francisco Bay, the Verna Dunshee trail beckons with a gentle half-mile loop near the visitors center.

Billed as accessible for the disabled, the asphalt trail includes sections with steep, almost vertical, dropoffs. The state maintenance list includes a $100,000 steel guardrail.

Danita Rodriguez, superintendent of the Marin parks district, said the trail is a high priority and will be resurfaced and resloped this summer for wheelchair users. A guardrail is not part of that planned work.

Hazards lurk in park structures, too — a destination for thousands of schoolchildren.

At Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park in Sacramento — California’s birthplace as a state — two of John Sutter’s 2,000-pound cannons brace the entrance atop heavy timber platforms about 10 feet off the ground. But sunlight blazes through cracks in the platform beams, degraded by age, climate and dry rot.

State records identify the risk of falling cannons as a safety hazard. Rebuilding the platforms will cost $64,000.

Deteriorating parks threaten something less tangible: California history.

On Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, dilapidated former military buildings seem to be an intended part of the experience.

That is not necessarily the case.

At the hospital at Camp Reynolds, on the island’s west side, an upper window gapes open to the elements. The porch surrounding the building is in ruins.

A notice informs the public that the roof was replaced to preserve the structure. Faded, it dates from Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration more than two decades ago. Now the edges of that new roof are crumbling.

On the other side of the island, at the Immigration Station, a World War II barracks has tumbled during the last six months into a pile of broken lumber.

As bad as these examples may seem, historian John Martini reported conditions far worse lurk behind the boarded-up windows and doors. Some interiors may be beyond repair.

The state’s maintenance list estimates Angel Island needs $123 million for 213 projects.

“They’re just in pretty bad condition, and they’re not getting any better,” said Martini, a retired National Park Service military historian. “It’s frustrating to staff on the island, and it’s frustrating to preservationists, that we can’t do more.”

This story was reported by Mark Grossi in Fresno, John Holland in Modesto, Jamie Oppenheim in Merced, David Sneed and Kathe Tanner in San Luis Obispo, and Marjie Lundstrom and Matt Weiser in Sacramento. It was written by Lundstrom and Weiser.

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