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California State Parks Suffer from Budget Cuts but Benefit from Volunteers

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Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

As the Great Recession ripped through the nation it devastated families, communities and businesses. Even today television news journals document the stories of families who have lost their jobs, homes, and pride as a result of the Recession. One story that has flown under the radar is the implications the Recession had on State Parks.

Since the peak of the Great Recession State Park budgets have been slashed, leaving many of the parks underfunded and understaffed. The results have been far reaching. Minor repairs have become major repairs, park facilities have been closed, and special programs have been reduced. In California, more than 5,000 projects for repairs don't have adequate funding. State Park administrators and visitors now must answer the question, "where do we go from here?"

Some propose filling the staff vacancies with volunteers. The idea is simple - volunteers take on the roles and responsibilities of former employees. But volunteers aren't interested in taking on that type of a responsibility. Roy Stearns, Deputy Director for Communications of California State Parks explains, "There is often talk that volunteers could just take over the system or that they are already running it now. Not true on either score. We have about 24,000 volunteers this year. Most are retired folks who wish to work a few hours per week or per month. They are not skilled in maintenance, peace officer duties, lifeguard duties, budget and administrative operations, heavy equipment operators, grounds keepers, senior park and recreation system management, program management, park management, and the like. They mostly help in the area of interpretation and education, presenting information and programs to the public, working in the visitor's centers."

California State Parks has had about 24,000 volunteers this year. Last year they did an all-time high of 1,087,486 hours of work and that had an economic dollar value to the department of over $22 million. In Florida volunteers have logged more than 1 million hours of service annually.

But despite the volunteer efforts budget cuts have led to financially dire situations - especially in the California State Park system. Since the 2001 - 2002 season California State Parks has had its general fund support reduced by $70 million, with $14 million of that budget having been reduced in 2008. To compensate for the budget reduction the Parks department closed restrooms, campground loops, and visitor centers, removed trash cans/fire rings and reduced the number of school tours and interpretive programs.

Currently the Parks department has a deferred maintenance backlog of about $1.3 billion, yes billion dollars. And there are more than 5,000 projects for repairs - things like fences, sidewalks, roofs, bathrooms, plumbing and more that have not had adequate funding for more than 20 years. The department does not have a new budget, and so they continue to operate on last year's budget. But that money is gone and they are operating day to day on credit with businesses that supply goods and services. They haven't paid some water companies for three months; other vendors for supplies are in the same boat, waiting for a state budget to get paid.

Why can't they just raise fees to make up for the difference? Wouldn't that have an impact? To a point. "We see that when we raise fees, attendance goes down, and so it becomes a point of diminishing returns. Our fees make up about one-third of our budget, so we would have to more than triple fees to pay the bills, but if we did that, attendance would drop dramatically and we would not then realize the funding we were hoping to achieve to operate the system", explains Stearns.

For now, it's a guessing game as to what the next best move is. Without a budget in place the California State Parks department is at the whim of policymakers who control the parks' budget. Let's hope they value parks as much as we do.

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