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President of the Will Rodgers Polo Club Andrew Bossom (right) practices with his brother-in-law Hal Horton at the Will Rodgers Polo field on Friday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

WILMONT — As hundreds of hikers head out to their favorite trails this weekend, they would be wise to stop and smell the roses, or whatever foliage is around, for the hike could be their last — in the state park that is.

Faced with devastating budget cuts totaling $53.6 million, the California Department of Parks and Recreation is being forced to close or reduce services at state parks, with some state officials estimating that 100 parks will be off limits to visitors.

The bad news for nature lovers is expected to come soon after Labor Day, with officials looking at key factors such as the number of visitors and revenue generated to determine which parks to close.

In response, State Sen. Fran Pavley (D- Santa Monica), the chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water, held an informational hearing Friday at the First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica to solicit ideas from the public on how to protect the parks by developing “sustainable” funding sources instead of relying on the erratic general fund.

“A resource that we love and treasure is at risk,” said Pavley, who reminded the roughly 50 people who attended the hearing that each Californian is technically an owner of the state parks system. “State parks are always on the hit list [during budget discussions]. … It is difficult [to find funding when] you are competing against limited resources.”

Pavley called on the public to “think outside the box” to find funding solutions that can work in the short term — around two to three years — to bridge the gap, during which time more long-term measures can be developed. Hopefully the economy can rebound in that time as well to lessen the blow, but there are no guarantees, Pavley added.

How we got here

There are 278 parks within the state system, encompassing 1.5 million acres with 75 to 80 million visitors each year, and 2,400 permanent and 5,700 seasonal employees. Some parks are so large they can be classified as small cities with sanitation systems and public safety personnel. There are also educational programs for youth, said Michael Harris, the acting chief deputy director for the parks department.

Maintaining those acres and providing those programs costs a considerable amount of money, money that has been cut because of the massive budget deficit. Harris estimates that the parks department has lost more than 20 percent of its operating budget. Tobacco tax revenue has been cut and no inflation adjustment offered. Furloughs have forced parks to close on certain days, reducing revenue from visitors.

“You can imagine what a 20 percent reduction in your household finances means,” Harris said. “Over the last 30 years, parks went from being 100 percent funded by the general fund to 45 to 50 percent, with the remainder coming from user fees. … We have to compete with health care, education and corrections. Our chronic needs regularly lose out … .

“As a result, we find ourselves in the position we are in today.”

Locally that could mean the closure of Will Rogers, Topanga and Malibu Creek state parks.

“I have received more correspondence [from constituents] on state parks than any other issue, bar none,” said State Assemblymember Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), who also attended the hearing. “That underscores how Californians feel about these wonderful natural resources.”

The fear

If a sustainable funding solution is not realized, conservationists fear parks could become the victims of vandals or drug cartels looking to grow marijuana. Fires could become more common and historical and cultural resources could be damaged, warned Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and enhancing the state parks system.

With the economy struggling and family budgets constrained, more Californians are flocking to state parks for vacations and recreation, which makes it even more imperative to finding a solution to the funding shortfall, Goldstein said.

“Closing these parks will add another obstacle for California families already struggling with tough economic times,” she said.

Closing the parks will not save money, Goldstein added. It will cost the state money from reduced revenue from visitors.

Pavley said the recent election in which voters defeated several budget measures proposed by the governor gave some state officials the idea that voters were not willing to spend money, leaving lawmakers with only one option — to make cuts. A proposal to add a $15 fee to annual vehicle registrations to raise money to run the parks was rejected by the governor. The measure could have generated over $400 million, Pavley and Harris said.

Paul Rathje of the Topanga Canyon Docents is worried that if parks are closed, private developers would put more pressure on the state to sell public land to close the deficit.

There is some good news, at least locally. Woody Smeck, district superintendent for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area said he is close to finalizing a deal to essentially transfer roughly $3 million in federal funds to the state to keep state ranger stations open within the national recreation area.

Options to consider

While the money from Washington is welcomed, state officials cannot count on their federal partners to get them out of the red. To do so, the state may have to rely more on corporate sponsorships or turn operations of some parks over to private companies such as the California Land Management Co., whose president, Eric Mart, attended the hearing.

Mart said his company does look to make a profit, but only in the 5 percent range, knowing that park operations do not create much business. He said private companies in general are more responsive to customer complaints and suggestions and doesn’t believe most visitors even know the difference between public and private, just as long as the facilities are clean and safe.

State officials have already begun a major fundraising effort, reaching out to donors. But corporate sponsorship will be pursued aggressively, said Tony Perez, deputy director of park operations for the parks department, who is in charge of selecting which parks to close. Perez said corporate sponsorship will be done tastefully.

“We are not talking about renaming or turning over ownership,” Perez said.

Nonprofits could also be the answer. Partnering with these organizations can increase fundraising as well as the number of volunteers. Talented board members can also use their expertise to cut costs, such as an architect donating time to design plans for new restrooms or a visitor’s center.

“I am a strong believer in the parks system as it is,” said Jarrell Jackman, executive director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit that protects historic sites in Santa Barbara County. “I don’t see nonprofits encroaching or taking over. They are there for support.”

Other ideas included creating a walk-in pass for those who do not drive into a state park, but enter through a backyard or other location.

“The important thing is to make sure that no one community feels like it is being singled out when it comes time to announce the closures,” Rathje said.