Special Report: State Parks
5:44 pm
Tue July 17, 2012

State Park Scrambles as It Faces Two Week Deadline

It's been a rollercoaster ride for California state parks. A year ago, the Department of Parks and Recreation selected 70 parks to close on July 1st as a result of budget cuts. But operating agreements with private partners have kept 40 of the parks open.

Now it appears all but a handful will stay open, but nobody knows for how long. In the first of a two-part series looking at the state of California's state parks reporter Kathleen Masterson visited one still struggling to stay open.

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It's a sunny Saturday morning, and the regular volunteers are working on the native plants garden they built in Benicia State Recreation Area 14 years ago. Dan Jensen helps to coordinate the volunteers, and combat garden invaders.

"Here's a invasive that's come in and look how it's leaning over this beautiful redbud that's trying to grow. So we will take that right out," says Jensen.

The garden is only a small section of 469-acre park, but it's exemplary of the dedication of people who cherish this public space. The park's rolling hills look out over a turquoise Southhampton bay in Carquinez strait. Many visitors are locals. They come here to jog, walk, bike, fish, or just sit and watch the boats motor by.

"We're struggling to get the word out, and keep everybody excited about protecting this park, says Jensen.

There are signs all over the park, and in downtown Benicia urging people to help save the state recreation area. One biker says she's been jogging or walking with her daughter in this park for more than 20 years.

I'm sad. Way sad. In fact we just stuck 10 bucks in and didn't even park in parking lot.

Other park users say they've written letters to the legislature and to the governor. Still, so far, it's hasn't been enough. Just before July 1st, the park was granted a one-month extension, but it's still facing closure in August.

"Many people would say, well park closure, what does that mean? We're not sure what that means, for SRA. Does that mean simply closing gate, and the state providing no services here, which means no trash pick up and those sorts of things," says Roy Stutzman, a retired community college professor who volunteers for the nonprofit Benicia State Parks Association.

Even though the park hasn't closed YET -- it's already seen cutbacks and their effects.

Just ask Robert Hanna. He's from Roseville and has devoted the last year to saving the 70 parks on the state's closure list, including Benicia. He says even with the park technically still open, "they're still right now experiencing a lot of the graffiti, vandalism, so as can imagine, any hint of closure, it won't take long before people who are out doing wrong things get that message," says Hanna.

Hanna says when he heard about the parks closures a year ago, he knew he had to fight. In addition to a childhood spent exploring some of California's wilderness, he's the great-great grandson of John Muir-- the naturalist often known as the father of national parks.

We hike up a steep grassy hill, gaining a beautiful view of the waves chopping in the bay below. Hanna points out 8-foot diameter holes that have been filled in. He says vandals have figured out where old copper power lines are buried underground.

"And they're digging out 8 to 20 ft sections, all over this place. Old copper that's still, you know the framework that's in the ground right now.

Hanna says with the one ranger here now pared down to a part-time role, it's impossible to keep vandals in check. "Again, you can see some of the graffiti. Litter. Coffee, hair ties. Water bottles, graffiti, graffiti."

"What I don't want to happen is with these press releases that come out, make it seem like this situation is over, we were able to do it. We need to make sure none of these parks are closed in the near future, and then we gotta start working on the long-term funding source," says Hanna.

With only two weeks left, and no agreement in the works, Benicia is an extreme example. But even the 65 parks with 6-month to 5-year extensions still only have short-term solutions, Hanna says.

On that point-- State parks director Ruth Coleman agrees. "We really look at this as reprieve. These aren't saved parks, these are parks that have a reprieve."

Benicia is still hoping for that reprieve.