The Cambrian

Parks staffing, crowds thin

One in a series of reports on California state parks.

S tate Parks has been operating on short-shrift budgets for several years now. Spread-thin staffers work hard to keep appearances and experiences top-notch, but visitors are beginning to notice shortfalls.

Are those shortfalls translating into fewer visitors? Perhaps, although the economy certainly takes a visitation toll, too.

Whatever the cause, in the year from July 2009 to June 2010, visitation at Hearst Castle dipped 3.2 percent from the previous fiscal year to a total of 625,635 tour tickets sold.

That’s down a total of 7 percent in past two fiscal years, and 27.2 percent from 10 years ago. In the 2000-2001 year, 858,217 paid tours

were taken.

Also, fewer campers have rented San Simeon Campground sites recently. Nearly 104,000 campers rented sites in both the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 fiscal years. By the 2009-2010 year, that had dropped to 89,535, a 14 percent drop in one year.

The tumble in camping nights “could reflect the fee increases and the reduction of services because of reductions in operational budget allocations and subsequent periodic closures of campground loops to offset operating funding reductions for seasonal support,” according to Pendleton H. Harris, a State Parks interpretive specialist.

These days, some who recreate in San Luis Obispo Coast District parks tell officials, “‘Gee, it’s not as nice as I remembered,’” said Nick Franco, district superintendent. That’s because workers are “doing less frequently the regular things we would normally do more often.”

Those chores include everything from the frequency of cleaning rest-rooms and facilities to landscape and habitat maintenance, pavement patching and routine repairs of everything from pricey infrastructure to picnic tables and paper-towel dispensers.

Franco said, “What also suffers is resource management and interpretive work … the ranger stopping to talk to you about the elephant seals, a good place to hike on the beach or plover nesting” areas to avoid.

Parks visitor Kathleen Murray of San Luis Obispo said, “We need more trails and parks, not less … We have to do everything we can to protect parks and take care of them.”

She gets discouraged, she said, when parks are dirty or out of order because there aren’t enough staffers to do the repairs, “or when I have to bring my own supplies to a park,” such as toilet paper.

For some voters like Murray, a passion for parks translates into support in November for a ballot measure that would levy an $18 annual fee on nearly 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.

In the meantime, State Parks has to make do with less, but that doesn’t let the agency off the hook for its obligations, at least according to one man with a higher- than-average interest in the topic.

Stephen Hearst is vice president of the Hearst Corp. and a great-grandson of William Randolph Hearst, the media-and-newspaper magnate behind the estate that for more than 50 years has been a state park bearing the family surname.

What’s represented by Hearst Castle’s $60 million maintenance backlog is a serious concern to the Hearst family and corporation that deeded, with some restrictions, the lavish hilltop to the state in 1957. It opened for public tours the next year.

One of those conditions is that the state keeps the facility and the treasures within it in good shape.

Stephen Hearst doesn’t want to address the “what if” clauses, but says, “The problem is the state has not allocated over the years sufficient dollars to maintain either the collection or the building. I know they’re trying to address that, but it’s very slow in coming.”

Parks that are or contain museums need to be in a separate budgetary category dedicated solely to preserving artifacts and historic buildings, Hearst has suggested repeatedly. “The collections are not like a campground or trail network. The museums and the antiquities they hold can go beyond repair.”

Hearst Corp. has been “working with State Parks for four years, getting to the bottom of the deferred maintenance balance, assisting them with their efforts to obtain the auto-licensing fee and increase funding,” Hearst said.

But if the ballot measure fails, “that does not in any way lessen the state’s obligation,” he explained. “There are other ways … the general fund, other bonds, architectural restoration money.

“They should review what has already been allocated from those bonds, and perhaps reallocate it to museum and ar tifact restoration, so those things will be there for generations to come.”