The dramatic landscape of Natural Bridges State Beach served as the backdrop to an impassioned rally on June 1, with over 500 residents coming together to oppose Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed plan to cut $213 million from the California State Parks system by 2011.
The cuts, which were announced just days before, would come in the form of an amendment to the state budget and would effectively close 80 percent of California’s state parks. Two hundred twenty out of 279 state parks, including every park located in Santa Cruz County, will be closed if the legislators approve the plan.
Randy Widera, the director of strategic development and partnerships for the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, which hosted the rally, said he was impressed with the high turnout by the people of Santa Cruz.
“I couldn’t imagine a more important issue in a more important place,” Widera said. He continued by asking the vocal crowd, “Why are we always having to save our state parks?”
Speakers at the rally addressed the many issues that will arise if the state park system is dismantled, including decreased public safety, loss of tourism revenue, a vacuum of ranger patrol and the loss of vital environmental stewardship programs.
Fred Keeley, the Santa Cruz County treasurer and former assemblyman for the 27th district, which includes Santa Cruz, said during the rally that the cuts are dangerous because closing the parks will not necessarily prevent people from visiting the sites.
“What’s being proposed is an abandonment of the state parks — that’s lunacy to do that,” Keeley said. “If we accept these cuts we’re waving a white flag of surrender to the intergenerational responsibility we have to save our state parks.”
There have been reports that the governor is using the proposed cuts as an intimidation tactic to leverage state Republicans, who oppose any new taxes or fees, into considering finding new revenue sources.
Bonny Hawley, executive director of Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, said that citizens must fight the proposed legislation regardless.
“Some people think the governor is bluffing,” she said during the rally. “We can’t risk finding that out — there’s too much at stake.”
Brian Dowd, a UC Santa Cruz environmental studies lecturer and Ph.D. candidate, teaches a class about the importance of environmental interpreters and outdoor educators in California and has worked for organizations such as the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Dowd spoke about some of the hidden costs that would come as a result of closing the state parks.
“Who’s there protecting public safety? Who’s there making sure trash doesn’t pile up? Who’s there enforcing the laws?” Dowd asked. “That’s a hidden tax on the local community that’s going to come up.”
Several speakers at the rally warned against the state parks’ cause getting pitted against other important issues in the face of numerous draconian budget cuts. Dowd also believes that it is counterproductive to oppose these cuts without addressing them in the scope of the larger budgetary catastrophe at hand.
“A conscientious Californian can’t think of this just as ‘save our state parks,’” Dowd said. “We need to marry it with larger issues and seek new revenue sources to solve these problems.”
Organizers of the rally encouraged citizens to contact the governor and other state lawmakers via phone, e-mail, and an online petition to make it known that they would not accept the cuts. A bus full of supporters attended a legislative hearing in Sacramento on Tuesday, where they got a chance to express their disapproval to state lawmakers through public comment.
A bevy of citizens, young and old alike, stood with creative signs emblazoned with the names of their favorite state parks in Santa Cruz, from Seabright State Beach and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, to Wilder Ranch and the Forest of Nisene Marks.
One resident summed up the tone of the rally with a sign that referenced the great California naturalist John Muir.
It simply read, “We need a Muir-acle.”