The California coast is a magnet for private investment in part because its natural treasures are unique and spectacular. You can find many of these treasures in our state parks. Yet today, many parks are in a sorry state, with facilities in disrepair and a noticeable scarcity of rangers and maintenance crews.
It’s hard to overstate the value of California’s state parks. They protect sand dunes, pygmy forests, coastal prairies, and other ecological resources of a variety and richness found in no other state, as well as significant cultural and historical sites. They attract between 70 and 80 million visitors a year, and these visitors spend billions in nearby communities and support over 100,000 jobs statewide.
Yet because of a dearth of public investment, the state’s 1.5-million-acre park system--an irreplaceable public asset and essential part of the state’s infrastructure--is in grave jeopardy.
It doesn’t take much searching to see what’s amiss. In Angel Island State Park and Benicia Capitol Park, for example, historic buildings are deteriorating, vacant, boarded up. Along the coast, parklands acquired years ago still lack basic facilities. Rangers are rarely sighted because their ranks have thinned. Some parks are almost incognito.
Driving south from Monterey, as you enter the stunning coastline of Big Sur, you might stop at a gravel pull-out to admire the view of the offshore Lobos Rocks and not even realize that you’re standing in Garrapata State Park, created three decades ago along four miles of this world-renowned shoreline. This park has virtually no visitor-serving facilities. Trails overgrown with poison oak that lead to the bluff’s edge may be your only clue that you are on public land. Below the bluffs, Garrapata Beach--the main attraction and the only large, publicly accessible sandy beach within miles--has no restroom, not even a pit toilet.
In San Luis Obispo County, on Estero Bluffs, north of the little beach town of Cayucos, miles of oceanfront land have been acquired by the State Parks Department since 2000 but not even roadside parking has been constructed. North of Monterey, at Marina State Beach, a boardwalk through rolling dunes was built years ago to accommodate wheelchairs, but it has buckled, and part of it is covered with sand. Anything built on dunes and exposed to salt and wind requires constant maintenance, but State Parks has a huge maintenance backlog. It needs about $900 million to catch up on repairs, according to the California State Parks Foundation.
“Deferred maintenance is like car maintenance; you can save $50 by not doing a regular oil change, but it will end up costing you more in the long run,” observed Gail Sevrens, president of the California State Park Rangers Association. (Many park employees interviewed for this article while off duty declined to be identified by their job titles and made clear that they were not speaking officially for State Parks.)
When Nobody Is Watching
Perhaps more serious than deteriorated structures or missing park facilities, however, is the dire shortage of park staff. Since 2000, the number of State Parks personnel has remained nearly the same, about 3,000, while the state’s population has grown by 3.8 million and the park system has increased in size by nearly 100,000 acres. In essence, State Parks is called on to manage a large and growing system of world-class parks and protect our natural and cultural heritage while depending on fixed or even declining staff.
There are fewer California state park rangers and lifeguards in the field now than there are state parks. As of 2005, a mere 250 rangers and lifeguards were spread across the 278 units that make up the California state park system. Up to 130 positions were vacant, while some rangers and lifeguards hold administrative and supervisory positions rather than field assignments.
“In some parks where there used to be eight rangers, now there are maybe only two,” said Sevrens. Ten years ago, State Parks had nearly twice as many rangers and lifeguards as it does now, said Richard Bergstresser, chapter director of the State Parks Peace Officers Association of California (SPPOAC).