Monday, June 18, 2012

The First 70: The California State Parks Due To Be Closed July 1

Sometimes we get so busy with our jobs and personal lives, that we don't realize something we cherish, something we assume will always be there and that we take for granted, is about to be taken away from us. And sadly, sometimes when we finally take a moment to pause the rhythm of our daily lives, to be quiet and listen, it might be too late to do anything about it.

My husband Dave and I attended a free screening of the documentary “The First 70” at the REI store in Santa Monica last Thursday evening.

The film focuses on the upcoming closure of 70 California state parks this July 1; the filmmakers visited each park and interviewed park employees. Unfortunately, it wasn't the most ideal setting for a screening – a small movie screen was set up in the middle of the fluorescent lit store; when the film finally started after several technical errors (and many apologies from the embarrassed REI employee), it was often interrupted by loud announcements from the store's intercom.

But once the film started, the twenty or so people watching were transfixed by the images of these parks: cascading waterfalls, lush green hills, a curious deer staring into the camera, soaring birds, a historic mansion lovingly maintained by a park employee (who remarked sadly that she had hoped to work at the park until her retirement). Park employees, as well as activists fighting to stop the closures, were interviewed for the film.

The general concern of the people interviewed seems to be this: the short term solution of closing these parks in order to make budget cuts (folks, I'm not even going to pretend to understand how the California budget works, so I'm not going to go into detail about that issue) is ultimately a disastrous one. When these parks are closed, it will be impossible to keep people out of them completely. As one man in the film remarked, the state is probably not going to build ten foot walls around these large expanses of land; people will most likely continue to hike past the “PARK CLOSED” signs, and possibly even camp.

People hiking into closed, unsupervised parks may not seem like a big deal. But unfortunately, less conscientious people might leave litter, and there won't be any park employees to clean up the mess. Without park supervision, there's also greater danger of fires being started by careless visitors. And with no park rangers around, if someone is injured or lost or in danger, who is there to help? Vandalism and graffiti are also major concerns, as many of these parks are the site of historic homes and buildings. It was suggested in the film that closing the parks will ultimately end up costing the state more, due to the maintenance and repairs that would be required for the damage done. 


Another sort of damage, in a cultural sense, that would be caused by the closures would be the impact upon school, church and youth groups. Many of these parks have educational buildings, bookstores, guided tours, etc.; children won't get to benefit from them if these facilities are closed. (One park employee interviewed bemoaned the fact that children would no longer be able to look through the telescope in his local park's observatory.)

To try to come up with a short term solution and to avoid park closures, several non-profit groups have become involved (you can find links at the end of this post). They've raised enough money (as well as their voices) to prevent several of the parks from closing. One gentleman, interviewed in the film, is a business owner who took over financial responsibility for one of the parks and saved it from closure. He owns a brewery and obtains the water for his brewery from the stream in the park, he wanted to give something back by saving the park from closure. Fortunately, this man didn't want the logo for his brewery displayed anywhere in the park; he simply wanted the park to continue as it had always been.

However, in the discussion with two non-profit heads after the film, the question was raised whether or not it was a wise idea to try to raise money from the private sector. Shouldn't it be the state's responsibility? One of the non-profit leaders, Alden Olmsted (head of Olmsted Park Fund), replied that he hoped raising from the private sector was only a short term solution, as the parks are ultimately the state's responsibility. The concern was raised that if businesses took over the park, they might want to display their company's logo throughout the park (not all business owners being as hands-off as the brewery owner). In the meantime, they're trying to raise enough funds as possible, as well as enough uproar, to stop the closures of the remaining parks.

With the deadline of July 1 coming up, hopefully it's not too late. It's not surprising that more people aren't aware of this issue and the upcoming deadline, with the constant barrage of celebrity gossip and partisan bickering that dominates our headlines. (Why isn't this all over the news?)

Here's how you can help:

A personal end note: yesterday was Father's Day. My father passed away in 2007 after a long battle with emphysema. He could be a difficult, cranky guy, especially as he grew older and dealt with his debilitating health, but he had a good heart, loved children, and was very witty and intelligent.

One thing he enjoyed doing when we were kids was going on family road trips. He loved to drive, especially along winding mountain roads, and liked to view the changing scenery; he'd make sure to announce points of interest along the way. In the summer of 1970, we took one of these road trips, trailer in tow, across the United States. One thing he always made sure to do is go to as many state and national parks as possible. There are photos of my brother, sister, mother and I, squinting in the sun (he always had to take photos of us in the sun! why?), usually standing before a statue of a bear, or a historic plaque, or noteworthy sign. 

I think he felt it was important to take us to visit these natural treasures, to show us that there was a rich, fascinating and adventurous world beyond our little suburb of Cherry Hill. But mostly, especially since he a banker and worked in an office from 9 to 5, I think he relished getting out and enjoying nature.

As I watched “The First 70” film, I thought of my dad and his love of parks, and started to feel very emotional. I understand that some sacrifices have to be made in an attempt to balance the California budget, but . . . this? Really? I think he would have been disgusted by the whole thing. 

I'm grateful and I feel lucky to have had a father who understood the importance of traveling beyond one's own backyard, and hiking amongst the pines and streams, in a paradise not to be taken for granted.

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