The state of our California State Parks is heartbreakingly sad. Our state’s natural, cultural, and historic treasures are in a state of limbo and neglect by both Sacramento and voters. Not many seem to value the obvious fact that not only is it important culturally to preserve and share these parks with visitors as well as our own citizens, but they’re also an integral part of driving funds into the communities around the parks and generating tax revenue for the broken system of governance in Sacramento.
This must be a demoralizing time to work for our parks, watching the very system that is supposed to perpetuate the existence and support of our parks unravel and fray, while daily, it gets more difficult to know who’s to blame.
Do we blame voters who could have voted to pay less than $20 per year into a dedicated fund to keep California State Parks open and functional? Or do we blame folks in Sacramento, like California State Parks Director Ruth Coleman who resigned after $54 million or so in state park funds was found hidden away? Coleman wasn’t stealing the funds, just squirreling them away, presumably for a rainy day. The problem was, the rainy day was clearly here, the parks were broke, and still, the funds remained hidden.
In the case of Mitchell Caverns and the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, it’s just too damned late to bother trying to figure out who to blame. Since their closure over a year ago, precisely what I predicted would come to pass has, well, come to pass. It was obvious during discussions about state park closures that if one was doing so to save money during fiscal hard times, then one needed to do so with the understanding that they would probably never re-open.
These aren’t your neighborhood dog park or a generic city park. They are distinctly unique parks with a long, involved history, unusual natural features, and historic facilities. When you close them, you lose a significant valuable asset: the people who know them best.
Yes, you may lock the gate at the entrance, and board up the doors and windows (though unfortunately that doesn’t always happen), but the people who have spent years, often decades, of their lives learning the particular nuances and details of a park, are turned out, and that knowledge—knowledge we citizens of California paid to obtain—is lost.
We’re not just talking about cultural or historical information here, which is the lifeblood of a people’s identity (if you value your citizens having some sense of shared identity, that is, which is another discussion), but practical knowledge about the condition of facilities, the history of maintenance (or deferred maintenance, as is often the case), the operating particulars of water or septic systems, where things are located, road conditions, weather impacts, seasonal changes, visitor preferences.
The loss of all this information and those who know it inside and out is enormous. Combine that with decaying park infrastructure, lack of maintenance, weather and pest damage, and human vandalism, and you’ve run up a bill that makes reopening these parks intimidatingly expensive.
Close a park and it likely stays closed then, barring one thing: innovative, resourceful, driven people who passionately want to keep that park open.
A prime example of what can happen to a closed state park is that of the desert’s own Mitchell Caverns. (The robbery of the California State Mining & Mineral Museum in Mariposa recently is also a fine example of the mess state parks are in now. The museum was robbed, possibly of as much as $2 million in gold and gemstones, while in a state of limbo. Slated to close, the museum had stayed open as the mysterious $54 million had been disclosed and its fate had been thrown up in the air.)
This remote CSP outpost located within the Mojave National Preserve (Chris Clarke’s got a great story with KCET about how Representative Jerry Lewis is partially responsible for setting up the scenario for this disaster), closed more than a year ago when a change in rangers was slated to occur as the two rangers there retired, and costly repairs to the water system became necessary. Instead of stationing new rangers on site and fixing the water system, California State Parks closed the park indefinitely, something that can only be deemed criminally negligent knowing now that funds were, in fact, available.
After closure of Mitchell Caverns, vandals descended. The visitors center was trashed, display cases and windows smashed, doors ripped off hinges, anything metal stolen to be sold as scrap. Generators, radios, and other equipment was stolen, along with copper wiring. The damage and loss was estimated at $100,000 and the Mitchell family legacy was betrayed.
So we’ve lost the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area and partially closed facilities such as the Salton Sea State Recreation Area remain open due to the dedication and support of the community. But California’s largest state park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, while it remains “open,” proves just how misleading that statement can be.
While many visitors may breathe a sigh of relief that Anza-Borrego remains open, most may not know that the only reason the park’s visitor center remains open is due to the dedication of the Anza-Borrego Foundation, a nonprofit association that has impressively rallied its members to support park operations, as well as acquire inholdings and other relevant land, supports re- search and education, and operates the Anza-Borrego Institute.
In 2008, Anza-Borrego had an annual operating budget of just over $2 million to oversee 650,000 acres of park lands and facilities, with about a dozen rangers, 10 maintenance staff, and half a dozen uniformed campground staff. At that level, maintenance was deferred due to lack of funds, and now stands at more than $6 million. The annual budget is in its second year of being under $600,000, with 10 rangers, four maintenance staff, and a couple of uniformed staff at campgrounds.
With 600,000 or more visitors per year, Anza-Borrego receives roughly one dollar per visitor, but generates far more in economic impact, and tax revenues, from the park and the community of Borrego Springs. The park is vital to the economy of the southern California desert region, yet is in danger, not just from draconian budget cuts, but from the federal government’s “green” energy program that has fast-tracked industrial scale solar and wind projects with inadequate environmental review, tribal and consultation, and opportunities for meaningful public review and input.
Pattern Energy’s Ocotillo Express wind energy project along the southeastern border of Anza-Borrego has seen over half a dozen lawsuits filed over environmental concerns and tribal assertions that the land involved is considered sacred. Meanwhile, the tiny community of Ocotillo stands to be nearly surrounded by wind turbines around 45 stories high. The project site is reportedly home to more than a dozen identified Native American cremation sites, as well as more than 10,000 artifacts, including one geoglyph on the National Register of Historic Places.
But this “pattern” is not limited to Anza-Borrego. Virtually all of our desert parks and wildlands are threatened. Giant wind projects have been proposed for tens of thousands of acres along the borders of Joshua Tree National Park, and other parks face the impacts of enormous power projects, in an overwhelming onslaught on the desert brought about by the Department of the Interior’s renewable energy policy “on steroids,” as DOI Secretary Ken Salazar so aptly described it.
Meanwhile, Marine Corps expansion threatens to claim a large portion of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area, OHV funding remains sketchy, our unique cultural treasures all face uncertain futures, and all of this is happening when our communities need the benefits from tourism and outdoor recreation more than ever.
Are ecological, cultural, and historical preservation all related to the desert’s tourism industry? Absolutely. Harm to our parks, wildlands, historical sites, and cultural resources equates directly to loss of tourism revenue, declining visitor- ship, and fewer jobs across the desert. That’s why we promote both desert travel and awareness of these issues—they go hand in hand. Tourists aren’t just people spending money, they’re far more than that—they’re people who may make a heartfelt connection with the desert, and it’s important we address the issues we face with those who care enough to visit. They can be our allies, and an extended base of support. This magazine, and the California Deserts Visitors Association continue to welcome our desert visitors while working to preserve the unique beauty and magic of the real California desert.