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State parks access pass might be key to preventing their closure

June 16, 2009 | 10:29 am

The scene within the walls of Sutter's Fort State Historic Park in Sacramento, where the Mexican flag still flies. The park is slated for closure if state parks funding disappeared.

Those following the issue of funding for California's state parks will note there is bad news but some good news this week.

The bad news: The Budget Conference Committee on Monday afternoon voted to eliminate $70 million in general fund money earmarked for support of the state parks system for the 2009-10 fiscal year.

The good news: The committee also voted to adopt the State Parks Access Pass and create a dedicated funding source to keep parks open. This still needs to be passed by the Legislature, as part of a budget bill, and approved by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But it makes sense. The access pass would place a $15 surcharge on vehicle license fees for noncommercial vehicles. That won't go over well with those who do not like outdoor recreation and have no plans to enter any of California's 279 state parks, beaches and reserves.

But it's a bargain for those who frequent these vast wilderness refuges, as they'd be allowed free day-use access to state parks. More important, it would prevent 220 of these parks from closing and deteriorating to a point where it'd become extremely costly to reopen them.

With the surcharge the general fund would realize an estimated savings of about $143 million annually.

Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, declared in a news release: "At a time when the state desperately needs to generate revenues for many other critical state services, it makes sense to keep state parks open and available for the public. The Committee recognized that closing state parks won't save money, it will cost the state dearly."

Goldstein cited a Cal State Sacramento study that found park users spend an average of $57.63 per visit and, across the state parks system, generate more than $4.2 billion in positive economic effects.

-- Pete Thomas

Photo: The scene within the walls of Sutter's Fort State Historic Park in Sacramento, where the Mexican flag still flies. The park is slated for closure if state parks funding disappeared. Credit: Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times

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