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Editorial: Park Politics

To help cut California’s yawning $24 billion-plus budget deficit, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed closing 220 state parks, saving a potential $70 million. Among the parks closed would be Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay, Will Rogers’ Southern California ranch, and even the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento.

The plan is a disaster. Of course our state is in dire straits financially, and programs do need to be trimmed to stave off collapse. But the $70 million saved on this plan is a pittance compared to the overall deficit. What’s worse, it will cost the state millions of dollars in lost tourism and business revenue; it could result in the layoffs of close to 2,000 state park employees; and it will cost California millions in possible federal grants. Of course, it will also deprive residents of much-needed respite in these difficult times. Such a plan—desperately thrown together despite substantial long-term costs to the state offsetting any small initial savings—represents the kind of narrow thinking that got us into this mess in the first place.

The list of sites that Schwarzenegger has proposed closing is a reminder of the invaluable public resources that California still does provide. By shuttering places like William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach, the Portola Redwoods State Park, or the Sutter’s Fort Historic Park, the state would be reneging on its duty to provide recreation, education, and culture to citizens of all backgrounds.

By closing these parks, over 60 of them would stop receiving federal funds currently provided by the National Park Service. A few of the parks—including the iconic Angel Island Lighthouse at Point Sur—could even be repossessed by the federal government, which donated them to the state under the Federal Lands and Parks Program, granting surplus lands provided that they stay open to the public.

But beyond the recreational value of these places, their economic and civic value is even greater. According to a recent report by the Trust for Public Land, parks increase the values of nearby properties (and so boost the tax base for the government) by millions of dollars. They also bring in millions from visitors, improve public health, encourage civic cohesion, help manage storm water runoff, and reduce airborne pollutants.

A report by the Central Park Conservancy showed that in 2007, spending by visitors and enterprises directly and indirectly in Central Park accounted for $395 million in economic activity, and $656 million in revenues for the city. Another good example of such a boon is the just-opened High Line in New York, which, according to New York City officials, will bring in $4 billion in private investment and $900 million in revenues to the city in the next 30 years.

So is the short-term gain of $70 million really worth the long-term losses? The amount of money that could be used to save these parks is small compared to what will be lost. (Democrats have proposed obtaining the necessary funds by raising the state vehicle license fee by $15, a move Schwarzenegger has vowed to veto.) Meanwhile, the government in Sacramento continues to maintain its partisan-fueled gridlock—the biggest culprit in the shortfall of funds in the state—costing billions and making the money spent to save our parks seem like a drop in the bucket. Closing down parks is not the quick fix it appears to be.

Sam Lubell