Anger roils across California over park closure proposal

By Noaki Schwartz
Los Angeles, California (AP) 1-08

Cowboy and social commentator Will Rogers once said that Los Angeles was “a great place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit there.”

Soon the option of visiting the historic state park that was once Rogers’ 31-room ranch house may be out of the question. The estate where Rogers reportedly taught Walt Disney and Spencer Tracy to play polo, is on a list of 48 state parks, beaches and recreation areas that may be closed down to help shore up an anticipated $14.5 billion budget shortfall.

In the state budget proposal released during mid January, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also called for cutting at least half the seasonal lifeguards at state beaches in Orange, San Diego and Santa Cruz counties. These cuts are expected to save an estimated $14.3 million, with the closures completed by June 2009.

The state’s famed park system attracts 79 million visitors a year and ranges from giant redwood vistas along the foggy north coast to iconic deserts to the south. The proposal has outraged conservationists, politicians and many residents who count on taking affordable trips to these places along an increasingly expensive coastline.

“The reality is millions of Californians are going to be shut out of their state parks,” said California State Parks Foundation director of legislation and policy Traci Verardo-Torres.

When Rogers great granddaughter heard what might happen, Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry immediately drove from her home in Bakersfield to Will Rogers State Historic Park in Pacific Palisades. The family donated the estate with all the hiking and riding trails that wind through the Santa Monica Mountains in 1944.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” said Rogers-Etcheverry, also the family spokeswoman. “We’re not going to stand by and let the doors close quietly.”

The state parks department was tasked with coming up with a 10 percent reduction and made their decision based on revenue and visitorship, said parks spokesman Roy Stearns. The resulting plan would close one in every five of state’s 278 parks until there is money to reopen them.

Among those on the list: Del Norte Redwoods State Park, the Governor’s Mansion State Historic Park, State Indian Museum State Historic Park, San Simeon State Park and Topanga State Park. The governor’s office has said some of the parks could be turned over to local governments to operate.

Some were already worried at Sutter’s Fort which sits just two miles west of the state Capitol and made the list. The fort was a key outpost during the 1848 California gold rush that drew dreamers from around the world.

These days, more than 170,000 schoolchildren visit Sutter’s each year, many on overnight trips where they relive the Wild West in the midst of adobe and wooden buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Admission costs $4 for adults and $2 for children over 6 years old.

“This is hallowed ground. Some of the most famous people in American history walked here,” said Steve Beck, coordinator of education programs at Sutter’s Fort.

At Southern California’s Torrey Pines State Beach, some worried about the proposed cuts to lifeguard hours at a beach known for fierce rip tides. The narrow rocky strip of sand hugs the bluffs of the Torrey Pines State Reserve near San Diego and regularly lures entire families on warm weekends.

Michelle Abt of San Diego was walking with her toddler, Jasmine, in her arms. Nearby, a handful of surfers braved the chilly winter water as birds skimmed the bottle-green waves.

“I really like having the lifeguards, especially because she goes in the water,” said Abt.”The undertow is so unpredictable.”

As chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, Assemblyman John Laird was aware of the state’s financial struggles. Even so, he seemed surprised that two of the state parks in his district made the list and another half dozen beaches would have lifeguard cuts.

The grim reality, he said, is when faced with such a shortfall the choice is either make cuts or raise revenues. But raising fees to parks, beaches and other recreation areas, could price out people who are major users of state parks, he said.

“We have six months to take this to the people of California and see what they want us to do,” said Laird, whose district includes parts of Santa Cruz, Monterey and Santa Clara. “There’s a little time, but no good options.”

On the Web: California State Parks

Associated Press Writers Allison Hoffman and Juliet Williams contributed to this report.