Proposition 21 raises questions about California state parks' value, state budget's woes

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Flickr photo courtesy of user docentjoyce

Montana de Oro State Park Bluff Trail.

Voters have brought Proposition 21 to the statewide ballot this fall.

The State Parks and Wildlife Conservation Trust Fund Act would add a charge to most vehicle license fees and dedicate that revenue stream to parks.

Summer appears endless at Malibu Lagoon State Beach – or, as some still call it, Surfriders. Kids learn how to surf on a weekday in September; surfers enjoy the legendary south swells of late summer.

It's one of the Nature Conservancy's Alfredo Gonzalez's 278 favorite state parks – he can't leave out a single property in the system. "It's a world class system we've assembled over generations," Gonzalez says. "From the redwoods in Humboldt county to the southern desert of the Anza Borrego we have some of the most amazing resources here."

In southern California those resources have doubled as Hollywood's back lot and a tourism draw. But a Sacramento Bee investigation found more than a billion dollars worth of deferred repairs in parks, including millions to prevent sewer and water systems from polluting streams and sickening visitors.

Gonzalez says many parks don't meet state and county health codes. "More than half of them are impacted with closures or lack of staff. In some cases we've got safety issues. It's a shame, what we've allowed our state park system to become," says Gonzalez.

The sound of birds in the Malibu Lagoon drifts over the boardwalk where Gonzalez stands.

The Nature Conservancy is one of several groups that wants Prop 21 to create a dedicated funding source for parks through an annual fee tacked onto vehicle registration. The fee would raise about half a billion dollars a year.

Gonzales says that would about double what state parks get now. "Eighteen dollar surcharge, once a year, that would give you free day access to all state parks and beaches," he says, smiling. "Here in Southern California the state beaches are some of the most expensive of all of the state park units. No longer will you have to pay a fee to go to the beach in many of these Southern California coastal areas."

A woman, a surfer, walks past us to the parking lot, her wetsuit loosened, her board covered with salt water and sand.

"Clearly the parks need repair but this is certainly not the way to do it," counters Patrick Dorinson.

Patrick Dorinson calls Proposition 21 a terrible example of ballot box budgeting. Dorinson is a commentator and spokesman for the measure's opponents. He says it's a regressive tax, and while it doesn't include semi trucks or recreational vehicles, it will include commercial vehicles. That includes all the panel trucks and vans used by FedEx or UPS to make deliveries, or Comcast or AT&T to make service calls. So you're going to put another tax on business."

But Heal the Bay's Mark Gold argues that California parks can't wait any longer. His group is one of hundreds that contribute sweat equity to parks around the state, protecting plants and other native species. "A healthy stream not only means a healthy ecosystem, but it also provides much better flood control benefits, pollution control benefits, a wide variety of other benefits that really make up part of the infrastructure of the state of California."

Gold says his group had to give back a $2 million grant for stream restoration at Leo Carillo State Park in Malibu because existing law doesn't allow outsiders to pay for capital improvements on state lands. At Malibu Creek, native plants Heal the Bay volunteers planted have since failed. "State parks didn't have the resources to keep the native plants alive so that volunteers could actually restore the various parts of the state park. So it shows you the complete state of utter chaos and disrepair that our state park system is in."

Patrick Dorinson agrees that the parks need attention. He has an annual pass to Folsom Lake, where he takes his dog each week for a swim. But legislators, he says, can still add parks to the state's system, and they have – a dozen times in the last decade. "Since 2001 we've added a great number of parks to the system and we haven't put the requisite money in the state budget that is needed to fund those parks going forward."

Dorinson points to an editorial against the state parks initiative in the San Francisco Chronicle. Like Dorinson, it argues that lawmakers must take responsibility for fixing the parks system and the entire state budget. "The more you sequester funds, you're not flexible to do the kind of things you need to do. At some point we have to stop what we're doing and find a different path."

The path California voters choose for Proposition 21 will be clear on Election Day in just over five weeks. It may take longer than that to know how state parks will fare with the vote result.

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