Behind all the beauty, maintenance cutbacks risk our safety, history

We look at the state of our state parks in this, the launch of a summerlong series of stories

June 27, 2010 

The images won't appear in any California State Parks brochure.

Columbia State Historic Park: Crumbling brick and leaky plumbing threaten several of the buildings in this Gold Rush settlement.

George Hatfield State Recreation Area: Clogged toilets and other problems mar this spot along the Merced River.

MacKerricher State Park: Fifty elementary-school kids arrive for their annual end-of-year camping trip on the North Coast, only to find the drinking water contaminated.

Look beyond the crashing waves and towering redwoods, and California's 278 state parks are a tangle of troubles. The nation's largest state parks system is weighed down by a $1.3 billion maintenance backlog, according to a review of park records by McClatchy Newspapers.

Park visitors already have dealt with abbreviated schedules and services. Now

decay and neglect in the parks endanger the environment, artifacts -- and even public health, as the students and parents of Skyfish School in Redway recently learned.

"It's been a real hassle," said Mark Jensen, a parent and chaperone who had to keep 50 kids from drinking the water at MacKerricher, near Fort Bragg. "There were actually a couple kids who drank some before we could get the word out."

Much of the park decay exists because maintenance has been largely ignored for more than a decade amid slim and slimmer state budgets. Buildings and infrastructure, subject to constant exposure and heavy use, just get worse until they fail.

As a result, the backlog has more than doubled since 2003.

Pennies strategically pinched

"We try to make surgical decisions about where the money goes," said George Sapp, restoration lead worker at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown.

"Of course, there's never enough."

The operating budget for state parks -- which pays for day-to-day maintenance, law enforcement and administration -- stands at about $330 million this fiscal year. In 2001, it was $314 million. Adjusted for inflation, however, that reflects a 15 percent drop.

During those same years, California added 12 parks and 100,000 more acres of land to its system.

Gov. Schwarzenegger has vowed to leave the $140 million general fund subsidy intact this year, after he was criticized in 2009 for requiring partial closure of 60 parks and cutbacks systemwide.

It remains to be seen whether the Legislature will agree to keep the parks budget intact -- and status-quo funding will do little to shrink the mountain of untended maintenance.

Environmental groups think they have a partial solution in the recently qualified November ballot initiative that would levy an $18 annual fee on every California vehicle registration, raising at least $208 million a year. In return, residents with up-to-date registration would have free day use of all state parks.

Increasingly, volunteers also are stepping up to help care for California parks, going beyond their traditional work as tour guides and docents. In May, for instance, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a statewide cleanup of some 10,000 city, county and state parks.

McClatchy's California newspapers wanted to examine the state of our state parks first-hand. A team of seven journalists fanned out in the first two weeks of June, visiting 42 parks as part of a summerlong effort. Readers are invited to help by post- ing photos of what they encounter in state parks dur- ing their summer travels at www sacbee.com/stateparks.

Keeping up appearances

Railtown, which sits along the still-operating Sierra Railroad between Tuolumne and Stanislaus counties, has struggled for funding since the state acquired it in 1982. Restoration of some of the old rolling stock waits while the park staff tends to safety issues, including wiring and foundations.

The park's rough-hewn quality was no problem for visitor Warren Langley of San Francisco.

"It takes me back to my younger days when my grandparents lived next to railroads in Tennessee and Alabama -- the smell of the oil on the ties, seeing the trains and everything," he said.

Cynthia Neville, 31, who recently visited Samuel P. Taylor State Park in western Marin County with her two young daughters, said the parks "look fine to me."

"We come for the nature -- not the bathrooms and picnic tables," said Neville, who lives in nearby Lagunitas.

Park officials say appearances can be deceiving since they've prioritized day-to-day upkeep over deeper problems. This means keeping restrooms tidy, and facilities accessible, as much as possible.

"Our goal has been to make our parks look good to the public for their use, so that they still have a good experience in each park," said Roy Stearns, deputy communications director for California State Parks. "Yet, behind the scenes, there are serious deferred maintenance projects, the things they usually do not see."

Take a closer look at Millerton Lake State Recreation Area northeast of Fresno. The lake is scouring away road foundations. A popular trail is eroding. A stream flows through a crumbling maintenance building.

At the Millerton Courthouse overlooking the lake, daylight peeks through holes in the roof. A colony of bats has moved into Fresno County's first courthouse -- originally built in 1867 but dismantled and rebuilt with some original parts in 1966 -- filling the building with the stench of guano.

Sewers failing

Millerton's park superintendent, Kent Gresham, can't remember a summer holiday without a failure in the antiquated sewage and water-treatment systems. The park needs more than $9 million of work overall, including a $1.7 million upgrade of the north shore water treatment plant.

Failure of such "invisible" systems is rendering some areas off-limits, too.

At San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area near Los Banos, the Basalt Campground has been "under construction" since September 2009, while the park replaces a 30-year-old water treatment plant. The campground is expected to reopen this fall.

The water intake line from the reservoir to the camp was prone to shutting down, cutting off the park's water supply, said Will Martin, who has worked maintenance there for more than three decades.

"If those types of projects aren't redone to fit today's standards," he said, "it could potentially shut the park down."

Armed with the department's maintenance data as a reference, reporters found deteriorating trails, 19th-century buildings grown moldy from seeping roofs and, despite the department's efforts, many rest- rooms covered in graffiti and lacking toilet paper.

As Caswell Memorial State Park near Ripon, managers seek to remove feral cats and rats while building up the population of the riparian brush rabbit, an endangered species.

At Hearst Castle near San Luis Obispo, the marble Neptune Pool at California's most famous state park leaks so much that stalactites have formed in a cavity underneath.

Across all 278 parks, the fix-it costs range from minute to massive.

At Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in El Dorado County, officials want to reframe a picture of James Marshall, who discovered gold there in 1848. Cost: $500. At the opposite extreme, Border Field State Park in San Diego needs 250 acres of salt marsh habitat restoration. Cost: $96.6 million.

Polluting parks

Many of the worst problems are assaults on California's environment: State parks need at least $55 million to prevent sewer and water systems from polluting streams and sickening visitors. Many fall short of state and county health codes.

Among the top offenders is Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley, which earned 78 pollution violations in 2009 alone.

At Sonoma State Historic Park, with its scattering of 19th-century buildings in the heart of the city, a sign facing the plaza declares, "We Apologize!" The note explains an "unprecedented budget reduction" has shuttered the Toscano Hotel on Thursdays through June 30.

Monica Benuto of Stockton, who brought her 9-year-old twins in June to Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, said she found the park "clean and orderly," the staff helpful. She loves state parks but believes they are somewhat of an "extra."

"We've been very fortunate in California, but extras are going to have to wait," said Benuto, 36, a cashier married to a schoolteacher. "Right now, there are families just trying to figure out how to put a meal on the table."

Yet park safety problems are posing serious dangers.

One of the most mesmerizing spots in all of California's state parks includes a stunning hazard. For visitors winding their way up to the East Peak of Mount Tamalpais State Park, with its vistas of the San Francisco Bay, the Verna Dunshee trail beckons with a gentle half-mile loop near the visitors center.

Billed as accessible for the disabled, the asphalt trail includes sections with steep, almost vertical, drop-offs. The state maintenance list includes a $100,000 steel guardrail.

Danita Rodriguez, superintendent of the Marin parks district, said the trail is a "high priority" and will be resurfaced and resloped this summer for wheelchair users. A guardrail is not part of that planned work.

Deteriorating parks also threaten something less tangible: California history.

On Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, dilapidated former military buildings seem to be an intended part of the experience.

That is not necessarily the case.

At the hospital at Camp Reynolds, on the island's west side, an upper window gapes open to the elements. The porch surrounding the building is in ruins.

A notice informs the public that the roof was replaced to preserve the structure. Faded, it dates from Gov. Jerry Brown's administration more than two decades ago. Now the edges of that new roof are crumbling.

On the other side of the island, at the Immigration Station, a World War II barracks has tumbled during the last six months into a pile of broken lumber.

The state's maintenance list estimates Angel Island needs $123 million for 213 projects.

"They're just in pretty bad condition and they're not getting any better," said John Martini, a retired National Park Service military historian. "It's frustrating to staff on the island, and it's frustrating to preservationists, that we can't do more."

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