Editorial: Hearst Castle, state parks need Prop. 21 funding

Hearst Castle is one of the crown jewels in the State Parks system, yet the continuing budget crisis threatens the luster of this irreplaceable treasure.

As reported in the recent Tribune/McClatchy series on California’s parks, Hearst Castle has a daunting backlog of needs. A few examples: The famed Neptune Pool is leaking, roofs need fixing and the access road needs repair.

Unfortunately, Hearst Castle isn’t unique; parks and beaches in California require an infusion of $1.3 billion for repairs and restorations.

How bad is it?

Some of the problems amount to public safety hazards. At Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento, for instance, heavy cannons are mounted on deteriorating, 10-foot platforms. A colony of bats has taken up residence inside a dilapidated historic courthouse in Fresno County.

Elsewhere, conditions pose risks to the environment. Aging sewer systems threaten to pollute waterways, and invasive species are crowding out native plants.

While it’s inevitable that parks would suffer to some degree in this economy, this level of neglect is appallingly poor stewardship. At this rate, some of our landmarks will be little more than ruins if we don’t act to shore them up.

Consider, too, that our parks would be in even worse shape if not for the army of volunteers helping with maintenance, fundraising and special projects. Friends of Hearst Castle, for instance, has raised more than $3 million — contributions that have gone toward outdoor lighting, artifact preservation and educational and interpretive programs.

We owe such groups a huge debt of gratitude. We can’t, however, expect volunteers and private donors to rescue the entire State Parks system. If we want to ensure that our parks are in decent shape for future generations, it’s imperative that we have a secure source of funding.

For that reason, we strongly support Proposition 21, the $18-per-year increase in the vehicle license fee that will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot. The fee would generate $500 million per year — enough to cover the cost of annual operations and routine maintenance, and provide funding to begin tackling the backlog of needed repairs.

To be clear, we don’t approve of automatically turning to tax and fee increases to solve every budget problem. We believe, however, that $18 per year is a reasonable request. That works out to $1.50 per month — less than a latte.

For that small investment, Californians will have free day-use admission to all state parks. But even if they never set foot in one, they will benefit in other ways.

If the measure passes, parks will no longer receive general fund revenue, and that will free up $130 million that can go toward other needs, such as education, social services and deficit reduction.

Also, parks generate tourism that’s vital to the economic health of many local communities. According to a Sacramento State University study, tourists visiting California’s state parks spend more than $4 billion annually — and that means jobs in visitor-serving businesses, plus sales and bed taxes for police, fire and other essential services.

State parks are far too important to our economy, our health and our quality of life to continually be at the mercy of the ups and downs of the economy or the whims of politicians.

Proposition 21 is the most expeditious and practical way to generate the revenue we need to repair our endangered parks, beaches and historic landmarks.