By Tommy Hough
John Muir's trek from San Francisco to Yosemite in May 1868 has deservedly become the stuff of California legend.
Upon reaching the crest of Pacheco Pass east of Gilroy in what is today Santa Clara County, Muir beheld a view we can only imagine. Unencumbered by air pollution and the haze of industrial agriculture, Muir viewed a lush, verdant San Joaquin Valley that slowly gave way to the foothills of Gold Country, then the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada.
Just as the discovery of gold in 1848 by James Marshall at Sutter's Mill – at what is preserved today as Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma in Placer County – became the catalyst for the settlement of California by European-Americans, Muir's journey to Yosemite became the catalyst for the modern conservation movement in the United States. Among other milestones, that movement led to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, and the National Wilderness Preservation Act in 1964.
But even as Muir settled to into his new home in the craggy, wild high country of the Sierra Nevada, he could see that California's natural environments, ecosystems, and wild open space were threatened by the encroachment of humans – punctuated by a lawless, take-all attitude toward resources and wild things. For the rest of his life, Muir sought to enlighten Americans about their special places in California and elsewhere, so Americans would be compelled to save and protect them.
In this, Muir was successful. Winning influential allies like President Theodore Roosevelt (already a budding conservationist as he entered the White House) along the way, not only was the National Park Service created as a result of Muir's efforts to fully protect special places like Yosemite with a codified baseline of preservation, but California's own state park system was similarly created in 1927.
In the intervening 80 years, California State Parks has grown to encompass 279 sites around the state. Many of these locales, like Montaña de Oro, Humboldt Redwoods, Henry W. Coe or Calaveras Big Trees might have been declared National Monuments had they not already been on state land instead of federal land.
Even during the depths of the Great Depression, California continued to invest in its state parks, bringing Torrey Pines, Palomar Mountain and Anza-Borrego, all in San Diego County, on-line in 1933 alone – in part to combat the rampant poaching of desert plants for new housing developments being built in coastal areas.
Today, parks face a different threat. The threats aren't directly the result of poaching, wildfire, earthquakes, or storms but from the threat of closure – of padlocking and sealing off 80 percent of a park system which has justifiably become the envy of the nation.
After surviving a brush with mass closures in 2008, and the hard-fought Save Trestles campaign to prevent a toll road from being built through the backcountry of San Onofre State Beach, the governor's current recommendation to mothball, padlock, and cut off Californians from their state parks in the name of fiscal necessity is rash and unnecessary. If 80 percent of California's state park system is shuttered, it will only be more difficult and expensive to reverse those closures and re-open them.
Of course, you can't just close the Great Outdoors. No one can. So bereft of any kind of regular supervision, management or a law enforcement capability to protect them, California's revered state parks will be made vulnerable to disrepair, vandalism, unsupervised entry and unregulated off-road vehicle use, especially in the vast open spaces of Anza-Borrego – which was preserved to stand as a bulwark against resource destruction and the dissection of Southern California's Colorado Desert habitat.
Poaching of endangered animals and trees from the state's Redwood forests to the stately oak meadows of the Central Coast is also a chilling likelihood, as is the increased risk of wildfires from unsupervised campsites and careless trespassers.
The access to these great places was designed with the idea the state would hold them in perpetuity for Californians not just for a few decades, but forever – and manage them in a way to effectively balance taxpayers’ recreation and enjoyment while preserving the area's natural balance.
While some park infrastructures will only fall into disrepair once they are padlocked shut, some run the risk of severe damage and compromise, potentially robbing the sites of what made them worthy of state park designation in the first place. We are in dire risk of squandering what this state and thousands of tireless volunteers and conservationists have worked for over 80 years to save and preserve.
If any of these parks are to be re-opened in the future, providing they're not sold off to the highest bidder for development and resource extraction in the interim to pay down the state's debt, all will need sufficient rehabilitation once re-opened, thereby costing the state even more money. A waste considering California State Parks annually takes up less than one-tenth of one percent of the entire general fund – and according to a study from Sacramento State University, puts up to $2.35 back into local economies for every $1 invested.
Visitor centers, roads, trails, historical structures, and other basic amenities, if not regularly attended to, will fall victim to dilapidation. Resources that parks seek to protect, including the story of our state's history, may become so compromised by trespassing and destructive activity the very process of putting them back in order may set individual parks back decades, thereby costing the state even greater amounts of money.
Furthermore, the impact on local economies dependent on park visitors will be significant:
Upon John Muir's arrival in the Sierras, the recognition of California's natural heritage and astonishing natural wonders was confirmed at Yosemite, carved out by eons of glacial ice and the modern-day Merced River. At the behest of Muir, Yosemite briefly started off as California's first state park, before becoming the nation's second National Park – surely as auspicious a beginning as any conservation enterprise.
Big Basin Redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains followed as California's next, and first official enduring state park in 1902, after the efforts of local citizens' groups and activists led the way to begin saving the area's native Redwoods from the relentless march of the timber industry. Logging and timber interests had, in fact, applauded these moves to save what they could see was already a diminishing resource over 100 years ago. Yet not even Big Basin's longevity is saving it from a padlocked future, certain disrepair, destructive activity and the compromise of natural resources.
In a world where we are beset on all sides by the forces of noise, pollution, media, mounting problems and limited answers, Californians need a place to recharge, renew, and find solace and peace and time for reflection. Californians realize state parks are inseperable from the quality of life we have created in the Golden State.
Our children need places to exercise, explore, undo Nature Deficit Disorder and learn the value and wisdom of the outdoors. California State Parks are truly the envy of the nation, but these proposed closures are only helpful in balancing books – not enriching citizens' lives and California’s local economies, nor safeguarding or showcasing California's brilliant natural wonders.
When you arrive at a California State Park, whether it’s the new visitor center at Anza-Borrego, or the cathedral-like, multi-canopied silence of colossal Redwoods along the Del Norte Coast at Jedediah Smith, you know you’re in a special place, where the state's natural heritage, from expansive desert to lush forest, is protected and looked after by dedicated personnel in the name of all Californians.
Today, the Golden State's park system is fighting for survival, and the state's residents stand to lose much of the natural beauty and special places which make living in California a dream come true for so many. To save our state, the governor argues, we must undo what makes our state worth living in.
We cannot let this happen. We can do better. We must find solutions for California's calamitous boom and bust cycles, we must provide options for lawmakers, and we must stand and say no in a loud enough voice so Sacramento and the nation know Californians will not be robbed of their heritage.
Write letters. Write your elected state officials and tell them to leave California's state parks open and accessible for all, no matter the economic climate. Tell Sacramento and Governor Schwarzenegger not to shut down our parks at the moment we need their solace, wisdom, and time with families the most.
Photos by Tommy Hough
A former San Diego broadcaster and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.