Closing California Parks: Legal & Practical Issues

Following the announcement by Gov. Jerry Brown that California will close up to 70 state parks to save money, parks officials are facing dozens of practical questions that could complicate, delay, or possibly scuttle

Popular with snowbirds and other campers, birders, and boaters, Salton Sea State Recreation Area is one of the 70 state parks that California plans to close. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

the plan altogether.

The obstacles to shutting down parks range from state coastal laws that hamper efforts to close beaches to deciding whether to cite trespassers. Without a clear solution, state Parks Director Ruth Coleman also is considering a plan to simply leave the gates on closed parks open to the public, the Mercury News recently reported.

“We are working through this process on a trial-and-error basis,” she said. “We know there are liability issues. Our overarching goal is to preserve these resources. That’s our fundamental mission. If we can do that in a way that preserves public access, we will.”

Among the emerging problems:

Beach access laws

Eleven state beaches are marked for closure, but under the 1976 Coastal Act, the public cannot be legally blocked from walking along the state’s shoreline.

Any attempt to close off access will require a permit from the California Coastal Commission, said Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission. That could mean months of public hearings, reports, and potential lawsuits.

“If people are ticketed for walking across the state beaches, then we are going to be involved,” Douglas said.

Trespassers

The very popular Anza-Borrego Desert State Park south of the Coachella Valley will remain open. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Last year, 5.6 million people visited the 70 parks on the closure list. Some of them, particularly hikers and mountain bikers, will simply walk around closed gates. State parks rangers could write trespassing tickets with fines of up to $400 each. But that requires leaving rangers at parks, which could undercut the $22 million in annual savings Brown hopes to achieve with the closures.

Liability

In March, Brown signed a bill, AB 95, which absolves the state from liability if a person in a closed park is injured or causes damage. The new law has not been tested in court, however.

Politics

What if dozens of surfers, hikers, or mountain bikers show up at closed beaches en masse?

“I’m planning on continuing to go hiking in these parks anyway,” said Tom Taber, of San Mateo, author of The Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Book. “Maybe I just won’t carry any ID, and I’ll tell them my name is John Q. Public. What are they going to do, haul me in from miles away on some trail?”

No state has closed state parks on a significant level, in part because of political backlash and practical problems. But California has a larger budget problem than most states. If the closures go through, Brown would be the first governor since California’s state parks system began in 1902 to ever close a state park to save money.

Two years ago, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed closing 220 state parks, but dropped the idea after receiving 135,000 calls, emails, and letters in opposition.

Joshua Tree National Park is located near Coachella Valley, a haven for snowbirds escaping the rigors of a northern winter. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Closing dozens of parks poses huge maintenance costs.

“If you just close restrooms and leave them for five years, nobody believes you will be able to unlock them and start using them,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, executive director of the California State Parks Foundation. “You’ll have to repair the roofs and check the plumbing systems. If you leave trails, they’ll get overgrown. There are costs that way, way exceed the savings.”

Coleman noted her department is hoping for partnerships with cities, counties, and nonprofits.

“We’re looking for creative solutions now,” she said. “Our goal is to close as few as possible and to keep as much public access as possible.”

Worth Pondering…
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is a society, where none intrudes,

By the deep sea, and music in its roar:

I love not Man the less, but Nature more

—Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

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