Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Take A Walk on the Wilder Side: Wilder Ranch State Park has 7,000 acres and 34 miles of trails that require upkeep.
The Parks Issue
Our guide to state parks in Santa Cruz County—why they're underfunded, why we love them anyway.
By Steve Hahn
When Miles Standish decided to pursue a career in the California State Parks system in 1968, he was looking forward to a life of sharing his passion for the natural and cultural history of California. Nature hikes, campfire history lessons, casual conversations with visitors and educational lectures at local schools all presented a perfect opportunity for Standish to impart his extensive knowledge and love of the natural sciences to the public.
In the last decade Standish, who was transferred to Castle Rock State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1980, has seen his job description change substantially. The old days of leisurely, drawn-out lectures on the redwood and Douglas fir tree forests and strange rock formations found at the park are gone. With the original ranger complement of five reduced to two, the permanent maintenance worker gone, and Portola State Park added to his management area, Standish now spends most of his work day figuring out which repairs he'll make with limited funds, cleaning bathrooms, collecting trash and occasionally even dueling armed drug manufacturers hiding out in the woods.
"If you stop and think about it, a park is like a small city," Standish says. "People come in on the weekends, and you can have a campground of 250 campsites. You can have domestic violence, murder and rapes. Here at Castle Rock, we have to handle everything a city would, only with a lot less personnel."
Relief for rangers like Standish is slow in coming. In the 2006 California budget, a $250 million dollar allotment from the General Fund was transferred to the Parks Department so it could begin chipping away at its $1 billion maintenance backlog over the next six years. It finally looked like crucial projects such as drilling new wells, stabilizing trail systems and retrofitting historic buildings could be carried out in the park system's nearly 1.4 million acres.
However, complications quickly surfaced. During this year's contentious budget hearings, $160 million of this onetime allocation was redirected back to the General Fund for services with guaranteed minimum funding levels, such as education. The Parks Department was left with only $90 million for dealing with the maintenance backlog between 2006 and 2012, in addition to its normal annual operating budget of $67 million.
State Sen, Joe Simitian (D-Santa Cruz) is one of the legislators who pushed for funding to draw down the backlog. He believes funding to "whittle away" at the deferred maintenance backlog needs to be sustained before buildings, trails, and water infrastructure face further deterioration."It's like if around your house or apartment you let something go, figuring you'll save a few bucks, then the next year the problem is worse and more expensive than if you'd have taken care of it when you should have," he says. "That's true for our state parks as well. With every year the problems get worse and the bill grow larger."For Santa Cruz County, the most recent allocation means some big-ticket projects will be completed and quite a few more will get off the ground. However, park supervisors say there are still a number of projects that won't find funding sources this year—or next or next.Bill Dahl is superintendent for the Santa Cruz Mountain District, which includes the Big Basin, Castle Rock, Aņo Nuevo, Rancho Del Oso, Henry Cowell and Fall Creek parks. He says the over $4 million coming into his district will help with critical projects including repairing the Sempervirens Dam in Big Basin, installing new water wells in Rancho Del Oso and Aņo Nuevo, fighting invasive species and replacing old water lines. Some other minor fixes, such as building and bathroom repairs, may have to be put on the back burner again until more money is freed up.
"What we're looking at is that this is a start," says Dahl. "There still is a tremendous backlog and that's what the governor, legislature and our director have all been working on. We're very grateful for what we got."Meanwhile the coastal parks and beaches, supervised by Kirk Lingenfelter, have a number of repairs that should be wrapped up this year with money from the deferred maintenance allocation and previous funding. The coastal section includes Wilder Ranch, Nisene Marks and all state beaches in the county. While Lingenfelter hasn't received the details of his district's funding this year, he was able to report that a newly retrofitted historic Meder Home on Wilder Ranch will be opened to the public within the next few months, and that the septic systems in the historic Victorians will be refurbished, allowing public access. On the beaches, Lingenfelter hopes to get to work rebuilding the seawall at Seacliff beach if enough funding comes through this year.
"We have a wide variety of projects that are yet to be funded through the deferred maintenance program," he says. "Those are projects that certainly can't be funded out of our annual operating budget."
The budget situation is further complicated by limits on how certain funds can be spent. For instance, bond measures, such as the $2.1 billion allocation approved through Prop. 12 in March 2000, can only be used for capital expenditures. In other words, this money can only go toward building new infrastructure, such as a road, bathroom or visitor's center. Repairs to existing buildings or infrastructure have to be taken from other funding sources or added to the backlog. Similarly, other funds, such as the $30 million (later cut by the governor to $15 million) approved by voters when they passed Prop. 84 in 2006, can only be used to acquire new parcels adjacent to existing parks."We now actually have the state thinking twice about acquiring new parcels because they're not sure they're in a position to buy with an existing maintenance backlog and decreased staff," says Simitian. "Along the coast, for example, even when great groups like Peninsula Open Space Trust or Sempervirens pitch in to help, the reaction they sometimes get from the state is, 'Gee, we're not sure we can take that off your hands because of the costs associated with maintaining and staffing it.'"Tight budgets, staff shortages and a growing management area are not the only problems that have crept into the state park system over the last few years. Law enforcement has also become a higher priority for park rangers. The presence of portable methamphetamine labs, marijuana plantations and other covert illegal activity has required rangers such as Standish to delve into potentially dangerous situations on a more regular basis.
"I am out here dealing with this all by myself. Local law enforcement would never dream of coming out here all by themselves, but that's what we have to do," says Standish. "But, I also look at meth labs and marijuana fields as a resource protection issue. What really impacts us is when people dump a lot of hazardous materials that harms the environment. We then have to go through a lot of effort to clean it up."Consistent funding to hire more rangers and repair the infrastructure that allows citizens to visit the parks may ease the various challenges facing California's parks system, but it's unclear to Simitian whether the good old days of waltzing into a park for free will ever return. That, he says, is perhaps the saddest part of the funding shortage story.
"Whenever you start to impose use fees, the sector of society that is left behind is the sector that is the most desperate for a little respite," he says. "These parks and forests are God's great gift to our planet and our state. As a kid we went camping because it was one of the few things that was affordable. So while six bucks to park the car might seem a modest fee to a middle class family, to someone from a lower income household, that's six bucks they may not have."
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