State Parks director to visit SLO County

Ruth Coleman, the director of California’s Department of Parks and Recreation, is going to play tourist in San Luis Obispo County on Saturday.

Her day is to include sightseeing at area parks, an 11 a.m. ribbon-cutting for a $12,000 marine mural at the Morro Bay Natural History Museum (paid for primarily by donations and grants) and a $50-a-plate dinner in her honor at the museum that night.

In an interview this week, Coleman said she’d spend her day with representatives of the organization that won a day of her company in an auction — the Central Coast Natural History Association.

When the association hosted a conference in April of similar groups statewide, Coleman offered an auction item of “a day with the director.” Association volunteer Bette Bardeen of Cayucos won with a bid of $650.

Bardeen said Coleman is “a really enthusiastic and impressive person. I wanted her to have the opportunity to meet our great group of wonderful donors and volunteers.”

The news Coleman might share, however, is sobering.

Coleman said State Parks is “currently at about 1979 staffing levels, but in 1979 we had a half-million fewer acres and 10 million fewer visitors. Our budget is lower than it was back then by any measure.”

The park system is “on the wrong end of a 30-year downward trend of funding,” she said. Without a dedicated funding source, “I see our budget continuing to dwindle as chronic needs lose out to urgent needs.”

Under the new state budget, Coleman expects operations would be “about the same as last year,” with approximately 150 parks having significant reductions in service, ranging from having every other bathroom locked to closing some campgrounds in the off-season.

Administrators may have to make more cuts to already lean staffing because equipment purchases and repairs, such as to water and sewage-treatment systems, “can’t be postponed forever.”

“We hide most decay well,” Coleman said, “but it’s still there.”

Hearst Castle

Maintenance at state parks in San Luis Obispo County is about the same level as parks elsewhere, with the exception of Hearst Castle, Coleman said.

The Castle “gets better treatment than most parks because of the quality of the art we have to protect. The Castle has high visitation, but not nearly as high as at the beach parks” in Southern California.

“Hearst Castle is not a cash cow,” Coleman said. “It does a decent business but we don’t break even for average fixed costs. We make enough for the buses and tour guides, but not for maintenance of those roofs and pools, the restoration.”

Proposition 21

As a state park administrator, Coleman said she’s not allowed to talk about Proposition 21, the measure on the November ballot that would tack an $18 annual charge on every auto license fee to provide dedicated funding each year for every state park.

In exchange, owners of all vehicles licensed in California would receive free day use at all parks.