New land acquisitions leave State Parks areas closed, unmanaged

Santa Cruz Sentinel staff writer

May 30, 2004

DAVENPORT, CA— California State Parks Ranger Todd Allen patrols a 15-mile stretch that runs from the city of Santa Cruz to the north.

That coastal expanse is where the 35-year-old Santa Cruz native has taught kids about sea otters, helped wounded bikers and kept drunks from stumbling through bird nesting sites.

"I’ve had many jobs, and nothing else compares," he said, with a hint of pride in his voice.

But the one problem that Allen admits to about his job — that sometimes there’s just not enough manpower to carry out his mission of safeguarding the parks — is likely to get worse.

Allen’s watch is expected to grow 7 miles in the coming months when the California Department of Parks and Recreation assumes control of the coastal portion of the 7,000-acre Coast Dairies property — six remote beaches, coastal headlands and agricultural lands surrounding the tiny town of Davenport.

"To add any additional burden, I don’t know how we’d handle it," Allen said.

Concern about managing Coast Dairies is part of a larger issue of how State Parks, already gripped by reduced budgets and more visitors, will maintain a glut of new land — much of the land the result of voter-approved bonds that delivered money for acquisitions, but none for operations.


Coast Dairies is among at least a half-dozen major properties in Santa Cruz County that were recently or soon will be acquired by State Parks, and remain without adequate funds to manage.

Park managers say it takes more than Mother Nature to run a park — a reality that bodes poorly for the newly acquired local properties. At stake, park managers say, are issues ranging from the quality of visitor services to the conditions of natural and cultural resources.

"You have to manage areas, particularly where there’s public access. You can’t simply leave the gate open," said Brian Steen, executive director of the Silicon Valley-based land trust Sempervirens Fund, which is in the process of securing new land for the county’s Castle Rock State Park.

At the Castle Rock property, riparian habitat along the San Lorenzo River, necessary for maintaining runs of federally protected steelhead, lay vulnerable to human activities.

At State Parks’ recently acquired Castro Adobe outside Watsonville, structural deficiencies have some people thinking that the historic building will topple with the slightest seismic movement unless immediate restoration work is done.

Lacking immediate funds to address these and other issues, park managers in the Santa Cruz district say they’ve been forced to backlog virtually all upkeep of new lands and, in some cases, close off land to the public altogether. Park managers say much of the same should be expected with pending acquisitions, unless more money comes in, which is not likely.

The 400 seaside acres of Coast Dairies, after its planned addition to Wilder Ranch State Park, likely will be mostly unattended to by rangers and maintenance staff; park managers anticipate a "bare-bones operation."

Also near Wilder Ranch State Park, the 950-acre Scaroni property, which came into the hands of State Parks in 1999, remains closed to the public; park managers say they are without money for parking facilities or trail improvements, needed before opening the land.

The Castro Adobe, on Old Adobe Road, which was transferred to state parks ownership last year, also remains closed to the public, "pending planning, facility development and staffing," according to a State Parks Web site.

Adjacent to Castle Rock State Park, the 1,050-acre headwaters of the San Lorenzo River, also known as Waterman Gap, is expected to be turned over to State Parks this year; no management strategy or funding has yet been provided.

Next to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, a 300-acre parcel, known as the Sand Hill property, is also due to be transferred to State Parks this year; no state funding has been approved there either.

The Pigeon Point Lighthouse is expected to be transferred to State Parks ownership as well. While the lighthouse grounds will remain open to the public, the light station will remain closed until necessary repair work can be funded.
Even with these and other challenges facing park managers, few are calling the windfall of new land a bad thing.

"We have to buy up land when the opportunity is there," said Mary Menees of the Trust for Public Land which bought Coast Dairies in 1998, with the intent of transferring it to State Parks. "Such opportunities may never again present themselves."

Menees and others hope that state lawmakers can work out the financial details of managing lands as it becomes necessary.

And rangers like Allen, despite their increasing workload, remain determined to do their job.

"There have been tight times before. We’ll find a way to get through this," he said, adding that the new properties will survive even if park patrols let up for a while.

State officials say a combination of higher visitor fees, new sources of revenue and scaled-back services, at least in the short term, will enable State Parks to regain its footing eventually and accommodate a larger, more diverse system.

Falling behind
Since 1996, California voters have approved five ballot measures allotting more than $11 billion for various park and environmental improvements, including nearly $3 billion for land acquisitions.

Also bringing new land into the State Parks system were a number of nonprofit land trusts whose purses swelled during the dot-com boom, allowing them to pick up unprecedented amounts of property. Only recently has much of the new land begun transferring to the state.

But while generous funding has come for land purchases, little money has been set aside for its management, notably for personnel costs.

"People want the preservation, but we haven’t found an adequate way to support it," acknowledged Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz.

Hiring freezes and tight budgets have made it difficult for the state legislators to free up the operational money needed with the park bonds, Laird said.

At the same time, the economic downturn has forced State Parks to cut back. The entire department, which consists of more than 270 park units, underwent a cost-cutting plan to consolidate 23 statewide districts into 18 — a downsizing begun under Gov. Gray Davis and hastened under his successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Starting this year, the Santa Cruz district, once managing parks only within the county, became responsible for parks in San Mateo County as well, but with no commensurate increase in staffing.

"We went from 15 units to 30 units overnight," explained Santa Cruz parks Superintendent Dave Vincent, adding that the number of employees on his payroll dropped from 135 to 125.

And making matters worse, Vincent said, many positions on the abridged payroll remain unfilled as the district heads into the busy summer season; at least eight ranger and lifeguard positions and "a handful" of maintenance positions are open, due to hiring freezes and difficulty attracting employees to the high-cost area.

This comes on top of an anticipated spike in the number of visitors. Santa Cruz County parks saw about 15 percent more traffic during the past two years, a number expected to rise, he said.

Vincent said he will get by with the personnel he has, but the lack of staffing won’t be without consequence. He asks park visitors to have patience with the repercussions, which will include:

Reduced ranger presence on county lands, fewer lifeguards monitoring beaches and virtually no patrols on at least three major properties. (The Sentinel is not listing the unpatrolled properties at the request of park officials who feared publication would lead to problems like illegal mountain biking and, perhaps, worse.)

Shorter seasons for facilities and campgrounds. While parks like Seacliff State Beach already have closed restrooms at certain times, other parks like Henry Cowell, Manresa State Beach and Portola Redwoods State Park are anticipating closing campgrounds earlier in the year — likely October instead of November or December.

Less housekeeping and deferring maintenance of restrooms, other facilities, trails and roads.
Statewide, State Parks has amassed a deferred maintenance backlog of $1 billion, according to the Environmental Project, a document produced jointly by a number of nonprofit advocacy groups.

State lobbyists and policymakers, aware of the strain that new acquisitions have put on parks, continue to work for a means to pay for park management.

"The state has an obligation to engage in truth in budgeting," said former assemblyman from Santa Cruz Fred Keeley, who authored park measures Propositions 12 and 40 with the expectation that legislators would provide corollary operation funds.

Now executive director of the Planning and Conservation League in Sacramento, Keeley is hoping state budget meetings next month will yield some of the long overdue money for "maintenance and stewardship."

In tight economic times, however, political observers agree it probably will be a matter of preserving park funding in next year’s fiscal budget, not expanding it.

New streams of revenue
Higher park fees, scheduled to take effect in July, are one method state officials plan to raise the money they need to run the park system.

In Santa Cruz County, parks will charge $6 per vehicle up from $5. Some Southern California beaches are expected to charge as much as $14 per car. Meanwhile, camping in Santa Cruz County will average about $20 per night, while high-profile sites with full recreational-vehicle hookups, like at Seacliff, will be $38, up from $23 a night.

State officials anticipate that higher fees will cover a record 40 percent of State Parks’ $290 million operating budget in the coming fiscal year.

The Schwarzenegger administration has said the increased fee revenues are necessary in light of the state’s estimated $14 billion budget deficit.

The only alternative to fee increases, Schwarzenegger officials have said, is closing parks, which they don’t want to do.

State officials have committed to streamlining park services so fees remain as low as possible.

"We’re very interested in keeping costs down so we don’t have to pass along these costs to visitors," said Roy Stearns, spokesperson for the state Department of Parks and Recreation.

The department also has made it clear it’s looking beyond fees and traditional revenue sources to fund management of the park system.

Last month, Schwarzenegger filled the appointment of a newly titled post, "deputy director of partnerships and economic development." The position and the installation of Grace Daniel, a former Gov. Pete Wilson administration employee with strong ties to business, highlights State Parks’ intentions of pursuing joint money-making ventures with the private sector.

Already, state park beaches in Southern California are considering bids from automotive companies willing to exchange vehicles for limited advertising. Chevrolet of General Motors Corp. has done this in the past, and Nissan and Ford are now interested, according to department officials.

"Several car dealerships really like the idea of being the official car on the beach in California," said Stearns.

The practice could extend to Central Coast beaches as well, though it’s not yet certain.

Installing Coke machines at parks is another possibility being mulled to help meet cost constraints, state officials said. So is turning manned entrance stations into parking garage-style toll machines.

Stearns noted that State Parks already relies on dozens of private companies to provide services ranging from reservations to food and gift shops. Introducing more corporate partnerships could help ease the burden on park staff, he said, adding that this would only be done when suitable.

"We’re looking at corporate sponsorship where it fits and where it’s appropriate," said Stearns. "We don’t think that it’s appropriate to name a park ‘XYZ corporation’ park."

Many are concerned that the trend toward privatization will go too far.

"Parks are not a place that should get inundated with advertising," said Randy Widera, executive director of Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, which provides money and staff to local parks.

"I’m worried about our parks being a venue for (advertising) when people, especially here in Santa Cruz, are coming to parks to get away from these things," he said.

District Superintendent Vincent admitted he, too, is concerned about the role of private entities in the park system. But given the current straits, he’s keeping an open mind.

"Maybe it will work," he said.

Kurtis Alexander is the Sunday editor. He can be reached at



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