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Proposed park closures could hurt SLO County's economy

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VISIT WHILE YOU CAN :  Montana de Oro State Park is one of about a half dozen parks and beaches in San Luis Obispo County potentially facing the state's chopping block. What a closure due to budget cuts would actually look like is difficult to predict, but many locals are worried about a loss of tourism if the most dire of restrictions materializes. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • VISIT WHILE YOU CAN : Montana de Oro State Park is one of about a half dozen parks and beaches in San Luis Obispo County potentially facing the state's chopping block. What a closure due to budget cuts would actually look like is difficult to predict, but many locals are worried about a loss of tourism if the most dire of restrictions materializes.

# Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to stave off a feared $14 billion budget shortfall--by shaving 10 percent off the top of almost all General Fund departments, programs, boards, commissions, and elected offices--is likely to have a big impact on local state parks. Under the current proposal, seven parks in San Luis Obispo County, including Monta"a De Oro, could be shut down. Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, whose 33rd District covers much of San Luis Obispo County, warned that the effect of multiple closures could be devastating to the area's tourism-based economy.

Of the 48 proposed park closures and service cuts in California, seven are in SLO County. William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach, San Simeon State Park, Harmony Headlands State Park, Estero Bluffs State Park, Morro Strand State Beach, Los Osos Oaks State Reserve, and Monta"a De Oro State Park could all be closed until the budget is stable--and that, according to Blakeslee, could take years.

"The closures would last as long as there is a fiscal crisis," Blakeslee explained. "Certainly, no one is interested in shuttering those facilities for good unfortunately we are going into a recession. And in a tourist economy, the impacts of shutting down these parks could be quite significant, beyond the immediate impact of us just enjoying our parks.

"If someone is coming to the area as a tourist," he continued, "the closure of Monta"a de Oro could mean that someone only stays two days--at the hotels, eating at restaurants, and shopping--instead of three. Without the parks, someone might decide to spend a three-day weekend in Monterey instead of here, and losing a third of that activity has serious consequences to our economy."

No one is quite sure what the closures would look like, whether gates will be erected to keep out would-be visitors or if trails will simply fall into disrepair. Such details are still being addressed by California State Parks, but Blakeslee said that the department will likely let retired and vacant positions go unfilled and will perhaps rely more heavily on volunteers.

The state is hoping to save about $1.7 million by closing the parks in San Luis Obispo County to help hit the proposed $141 billion budget on the mark. The $1.7 million amounts to costs mainly associated with park maintenance, including electricity for pumping water and removing sewage in parks without plumbing.

Blakeslee said that this isn't the first time the state has experienced budget shortfalls, but that since Schwarzenegger abolished the state's ability to borrow money from local governments or state funds with surpluses, this marks the first time in his memory that such drastic cuts have been proposed in order to balance the budget.

"In the past, the state has always had to borrow in lean years," Blakeslee said. "Many of those options were eliminated in the past four years, during Schwarzenegger's administration."

The goal in eliminating those options was to get the state to "live within its means," according to Blakeslee. But Schwarzenegger has been unable to pass legislation that would cap state spending, and the budget has continued to increase. Now, with a $14 billion gap between state revenues and spending, Schwarzenegger has taken what some consider to be a hard-edged approach to reconcile the two.

Nick Franco, State Parks district supervisor, said the department is still forming a plan to deal with the proposed cuts. Any changes would go into effect when the budget is passed. The revised budget is scheduled for mid-May, while the enacted budget is set for summer.

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