Lucy D'Mot was feeling patriotic last July 4 when she read with dismay about a cost-saving plan to shutter 70 California state parks. The news propelled her on a mission: Focus attention on the doomed parks by visiting them all and blogging about their unique features before the gates shut for good.
From brick Gold-Rush era store fronts near Shasta in the north to Joshua-tree-dotted moonscapes in the south, she has logged nearly 5,000 miles so far in a gold 1996 Toyota Corolla that already had 355,000 of them.
On Tuesday D'Mot visited her 45th park, the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, with her foster dog Roxy in tow. Fourth-graders, dressed in period garb, were preparing for an overnight trip — ooking over a campfire, making candles and weaving baskets.
"How did I not know all of this was here before?" she said. "But a lot of people don't."
The 70 parks on D'Mot's list were chosen by officials for a lack of use coupled with the cost of keeping them open. Yet, even the most remote parks have a regular state presence that keeps them clean and prevents blight, and now the California Department of Parks and Recreation is scrambling before the July closure deadline to enable nonprofits, private business and park lovers to band together and keep parks from falling into disrepair. Deals are already in place to keep nine open, and 23 are in negotiation.
But many more parks are in need of saviors. Last week, week Ruth Coleman, parks advertisement department director, traveled the state, looking for groups to help keep parks open or watch them so they do not fall victim to vandalism or become illegal campgrounds or trash heaps.
"I don't want the public to think that these closed parks won't have damage. If they are not willing to pay the tax dollars to pay for them to stay open, then the parks are going to suffer damage," Coleman said. "This is why we are working so hard to find partners. We need to have people using these parks — the parks need eyes and ears on them to keep them from becoming blighted."
California's 279 state parks are open to everyone, and were set aside to help preserve the best of the Golden State: breathtaking beaches, hardy hikes and relics of history. Shuttering them by July is projected to save the state $11 million this year and another $22 million next.
That amount of savings does not add up to D'Mot, who learned in her travels that $22 million alone was spent seven years ago to renovate the Leland Stanford Mansion in Sacramento—one of the parks now on the closure list. D'Mot did not have the cash to bail the state out, but had her worn Toyota, a blog and a camera."
"I didn't have a few dollars for the parks, but I love to travel and take photos," said D'Mot, a part-time data entry clerk. "When times get tough, you don't have to leave California to have a great time."
So far a diverse collection of groups have come forward to help keep parks open: the National Parks Service, unnamed donors, nonprofits and county and city governments who already operate local parks.
Still, taking over a shuttered state park is not as easy as it sounds, and that's a big reason why more parks on the closure list do not yet have deals. The endeavor requires a management portfolio, superintendents who oversee campgrounds, parking lots and maintenance. Plus the operators have to manage money coming into the park from fees and other business matters.
For the nonprofits and upstart local groups trying to work with the state to take over certain parks, the process has been slow and frustrating. But things have improved, said Jerry Emory, spokesman for the California State Parks Foundation.
"It hasn't been the smoothest process. The (parks department) was never in the business of closing parks, but in some ways they've become the villain," Emory said. "But the budget was not decided by them. They were handed the budget cuts and told to do something to reach the $22 million in cuts."
Before she began her ode to the state parks from her home near Placerville, D'Mot had visited fewer than a dozen in her 57 years, mostly beaches — and only one on the closure list, the Twin Lakes Beach lighthouse in Santa Cruz.
At Shasta State Historic Park, D'Mot discovered a trove of 98 landscapes and portraits by 71 early California artists collected by Mae Helene Bacon Boggs and donated to the state when she died. "What is to become of them?" D'Mot plaintively wrote.
Coleman said she is hopeful negotiations with a local group will keep Shasta Historic Park and its paintings open to the public. If not, the pictures will be moved into a new state warehouse at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento County.
"People don't realize the incredible art collection in Shasta, or expect to find such spectacular fine art in a state park," she said. "It's wonderful thing to stumble upon. It's magical."
In addition to the state's efforts to build public-private partnerships, Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, has introduced AB 1589, which requires all money raised by and for the parks to stay with the parks, and prevents the legislature from reducing the budget by an equivalent amount. The law would also create a vanity license plate for parks and add a tax-form check-off to pay for an annual parks pass.
"The economies of many of our small communities depend on state parks and the millions of visitors they draw every year," said the bill's co-author, Assembly member Wesley Chesbro, D-North Coast.
Meantime, D'Mot and Roxy continue doing their part to ensure people know what's at stake. Her favorite find so far is Castle Craggs State Park north of Redding: "It's like a mini Yosemite with a view like Half Dome," she enthused.