Environment & Science

California state park closures: Even parks that remain open are in bad shape

The red peaks at Malibu State Park
The red peaks at Malibu State Park
Ilsa Setziol

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Because of a 25 percent cut to its budget, California's Department of Parks and Recreation is planning to close one quarter of all state parks by next summer. While this has upset park advocates, the state parks system faces another serious issue: The parks that will remain open are in need of maintenance.

One of them is Malibu Creek State Park. Its beautiful red peaks, willow-lined streams and oak woodlands have appeared in scores of movies and TV shows, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and MASH.

But under the sunny spotlight of a recent 90-degree day, a close-up reveals the starlet’s beauty is fading.

Not far from Mulholland Highway, a chestnut mare is corralled next to a sagging, white, early 20th century clapboard barn. The tin roof is torn in places, and much of the wooden siding is broken.

"It’s in need of historic evaluation and restoration," says Suzanne Goode, a scientist with California State Parks. "We just do not have the funds to do it."

This barn is just one of thousands of structures where maintenance has been deferred, according to Sara Feldman of the California State Parks Foundation. She says fixing out-of-order restrooms, crumbling buildings, and damaged habitats would cost $1.3 billion — money the state does not have.

"There’s all sorts of things related to infrastructure, sewage treatment, maintaining of trails and roads …that have been deferred and deferred because there isn’t any money for them," says Feldman.

One big problem is that voter-approved bonds that paid to greatly expand the park system in recent years did not include any money for staff or maintenance. On top of that, the Department’s budget keeps getting cut. In the early 1980s, the Parks and Recreation Department spent nearly five dollars per visitor. Today, it’s only three dollars and change. The result is that many parks are not staffed on weekdays, beyond a few rangers who drive around checking on multiple parks. So there is often no one to stop vandals or ensure fees are paid. Pot farms are a persistent problem, and there is increasing damage to the environment.

Walking toward Malibu Creek, State Parks scientist Suzanne Goode points out places where people have repeatedly trekked off trails, creating large patches stripped of vegetation.

"There are so many parks and so many crying needs, I just have to decide to let some things go," she says.

Watching swallows zigzag above Malibu Creek, Goode says and her staff of two struggle to keep invasive plants from destroying local habitat at state parks across L.A. County.

"As I look around me I see a lot nonnative plants, there’s a perennial pepperweed right there, that I constantly have to keep on top of to keep it from spreading and getting worse," says Goode.

While there are plenty of problems in the parks that will stay open, those that close will likely create even more problems.

The State Parks Foundation's Feldman says that illegal activity is a giant concern.

"We are really worried, not just about pot growers, but about meth labs and other drug activity, illegal squatting, hunting, [and] homeless creating camps in parks," says Feldman.

She argues that closing parks is penny wise and pound foolish, because visitor spending in parks and sales tax from nearby businesses add up to a profit for the state.

"It’s estimated for every $1 spent on state parks, $2.35 is returned to the general fund," says Feldman.

The California legislature is considering a bill that would allow nonprofit groups to operate some state parks. But experts say that would not prevent most of the closures. In the meantime, park staff will continue to fight an uphill battle to protect the parks that remain open.