Four state parks in Monterey County are set to close in July. You’ll probably be able to play there anyway.

Beach Lockup: Parking lot car break-ins have been a problem at Zmudowski State Beach, but lifeguard Eric Sturm isn’t sure he’ll be sent to patrol there after it closes. “It would probably take more staff to enforce a hard closure than to leave it open and trust in the good citizens of our district to take care of it,” he says. But Jerry Emory, spokesman for the California State Parks Foundation, calls the park closures “a recipe for disaster 
for vandalism.”

Austin Keegan kneels on a tiny footbridge on Garrapata State Park’s Rocky Ridge Trail and replaces a damaged plank with pre-cut lumber from home. “It’s just basic maintenance,” he says. “It needs to be done.”

His pal David Thiermann, carrying a garbage-pickup stick and a plastic bag, scans for litter and dog poop while Keegan drills.

“Nice service, guys!” chirps a toned runner waiting to cross the bridge. Then he asks what’s up with the “FOG” baseball caps on the volunteers’ heads.

Friends of Garrapata, Thiermann explains, is a community group picking up the slack as the California Department of Parks and Recreation prepares to abandon the park. 

As they hike, Thiermann and Keegan point out signs of their work. A FOG business card is screwed into the Soberanes Canyon Trail sign, which they sanded to erase graffiti. A couple walks by with five off-leash dogs, and Keegan cheerfully tells them dogs aren’t allowed: “It really affects the quality of the trail.”

FOG isn’t an official nonprofit; it’s not even sanctioned by State Parks. It’s a loose network of about 85 park users communicating through the Friends of Garrapata Facebook page and fixing up the park on their own impulses.

“I really get this place,” says Keegan, a Carmel resident who designs spiritual iPhone apps. (Tap iBelieve to affirm, “i am emotionally happy”; “my mind is clear.”)

“It’s my church, my temple, my mosque,” he continues, plodding uphill as the unruly coastline reveals itself to the west. “Pick up a cigarette butt; just that process makes a neural connection from your hand to your mind, and you go from a consumer to a protector.”

FOG’s mission is “to create a neighborhood watch so everybody’s in charge out here,” adds Thiermann, a Santa Cruz-based career counselor whom Keegan calls a “social shaman.” 

“Just do something. That’s the price of admission to this place,” Keegan says. “If we don’t take over the parks they’ll degrade.”

That’s not an exaggeration, at least not when it comes to the four state parks in Monterey County slated for closure in July: Garrapata and Limekiln in Big Sur, and Moss Landing Beach and Zmudowski Beach in North County.

The closures represent one-fifth of the county’s state parks – slightly lower than the statewide closure rate of one-fourth, or 70 of California’s 279 state parks. The move is expected to save State Parks about $22 million over two years, part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s effort to balance the state budget.

~ ~ ~

In 9-year-old Nathaniel Grennan’s bedroom is a photo of himself and his younger stepbrother, grinning with chocolate and marshmallow smeared on their faces. A ranger in Limekiln State Park’s campfire educational program took the picture last summer, when Nathaniel proudly led his stepbrother, a nature novice, through the duffy, dank redwoods to Limekiln Falls.

“He had already become a steward of the parks, and being able to show someone else that world, he was just glowing,” says Brooke Gutierrez, Nathaniel’s mom and a superintendent of the San Luis Obispo Coast District, which oversees Limekiln.

Although it’s on the small side with less than three dozen campsites, Limekiln comprises the very southern edge of the coastal redwoods range, with access to river, redwoods and beach. 

The county’s far north has two other state parks on the hit list: Moss Landing and Zmudowski beaches. Both are wide-open coastlines backed by preserved sand dunes, free and open to the public during the day.

A zig-zagging drive through the ag fields of Giberson Road leads to Zmudowski Beach State Park, just at the mouth of the Pajaro River Estuary nature preserve. The beach is relatively desolate, averaging less than 100 users a day, according to State Parks data. But that solitude counts as an asset for the birdwatchers, fishermen and equestrians who use it.

Moss Landing Beach, at the end of Jetty Road by the mouth of Elkhorn Slough, draws about six times more annual visitors than Zmudowski, but cold wind and water tend to keep leisure crowds away. This beach mostly belongs to the experienced surfers, especially on winter mornings.

“The wave breaks in a particular way – it has to do with the underwater trench,” says Ron Triplett, the local Surfrider chapter chair. “It’s a powerful, hollow, perfect beach break.”

Triplett remembers when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake closed Jetty Road; surfers paddled across the slough to get to the beach. He expects the same doggedness when the beach shutters.

“Guys are not gonna stop surfing Moss Landing because it’s closed,” he says. “They’ll park and they’ll walk. And probably there’ll be no regulation for trash, there’ll be no regulation for the snowy plover, there’ll be no occasional lifeguard patrolling the beach.”

Car break-ins are already a problem at Moss Landing Beach, and Triplett worries the lack of patrols will mean even more stolen wallets and phones. Litter is also an issue: While the beach isn’t as trashy as some on the Peninsula, Surfrider rallies volunteers to clean up Moss Landing a few times a year (most recently last Sunday). Triplett expects even more plastic debris when the state removes garbage cans.

Litter and vandalism are a concern in Big Sur, too.

“I can tell you what’ll happen when they lock up the toilets: People will break the windows,” says Steven Harper, a Big Sur-based wilderness guide and eco-psychologist. “The buildings the state has invested in, there’s a much higher chance they’ll be vandalized, and that’ll cost the state money.”

Safety, however, is probably the biggest closure risk. State Parks lifeguard Eric Sturm says all local state beaches are notorious for their dangerous rip currents, especially Moss Landing and Zmudowski. “These big winter swells come in and they just explode all their energy,” he says.

The calls for beach rescues probably won’t stop after the closures. “We are not gonna let anybody die or perish,” he adds. “We will respond to emergencies and give the best care we can.”

Eric Abma, the acting superintendent of State Parks’ Monterey Sector, says there used to be 12 rangers and lifeguards to patrol the 11 state parks spanning Zmudowski to Garrapata. Now he’s left with only seven who patrol the parks daily, enforce the law, empty the trash and clean the restrooms as needed.

“Their job duties have changed because we haven’t been able to backfill positions that have become vacant,” Abma says. “Where they used to be doing things like public education and interpretive programs, they’re now doing just their public safety function. And then we’ve cut back on a lot of the seasonal staff.”

“Now it seems everybody is doing their own jobs plus something extra,” adds Sturm.

It’s not just a local effect; the recession has left ranger stations lonelier all across California. State Parks spokesman Roy Stearns counts about 200 vacant peace officer-ranger positions statewide.

The parks are also facing a backlog of unfinished projects. The California State Parks Foundation estimates the total deferred maintenance at $1.2 billion. 

“As park professionals, the last thing we want to do is see our parks closed,” Abma says, “but I guess the fiscal reality put us into this.”

~ ~ ~

When then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed closing 48 state parks in 2008, community groups across the state pushed back, and won. The next year Schwarzenegger brought back the threat, this time proposing to shutter 220 of the state’s 279 parks – almost 80 percent. Groups like the Big Sur-based Pelican Network and the California State Parks Foundation lobbied Sacramento hard, and again, Schwarzenegger’s administration backed down.

While the Governator postured to shut down state parks, then-Central Coast Assemblyman John Laird developed an alternative proposal to fund parks with a surcharge to the state vehicle licensing fee. Schwarzenegger snuffed Laird’s idea in 2008 and 2009 with veto threats, but it returned in 2010 as a ballot measure. In exchange for paying an $18 vehicle license fee surcharge, every Californian would have unlimited access to all state parks, with no entrance fees.

Despite backing from a coalition of advocates, Proposition 21 tanked: More than 57 percent voted no.

“It was a perfect storm for a bond measure perceived as a tax at a time the economy was continuing to tank,” California State Parks Foundation spokesman Jerry Emory says.

Pelican Network founder Jack Ellwanger, a long-time State Parks contractor and naturalist at Big Sur Lodge, says the fee was much too steep. “It was a real aberration,” he says. “They thought they were going to create a new dynasty for themselves. The community support groups are what nurture these parks.”

But the election also swept a new governor into office, and unlike Schwarzenegger, Jerry Brown was viewed as friend of state parks. Then Brown appointed Laird, one of the Legislature’s biggest park advocates, as California Secretary for Natural Resources – a powerful position overseeing 25 commissions, conservancies and departments, including State Parks.

The closures moved forward anyway. 

Brown’s administration aimed to cut $22 million from State Parks over two years, and the list of 70 was released in May 2011.

“Oh, the irony is unbelievable!” says Laird, who represented the Monterey Bay area as 27th District assemblyman from 2002-2008 and introduced the bill that designated 413 acres of Limekiln as state wilderness. “To work very hard for sustainable funding, and then when it’s not successful to be the person in charge of the closure.”

But Laird also spent four years chairing the Assembly Budget Committee, and he couldn’t argue with Brown’s plan to balance the state budget and pay off debt through a combination of cuts, temporary taxes and local realignment. “With what he’s trying to do, you actually see that there’s an end,” Laird says. “If we upright the budget, there’s a good chance [the parks] all come back.”

The parks on the closure list were chosen based on their low visitation numbers, poor fiscal strength and ability to physically close, among other metrics. The formula retains more than 92 percent of today’s park attendance and 94 percent of revenues, according to State Parks.

“[Brown] means to cut; at this point I don’t think there’s any backing down,” Emory says. “The list came out, people were shocked, and we’ve been working like heck to find short-term and long-term solutions ever since.”

Ellwanger says that goes for his Pelican Network, too. “We’re gonna fight tooth and nail,” he says. “It’s ridiculous to keep testing our vow, our commitment, our passion for these parks by playing these political financing games. It’s an insane thing to do.”

~ ~ ~

With 70 parks on the brink of shutdown, nonprofits, community groups, public agencies and private contractors are stepping up. Laird says officials have made partnership deals that will keep at least 12 parks on the closure list open, including Henry W. Coe State Park, just south of Silicon Valley.

“I was not thrilled with the closure, but we’re working as hard as we can to keep more open,” Laird says.

Stearns revises the number of pardoned parks to nine; a few of the partnership deals haven’t been finalized yet. “If it ain’t inked, it ain’t there,” he says.

The most recent reprieve came for South Yuba River State Park. Laird says 75 schoolkids personally appealed to him to keep South Yuba open, performing a three-part skit that ended with a closed park and sad kids. When they returned to his office with 10,000 signatures, Laird was able to tell them to re-write their third act, thanks to a plan to fund the park with new parking fees. “They went nuts,” he says.

The California State Parks Foundation is working to lengthen that list while also holding out hope for a legislative fix. (The foundation is planning a lobbying push in Sacramento on March 20.) CSPF sponsored last year’s successful Assembly Bill 42, which Gov. Brown signed in October, enabling State Parks to make management agreements with nonprofits without approval from the Legislature.

“That’s not going to save all 70 parks, but it’ll save some of them,” Emory says. “We applaud those efforts, even if they’re Band-Aids.”

Still no reprieves for Monterey County’s four listed parks. But Abma says a deal or two may be in the works: “As the date gets nearer, we are having interest from groups that want to keep them open.” He won’t offer details, as no agreements have been reached yet.

But Steve Dennis, a Point Lobos Foundation board member, says PLF has offered State Parks financial assistance for Garrapata. “We have been told they are pursuing several other options, and they believe they can keep it open without us,” he says.

Ellwanger suggests contracting with local law enforcement to reduce the state’s peace-keeping work, letting people pay a fee to bring dogs into the parks, and charging visitors who park just outside state park boundaries to avoid vehicle entrance fees.

But aside from Point Lobos and Andrew Molera, the beach state parks in Monterey County are all free, so Abma doesn’t put a lot of stock in a parking crackdown. “Minimally, it would increase our revenue,” he says.

Farther south, SLO Coast officials are hoping creative partnerships can keep Limekiln open. “Obviously everybody in the district, and the park visitors, don’t want these parks to close,” Gutierrez says. “We’re biting our fingernails waiting to hear how this is going to go.”

Deals with private concessionaires are a possibility. “Our mission statement has nothing to do with profit,” she adds. “It’s about protecting resources and recreation.”

And in at least that regard, there could be a silver lining to the park closures. Fewer people on the trails could give habitats a chance to recover ecologically – a resilience Harper noticed in the Big Sur trails temporarily closed after the 2008 Basin Complex and Chalk fires. “I’m sure the organisms and wild animals have gotten a rest,” he says.

Abma’s not sure if people will be outright barred from entering the parks, or if it’ll be an enter-at-your-own-risk situation. Most of the county’s state parks would be hard to physically close anyway. The beach side of Garrapata, for example, stretches four miles and includes 19 foot trails. 

He’s also unclear as to whether trespassers will be given citations. “I don’t think we can stop people from accessing the parks,” he says.

That reality gives surfer Ron Triplett mixed feelings about the closures. “The reason we have a state park system is because we want certain places to be protected,” he says. 

On the other hand, if the beaches are closed, there’ll be more room for the dedicated surfers who won’t stay out.

“I like that,” he admits. “It’s more fun surfing without a crowd.”

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