No Relief for Stewardship Crisis in California State Parks

By
Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

This historic photo is of a “lost” vehicle at Tolowa Dunes State Park

As the year 2011 starts to draw to a close, the stewardship crisis in the California State Parks System is clearly becoming more acute. The disastrous plan to close specific park units, including a disproportionate number of parks in Northwest California, continues to unfold without any promise of relief, while many other park units not on the closure list face dire conservation threats. Maintenance backlogs continue to pile up through out the system, and there are concerns that the current budget cuts and lack of investment in the Department of Parks and Recreation is going to cause long-term damage to the capacity of parks administration to carry out their obligation to care properly for these natural jewels of global importance.

To respond to this crisis, the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) is steadily developing an agile and aggressive State Parks Defense Project as part of our Public Lands Program. The contribution that EPIC is making to the broad community of citizens and organizations that oppose the misguided and inappropriate California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) Highway 101 development proposal for Richardson Grove State Park is, without question, our flagship State Park Defense initiative. In conjunction with this important litigation to defend the ancient redwoods in Richardson Grove, EPIC has embarked upon a series of strategies designed to address specific conservation threats to parks through out our region. The following is a brief overview of our assessment and lines of action on a few issues concerning the state parks stewardship crisis.

Richardson Grove State Park and Jedediah Smith State Park

EPIC is positioned to succeed in our legal challenge to the Caltrans Highway 101 widening proposal for RIchardson Grove State Park. The Preliminary Injunction secured in federal court against Caltrans on their Richardson Grove proposal remains in effect until the hearing for summary judgement, which is scheduled for February 23, 2012. Staff and attorneys for EPIC are working hard to prepare briefings and fully develop arguments for this legal strategy, as well as make headway on parallel political and media strategies. We ask members and supporters of EPIC to anticipate the new letter writing actions and public education efforts that will be rolled out in the coming weeks and months. We are excited to put the Richardson Grove issue in the spotlight again, especially as we enter 2012 and get closer to the late February hearing date.

At the same time, our ongoing research confirms that the Caltrans proposal for widening Highway 199/197 through Jedediah Smith State Park threatens the ancient redwoods in that park to a greater degree than in Richardson Grove. We are monitoring that proposal closely, and we are intent on being sure that Caltrans gets the message from our defense of Richardson Grove: Hands Off Our Ancient Redwoods!

State Legislative Hearing Highlights Incompetence in State Park Closure Plan

On November 1 there was a joint legislative hearing by the Assembly Committee for Water, Parks, and Wildlife and the Assembly Committee for Accountability and Administrative Review. During this hearing state legislators had a chance to question representatives of the Department of Parks and Recreation, the agency that is charged with the stewardship of the California State Park System. One predictable result of the hearing has confirmed what EPIC has been saying since the park closure plan was first announced: there is undeniable evidence that park leadership failed in their responsibility to design a coherent and viable formula for the proposed closures. The stunning lack of methodology, the absence of transparency, and the essentially arbitrary and capricious nature of the establishment of the plan for park closure and the list of parks to be closed is shameful, and reflects poorly on Governor Jerry Brown, whose environmental legacy will be written upon the vandalized walls of bathrooms in closed parks across the state.

Interestingly enough, it took six months for the state legislature to come to the same conclusion about the incoherent parks closure plan that EPIC had stated publicly upon first glance. With total confidence that EPIC’s  membership is in strong support of our demand that the California State Park System must be provided the robust public funding that such valuable and irreplaceable ecological and economical assets merit, we will continue to pursue political strategies that do more than bemoan the tragedy of the park closures, but rather generate leverage and momentum to halt any further closures and begin to reverse this tragic course.

Huffman Bill Becomes Law

One of the most celebrated rescue packages for the parks slated for closure is Assembly Bill 42, sponsored by Marin Assemblymember Jared Huffman, which provides legal structure for certain not-for-profit organizations to enter into agreements with the state to assist in the management of park units that are slated for closure. This is clearly an important emergency response that may work smoothly for a few park units, and EPIC is comfortable in seeing this tool used as a short term solution to bridge the stewardship gap presented by the ill-conceived closure plan. There are, however, some very serious dangers present in this bill, and we are concerned about the passivity of decision makers and mainstream environmental interests to settle so easily and rapidly for a solution that for all intents and purposes is a first step towards the privatization of our state parks. Even proponents admit that this strategy will not provide any relief for many of the park units threatened by the increased off-road vehicle use, vandalism, timber theft, poaching, indiscriminate cannabis cultivation, and facilities deterioration that will result from closure. We also have serious reservations about the drain that this type of solution will have on an already severely stressed not-for-profit sector in rural California. EPIC will monitor the implementation and the ramifications of this law closely, as well as pursue appropriate collaboration and consultation with local organizations that do endeavor to step up to the plate for their local parks and do the hard work in safeguarding public assets that the State of California is now shirking.

State Parks Promises to Curb Off-Highway Vehicle Use at Tolowa Dunes

It is important to celebrate our successes this year in defending the natural treasures of our state parks. In particular, EPIC has had excellent success this year in efforts to influence conservation management of the Tolowa Dunes State Park. We succeeded this summer in finally getting the parks administration to terminate an illegal grazing permit, and we have had positive engagement with the park administration that promises to lead to greater enforcement of prohibitions against off-highway vehicle use on the beach and the dunes of Tolowa Dunes. EPIC stands by our position that OHV users have multitudes of locales to pursue their motor sports, yet rare and endangered species like the snowy plover only have so many places to call home. Our message is that off-highway vehicle use is totally inappropriate in Tolowa Dunes State Park. We will continue to work to end inappropriate OHV activity at Tolowa Dunes, and other park units threatened by this activity, and we welcome the conservation oriented management changes by the state parks administration that are an important step towards this objective.

Does this Dark Cloud Have a Silver Lining?

Unfortunately, the list of parks that are on our State Park Defense Project radar screen is tending to get longer, and not shorter. Both up and down stream on the South Fork of the Eel River from Richardson Grove State Park are Benbow Lake and Standish Hickey State Recreations Areas, which are both facing uncertain futures and closure. Our research on the planned closure of Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park has revealed severe inconsistencies between the conservation promise of the famed (and expensive!) Headwaters Deal and the current closure plan. The use of toxic pesticides for ineffective control of invasive species has been a concern at Humboldt Redwoods State Park, as is a proposal by Caltrans to build four new bridges over key fish bearing streams along the Avenue of the Giants. Destructive vehicle use at Usal Beach in the Sinkyone State Wilderness continues to be a major conservation problem at that remote spot. And the economic impacts of the closure of several of the Mendocino Coast parks have also been largely ignored. Responding to these threats, and more, are making up the body of EPIC’s State Park Defense Project as we head into 2012.

Regardless of the challenges present in responding to the current stewardship crisis in our state parks, we at EPIC have come to the conclusion that it is possible that the closure threat and emergency in our redwood parks is what is most needed to get citizens in Northwest California to begin to fully appreciate the profound and immense economic, educational, recreational, and environmental values of our state park system. Once these values are celebrated and held in common by our community it will be a natural step to demand of our political representatives a forward thinking action plan that will have the objective of protecting and preserving our state parks for the future generations. EPIC will be working on these issues strongly in 2012, and we are excited to be a strong voice for our community and our members to demand long-lasting solutions to these problems. Stay tuned for an exciting series of actions in our State Parks Defense Project in the coming year!