Hit the North

Summer won’t be the same this year. For years, the Bites clan has trundled themselves into the Bitesmobile and headed north to a secluded, not too popular, not too distant state park campground up in the hills.

Bites would prefer not to say exactly just where it is, but it’s kind of the perfect spot. Well, almost perfect. Yes, the park campgrounds there have too-high levels of arsenic, lead and mercury, and have to close this season for cleanup. It’s a legacy of the gold mining in the area a century ago. Better safe than contaminated, Bites always says. And after this summer, the grounds will be ready again for campfires and fishing and general frolicking.

Unfortunately, we won’t be returning next year, either. The governor’s budget includes $22 million cuts to state parks, and our favorite spot is just one of 70 state parks which are slated for closure next year. The closures are indefinite—maybe two years, maybe more.

That’s apparently the price we pay for living in Northern California. Because the state park cuts disproportionately hurt the north state. Head over to the California State Parks Foundation website (http://calparks.org) and take a look at the map posted there. See how all those little red Xs tend to cluster in the northern half of the state?

Of the 70 parks slated to close, Bites counts 53 in Northern California. There are no state parks scheduled for closure anywhere in Orange County, but right in Sacramento’s central city, the old Governor’s Mansion will be closed. The northern Sacramento Valley is riddled with closures. And from the North Coast to the Bay Area, it’s a swath of red.

Partly, that’s just because there are more state parks in Northern California, and thus there’s more to lose.

But it’s also because of the criteria used to decide which parks to close. Some parks make less money, some are “easier” to close, whatever that means. “Those Southern California beaches are making money,” explained Jerry Emory, with the foundation. And those parks and beaches that can better pay their own way are likely to get a pass. Hurray, San Juan Capistrano. You go, Hearst Castle.

But that also means the economic effect of closing the parks is bound to fall more heavily on Northern California.

The foundation estimates that every dollar spent on state parks leverages another $2.35 in private money for the local economy. Thousands of small businesses are dependent on those parks—even the less well-known spots. “Those small parks are really important to the economies of those little towns around the region,” said Emory.

It’s true of the tiny Sierra town near Bites’ favorite park. It’s true in the Bay Area, which has something of an open-space-based economy. Mendocino County—with seven parks on the closure list—is looking at losing nearly $300 million in visitor dollars every year the parks are closed.

Mendocino County of course voted for Proposition 21, the November ballot measure which would have created a permanent secure funding stream for state parks by tacking $18 a year on to our vehicle-license fees.

Indeed, the whole Bay Area backed Prop. 21. The measure also carried in Yolo County, and in Alpine County, dear weirdo blue-county mountain people that they are. But the measure was crushed everywhere else.

Sure, Prop. 21 wasn’t perfect. But it was better than the alternative. This.

The state park system gets about 80 million visitors a year. Divide that into $22 million. Is there not some way to get another 25 cents out of each of those visitors and close the budget gap? Certainly not if the parks are closed.