How Budget Cutbacks Are Helping California Parks

The private sector stets up as the state government admits defeat.


For a state that prides itself on innovation and alternative ideas, California remains stuck in a rut of outdated thinking when it comes to the provision of government services. But thanks to budget cutbacks, California officials might be open to some original thinking, as they wrestle with ways to keep open 70 state parks that have been targeted for closure.

California's state government controls 278 parks, with 1.3 million acres of land. While many are run-of-the-mill facilities, others encompass magnificent landscapes. It's no wonder that many people are upset at the prospect of halting public access to these places.

The governor has proposed cutting $22 million from the park budget to help close the state's budget deficit. The parks on the list would be shuttered by July 2012. The closure announcement has resulted in much weeping and gnashing of teeth, as this January statement from the California State Parks Foundation makes clear:

This cut goes too far and must be stopped. It is also a distraction from the fact that the state is in the process, right now, of walking away from 70 parks that it is responsible for stewarding and protecting for all Californians.

The foundation also slammed the governor for "going where no governor has gone before."

The governor is threatening to inflict as much pain on Californians as possible so that they get behind his goal of raising taxes. His message: Everything is cut to the bone and if you don't hike taxes, we're closing your favorite parks and slashing other services.

But an encouraging thing is happening: Foundations, local governments, and private operators are stepping to the plate and coming up with ways to keep these parks open. That's what happens with services that the public really wants—individuals will figure out ways to provide them once the government gets out of the way.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation "is looking seriously at finding people and groups to take over the operation—or at least the funding—of parks slated for closure," reported the Modesto Bee recently. "The agency will hold workshops in five cities in four weeks to teach people how they might be able to swing an operating agreement for one of the 70 parks on the chopping block."

Despite some hysteria, 10 parks have already been dropped from the closure list after local cities have taken them over, or after new parking fees and concession deals were announced. Wealthy donors saved one park in the Bay Area. An existing non-profit group, for instance, will keep the historic governor's mansion in Sacramento open for tours. This is why budget cuts often are good news—they provide opportunities for creative solutions that evade the same old calls for tax hikes.

Consider, also, that the parks budget situation isn't as bad as it might seem. According to a new report from the Legislative Analyst's Office: "The level of funding proposed by the governor for 2012–13 is generally consistent with the levels provided during the past decade. With the exception of 2011–12, when a large amount of bond funds were provided to the parks on a one–time basis, funding for the parks has remained relatively flat since 2006–07."

That hardly is a crisis. But government agencies spend one-time funds as if they are permanent revenue streams, and then they complain about harsh cutbacks rather than manage their budgets responsibly.

Government runs things in a manner typified by the Department of Motor Vehicles. The park system is no different, as government fee structures and spending priorities often are unrelated to market forces or consumer preferences. A privately operated park would never pay its lifeguards more than $200,000 a year in compensation, as is occurring on some public beaches in Orange County.

"Of course, these budgetary problems could be avoided if the state parks were operated by private owners," Nick Sabilla wrote at Reason.com. "Owners could charge visitors a reasonable price to enjoy the parks, which would incentivize conservation and quality service." Private operators already provide concessions and other services at government-owned parks. I once worked for a private contractor that operated an Air Force base, so this isn't some radical, untried notion.

Private operators would follow the directives of the Legislature, and merely operate state-run resources—they wouldn't be selling off parcels or opening new gold mines, as some people have claimed.

Despite a campaign by the Sacramento Bee and others to shame Californians into supporting a park bond (Prop. 21) in 2010, voters were wise enough to say no. The Bee even featured front-page news stories warning of a park crime wave, which amounted to little more than an increase in the number of violations park rangers had issued for beer drinking and trespassing.

Californians should likewise resist the new scare campaigns. For instance, in a January column in the Bee, writer Susan Sward argued that potential park closings say something dark about our moral values: "My visit to the Redwood Campground—now in its early stage of decay—told me that when shuttered parks are left untended, soon enough the structures defining those parks will rot, and there will be nothing at those sites to tell aliens that this was a society that valued nature and spent millions providing parks for its people."

But these parks are not going to rot. My question is what our current system says about our values. If Californians claim to care so much about their beautiful park lands and landscapes, why do we allow them to be under the monopoly control of a government that is incapable of doing practically anything well?

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.