The Cambrian

State Park’s $1.3B backlog

One in a series of reports on California state parks.

By Kathe Tanner, David Sneed and five other McClatchy reporters & editors

The Cambrian

Look beyond the crashing waves, historic buildings and towering redwoods, and California’s 278 state parks — the nation’s largest state parks system — has 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 brought on by the state’s budget crisis. Now decay and neglect in the parks endanger the environment and artifacts that make them so special.

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

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, some grubby restrooms covered in graffiti and lacking toilet paper.

Hearst Castle generates more revenue than any other park: $8.8 million in visitor fees the year before last. But the money goes into the general fund for all parks.

The Castle needs about $60 million in repairs and artifact conservation, according to Hoyt Fields, director of the San Simeon museum that was the “ranch” house of wealthy media magnate and art collector William Randolph Hearst.

State Parks annually spends about $550,000 for building repairs at the Castle and $338,000 for artifact restoration, Fields said. That doesn’t cover a lot, especially considering the museum contains more than 22,000 artifacts.

For instance, despite previous “band-aid” fixes, the marble Neptune Pool at California’s most famous state park has leaked so much for so long that stalactites have formed in a cavity underneath. Estimate for rebuilding the pool: At least $1 million.

The red Spanish tile roof of the estate’s La Casa Grande needs extensive repairs. Estimate to fix it: About $4 million. And it’s not just maintenance that’s lacking. State staffing budgets are so squeaky tight that the Castle has about 70 guides this summer to lead tours. In previous years, there were as many as 130 guides available.

Other area parks are suffering, too.

Habitat restoration is mostly on hold in the predominantly natural open spaces of Harmony Headlands, Estero Bluffs and Hearst San Simeon State Park, which at 21.3 miles long is the longest oceanfront park in the system.

Limekiln State Park in Big Sur finally reopened Friday, June 25, after being closed since the month-long Chalk Fire in October 2008 destroyed much of the park’s vegetation.

It’s even been tough paying for relatively small repairs. At Cayucos State Beach, the 24th Street restrooms were destroyed in December 2008 when a man drove his vehicle into them. The facilities finally reopened earlier this month, after a contractor rebuilt the restrooms for $8,000.

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, a sign apologizes for a temporary bridge and promises it will be replaced — by 2009.

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.

Meanwhile, the deterioration continues.

By now, rebuilding the Castle’s Neptune Pool will take years. “I’d hate to see the pool down for that long,” said Fields. “It’s such an iconic part of the castle. People want to see it, expect to see it. We can’t just post a picture of it to show people, telling them ‘This is what it looks like with water in it.’ ”

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


Part two of this series appeared in The Cambrian on July 8. Read it at: