The tumult of the California State Parks system over the last four years has been well-documented. It has been almost four years since the California Department of Parks and Recreation significantly raised day-use and camping fees to offset budget reductions from the Legislature. Then, in 2011, the department announced a list of 70 state parks that would be forced to close based on the $22 million cut proposed in the new fiscal year’s budget. Many of these parks were spared thanks to public outcry and private partners that came forward.
Last year, an investigative report from the Sacramento Bee found that the department had been hiding $50 million in surplus funds for more than a decade. Millions were allocated back to State Parks, half of which went toward establishing a matching fund for contributions and the other half toward maintenance.
Despite this turmoil, the department has not raised day use or camping fees since 2009, nor does it plan to in the immediate future, according to Vicky Waters, deputy director of public affairs. There are also no plans to close parks in the near future.
In addition, park attendance has held relatively steady over that period both statewide and on the Coastside. In California, 65.2 million people visited state parks in the 2009-10 fiscal year, which dipped to 63.4 million the following year and grew to nearly 70 million last year. The San Mateo County coast attracted 2.4 million visitors between 2009 and 2011 and 2.1 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Attendance is measured through the reservation system, volunteers who count cars in the parking lots of select parks, annual pass sales and other factors.
“For Fourth of July weekend, we had our camping reservations nearly sold out across the state,” Waters said. “Our numbers don’t seem to reflect an impact as far as attendance goes.”
When fees were hiked in 2009, State Parks announced these increases would range from $2 to $5 in parking fees and $10-$21 in overnight stays. Half Moon Bay State Beach day use, for example, rose from $7 to $10 in 2009, and camping prices increased from $25 to $35.
Park access fees vary throughout the state. Waters says the variance is a result of the region the park is located in, the type of state park (whether it’s a beach, in the redwoods or another environment) and the level of upkeep it requires.
Waters says the department is still struggling to recover from $22 million in cuts over the last decade or so. But it is trying to move forward and, in doing so, is working to determine the cost of running the entire system. The idea came about in a report from the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency.
“(We want to) establish a good methodology to determine how much it costs to run the parks to help us advocate for funds in the Legislature and governor’s office,” Waters said.
The department hopes to get the figures totaled “as soon as possible,” Waters said.
“Support for parks is still there,” she said. “Our fees aren’t going up, (and) we’re not looking at closing any parks in the future. We’re looking for tangible ideas so we can meet the individual needs of each park and visitors.”