Officials struggle to keep local state parks operating full time

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Meanwhile, an activist group seeks to get extra vehicle tax initiative on ballot to financially support state parks operations.

By Jonathan Friedman / Special to The Malibu Times

In the face of financial hardship, local California Department of Parks and Recreation officials are searching for new funding sources to keep Malibu area parks in full operation. Meanwhile, a state activist group has proposed an initiative for the November 2010 ballot to financially support state parks by putting an extra tax on vehicle registration fees.

Ron Schaefer, superintendent of State Parks’ Angeles District, would not get into specifics but said in a Monday interview that he and others are looking at “alternative funding sources” to support “real significant services.” Schaefer said he could have an announcement in the next “couple weeks” for temporary measures to get through this fiscal year. More significant funding sources could be ready before the next fiscal year begins in July.

Funding for the 278 state parks was slashed $14.2 million this year. And State Parks will take another $22.2 million hit in next year’s budget. These actions have translated to some service reductions at local state parks such as Malibu Creek, Topanga and Leo Carrillo.

“We have closed some of the bathrooms and campsites that don’t get used as often,” said Schaefer, who said officials have focused on closing operations that are underused so the reductions will affect as few people as possible.

“It’s something that we’ve sort of phased in,” Schaefer said. “Because we’ve done it in an intelligent manner, there hasn’t been a lot of notice.”

Similar reductions are taking place throughout the state, with the local heads of the various parks asked to decide what cutbacks should be made. So far, no state park has completely closed.

“These partial reductions and closures are far better than closing a park,” State Parks spokesperson Roy Stearns said in a Monday interview. “They’re mostly minor type things we can do to save money that prevents closures.”

But a coalition of activist groups say that is not good enough and fear what could be next in budget cutbacks. Earlier this month, Californians for State Parks and Wildlife Conservation submitted a ballot initiative to the state that would put an $18 tax on California vehicle registrations to go toward a fund that would be used solely to support state parks and wildlife conservation.

Registration for motorcycles and recreational vehicles would also be taxed under the measure. There would be an exemption for larger commercial vehicles, mobile homes and permanent trailers.

In return for the $18 tax, Californians would receive free, year-round admission to all state parks. California residents currently pay up to $125 for an annual pass or $10 – $15 per day to visit most parks.

“We feel strongly that we want to take care of the maintenance of state parks and encourage the public, who is stepping up for this cause, to really give them a very high incentive to use state parks,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, in a recent interview.

The coalition is studying whether the ballot measure could get enough voter support. If it is determined a victory is possible, the members will seek the 433,971 signatures needed to get the item on the ballot.

A vehicle license tax to aid State Parks funding is not a new concept. State legislators have proposed it before, but the idea has not been approved.

“We all feel it is time, given the very strong public support for State Parks and the outcry; if this can’t get done through the Legislature, it’s time to take it to the voter,” Goldstein said.