State Parks Crisis
9:00 am
Tue July 24, 2012

Future of Mariposa Museum Still In Doubt

The Fricot Nugget, and the rest of the State Gem and Mineral Collection may soon be packed up and stored away, with the potential closure of the State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa.
Credit Joe Moore / Valley Public Radio

Randy Bolt has a passion for rocks. Well, not just rocks, but gems and minerals too. He's a historic guide at California's Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa. 

He can tell you about the state's official gemstone, "which most people have never even heard of, which is actually one of the rarest  gems in the world, it's called Benitoite, named after San Benito Creek."

Or he can tell you about the history of the world-famous nugget from the California Gold Rush that is nearly the size of a basketball.

"Our Fricot Nugget is one of the world's most famous existing gold specimens anywhere. Partly because of its quality and beauty and size, but also because it actually survived the 1800's. The idea that would you put a piece of gold on a shelf as a piece of art was pretty dumb in those days, the quicker you melted it the better."

Randy knows the state's official state gem and mineral collection better than perhaps anyone around. But these days, he and the other two remaining staff members at the museum are spending much of their time packing up the collection, considered one of the finest in the world, getting ready to put it in storage, off public display for the first time in over 130 years.

Bolt says it's a sad time. "It's very hard to do packing, it's literally like preparing one of your relatives to be going off to prison or something."

That's because this museum, operated by the California Department of Parks and Recreation is among those expected to close this year, thanks to severe budget cuts at the state level. Funding for the state parks system has dropped by 43 percent since 2006,  and took a $22 million cut this year alone. In all, some 70 parks were expected to close this year, although the vast majority of them have reached agreements with non-profit groups or concessionaires that will keep them open for the time being.

But according to Curator Darci Moore, the State Mining and Mineral Museum, which is one of the few state park facilities in Central California, hasn't been so fortunate. "We've sort of made the list of the one of five, where there's no agreement, no concession and no donor," says Moore.

The other four parks that don't have a new funding source are Benicia State Recreation Area, Gray Whale Cove State Beach, Providence Mountains State Recreation Area and Zmudowski State Beach.

And just like those other parks, the Museum was told its final day would be July 1, 2012. "Unfortunately, it just comes down to dollars and cents and if we don't have the money to operate the facility we can't operate it," says Moore.

But now, three weeks into the next fiscal year, the museum is still open, but it hasn't been granted an official reprieve either. So what happened?

The State Mining and Mineral Museum is located on Highway 49 in Mariposa.
Credit Joe Moore / Valley Public Radio

"When the Governor signed the budget, there was around $10 million budget was allocated to state parks that we didn't expect to have allocated to us but there's contingencies and stings attached to some of those moneys. So we were kind of told to hold off on closing until they could kind of figure out how that $10 million would actually break down, and if it would make a difference to the closures ultimately or not," said Moore.

The future for parks like the Mining and Mineral Museum grew even more uncertain last Friday, with the surprise resignation of Parks Director Ruth Coleman, after the revelation that the Parks Department had $54 million in two accounts that had gone unreported for over a decade to the state Department of Finance.

Some have suggested that the this newly identified money might help save parks slated to close, but others, who support Governor Brown's November tax initiative, worry that this possible case of fiscal mismanagement could alienate voters, and wind up reducing the chances of the tax bill's passage.

"I imagine it is probably adding to the question of what's the future of parks. And it certainly is making things confusing for sure," said Moore.

California has the largest state park system in the nation, with 278 parks covering over 1.4 million acres of land. Together they attract around 70 million visitors a year. But the state's chronic budget problems have resulted in reduced hours, closed campgrounds and a deferred maintenance bill in excess of $1.5 billion. 

Over the years, there have been a number of efforts by parks supporters to try to provide the system a more stable revenue stream. The most notable came in 2010, when California voters rejected Proposition 21, which would have instituted an $18 vehicle license fee, that would have raised $500 million a year to fund the system. 

Now with the revelation that millions of dollars have sat unused and apparently unaccounted for, many parks supporters are upset. They include Ron Iudice, the President of the California Mining and Mineral Museum Association, a non-profit group that runs the museum's gift shop and provides it with financial support. 

"I was very disappointed. I expected more from state parks. For them for the last three years, telling us they're broke and then all of a sudden there's this money that they've been hiding, it's just very disappointing," says Iudice. 

Over the past few months his organization had been working with Parks Department on a possible solution that would keep the museum open. But according to Iudice, the unique nature of the museum and its priceless collection made it impossible to come to an agreement. 

"They wanted us to insure their collection, yet we couldn't really put a value on the collection and it really never went anywhere. We tried negotiating back and forth, but in order for us to insure that collection, it's not even our property, it belongs to the state. It's current self insured. Our association in the past has run the Mineral Museum before state parks took over, but state parks has really fierce guidelines to follow and it's just something that I don't think we're prepared to do," said Iudice.

He says in the big picture, the $80,000 a year that would be needed to keep the museum open at the minimum staffing level is a small amount.

"When you really look at the budget for state parks, I heard one of the rangers reference it as budget dust." - Ron Iudice

"When you really look at the budget for state parks, I heard one of the rangers reference it as budget dust. It's like one tenth of one percent of our state budget goes to state parks, and state parks are one of our biggest natural resources in California. They vow to protect this land and all the assets and all the collections and they're dropping the ball. It really is a heritage for our kids and grandchildren, and to handle it the way they've been handling it is very irresponsible. "

And if the museum does close, it's that next generation, California's fourth graders who travel to the museum to learn about science and California history who may be the hardest hit. 

A hands-on exhibit at the Mining and Mineral Museum is popular with California school children.
Credit Joe Moore / Valley Public Radio

"I think the the big loss is going to be to the 10,000 school children who visit the museum every year. They get bussed up from all over the valley. They come up here and they not only see our Mineral Museum, but they also come up and see our [Mariposa] history center. So they can pack in two field trips in one day and make it worth while. So that's going to be the loss, the educational aspect of this," says Iudice.

Right now the sad task of packing up one of the finest gem and mineral collections in the world continues. "It's a very long process because we have over 14,000 specimens in the collection and so each specimen has to be assessed and individually packed. And so we've gotten about two galleries done, of the specimens that are in the cabinets. We're leaving the specimens that are on display, on display, until the last, so that if close we'll pack those last, so at close at least people have something to look at in the interim," says Moore.

But despite the constant uncertainty and the threat of closure, Randy Bolt remains optimistic. "The state has said we can't afford all the parks. If your local people can support your local park and make up the difference we'll work with you. So I think that's what the foot dragging on actual closures is about, it's to maximize every possible day for local people to rally behind their local parks."

Whether the community comes to the museum's support, or additional funding is found from Sacramento, at least for now, the museum remains open, with reduced hours, a reminder not only of California's rich gold country history, but also of the Golden State's current financial and governance woes. 

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