Editorial: Legislators need to think again about closing parks

Here we go again. Didn’t the governor’s office try — and fail — to save money in previous years by shutting down parks? And didn’t it quickly become apparent that any savings could be wiped out by fighting costly lawsuits filed over injuries sustained in parks and/or canceled contracts with concessionaires?

Now, we have a new governor who is banking on saving $22 million by shutting down 70 of 278 state parks, including the Morro Strand campground here in SLO County.

Now he, too, is running into legal hurdles:

 Sixteen parks — including Limekiln in nearby Monterey County — cannot be closed because they have received federal funding that requires them to stay open.

 Eleven beaches — including Morro Strand — must remain open at least to limited access, because the state Coastal Act says the public cannot be legally prohibited from walking along the shore.

On top of that, there are the same nagging issues about safety and liability. While it may be easy to lock the doors to a museum or historic residence, its much more difficult to keep people out of rural expanses of open space

unless you continue to provide some level of security. And there goes some of the cost savings.

Again, we’re left with the question. Does it really make sense to shut down parks to save $22 million?

Mary Golden, executive director of the Central Coast Natural History Association, makes a strong argument in today’s Viewpoint on the Voices page as to why it’s financial folly to close parks.

She describes them as economic engines. That’s absolutely correct.

We’re struck, too, by her observation about volunteerism.

It’s nice to think that volunteers and private donors can rush in and save the day, yet SLO County residents already are doing a tremendous amount to keep local state parks afloat.

There are more than 700 state park volunteers in our local area alone. At Morro Strand, for example, volunteers already serve as camp hosts, snowy plover monitors and educational and interpretive aides.

SLO County residents and organizations have been no slouches about contributing funds to state parks, either.

Just last year, the Hind Foundation awarded a $138,000 grant for preservation of the Spooner House at Montaña de Oro State Park. And over the past 15 years, Friends of Hearst Castle has raised more than $3 million for outdoor lighting, artifact preservation and educational and interpretive programs.

And still, we hear the drum beat for more local volunteers and nonprofit involvement.

As of now, the most likely effort to “save” the 70 threatened state parks is Assembly Bill 42, which would allow nonprofits to take over management of state parks.

We aren’t opposed to nonprofit takeover of parks, by any means; in some cases, it makes perfect sense. But we believe it would be disastrous for the state to rush into an effort to divest itself of financial responsibility for 70 parks.

Nor are we convinced that the state is going to realize enough true savings to justify such an upheaval.

We strongly urge the Legislature and governor to table the plan to close any parks. That will allow time for 1) a more thorough cost/benefit analysis and 2) an orderly transition of responsibility to nonprofit agencies, should that prove necessary to keep certain parks open.

We understand that California is in fiscal crisis and that every cost-saving option must be on the table.

But politicians in Sacramento must understand that California’s 278 state parks belong to all of us. They provide us with opportunities to learn about the state’s unique history; to enjoy the beauty of the coast and the grandeur of the mountains; to teach our children to appreciate nature; to get away from the stresses of our day-to-day lives, whether for an hour’s hike or a weeklong camping trip.

Close any one of our 278 parks and something will be irrevocably lost.

More information

To learn more about the proposed closure of Morro Strand State Beach campground — and what you can do to prevent it — attend a meeting of the Central Coast Natural History Association at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Museum of Natural History, 20 State Park Road, Morro Bay.