SAN FRANCISCO – With a busy Fourth of July week looming, California parks officials announced Thursday that 65 of the 70 state parks once slated to close Sunday due to budget cuts will remain open.
The move came after the governor signed a bill allocating new funds for the beleaguered parks system, and the state said it had reached agreements with nonprofits, local governments and others regarding 40 of the parks.
Deals with other groups were in the works for 25 more, the California Department of Parks and Recreation said.
The state had issued a list of 70 parks -- nearly a quarter of its entire system -- that it intended to close in an effort to cut $22 million from the parks budget. The cuts came as California struggles to bridge a $15.7 billion deficit.
Ruth Coleman, director of the state parks system, said the parks financial crisis has been difficult, but she was buoyed by the response from people who are passionate about the sites.
"We have re-energized the people who love parks, and they are stepping up and contributing to parks in all sorts of ways," Coleman said during a conference call with reporters.
Thursday's announcement was made after Gov. Jerry Brown partially vetoed a state parks funding bill, allocating $10 million in new funds rather than the $41 million that had been approved by the Legislature.
"I cannot fully support this action because proposed funding either takes from other important purposes or may violate the state's agreement with the federal government regarding the State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund," the governor wrote in his veto, referring to a pot of federal money the bill had sought to access for the parks.
Officials say the new funds will help buy time to finalize deals for about 25 of the once-doomed parks.
Though the state still planned to close five parks on Sunday -- Benicia State Recreation Area, the California Mining and Mineral Museum, Gray Whale Cove State Beach, Providence Mountains State Recreation Area and Zmudowski State Beach -- officials were working on finding a way to use some of the new funds to keep them open for a few weeks while deals are sought.
Some of the five park sites will still be accessible to the public despite the official "closure." For example, Coleman said people will still be able to access Gray Whale Cove or Zmudowski beaches, but services such as trash collection would be stopped.
The budget also gives the parks department $13 million in bond funds that can be used for projects meant to increase revenue at the parks to help make more money for the state.
Coleman said the money will fund better fee machines that take credit and debit cards. The state also is looking at making more cabins or alternative camping sites available as well.
The deals in place will allow the state to keep many of the parks open, while transferring operating costs to private and public partners, at least for the short term, parks officials said.
"We're grateful for the Legislature's help," said John Laird, California's secretary for natural resources. "It will give us a path to keep most, if not all, of the parks open."
Still, some saw the governor's partial veto as a loss for the state parks system's long-term prognosis.
"I think it's a lost opportunity to take action to reclaim our parks before it's too late. I worry that once they're lost, they may be lost forever," said Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who co-authored the plan largely vetoed by the governor. "It's very hard to reclaim a resource like this once you've let it go."
Parks advocates believe that a longer term solution will lie in better public funding for the parks, not in deals with private operators.
However, previous attempts to secure long-term public funding through the ballot box have failed. California voters in November 2010 rejected Proposition 21, an $18 registration fee for vehicles that would have raised an estimated $500 million for state parks.
"In most cases states trying to outsource management of state parks is a stopgap measure," said Phil McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors. "One way or the other, if those parks are to be maintained, someone will have to find a way to get public financing."