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Charred chaparral litters the hillsides of California’s Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, where the Glass Fire torched 75 percent of the park’s 4,800 acres. Above the hillsides are “the skeletons, if you will, of the trees that were killed in the last fire” in 2017 says John Roney, the park manager at Sugarloaf.
Fires have always been part of the natural ecosystem of the West, but the next looming crisis is completely human-made: With user fees down due to both the wildfires and the COVID pandemic, park managers are forecasting budget shortfalls, leaving some observers to worry that state budgets could be balanced on the backs of the parks.
This year, more state parks closed due to COVID-19 and wildfires in California than in any other state. Thirteen of the state’s parks are currently shuttered either due to wildfires or COVID restrictions. California draws from a state parks enterprise fund, in which all park-generated revenue stays in the park, to pay for infrastructure. If fewer visitors are coming, that means less money flowing into the parks’ coffers.
California Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget for next fiscal year includes $150 million to help make up for the loss of funding, but advocacy groups still anticipate a significant shortfall. That’s worrying both for California, which is relying on the general fund after facing more closures than any other U.S. state in the past year, and the 75 million annual visitors to those state parks. It could be more than a year before Big Basin Redwoods State Park reopens, and many other state parks like Butano, Julia Pfeiffer Burns and Henry W. Coe are closed until further notice.
But there are several ways around this issue, a few of which California has already adopted since the Great Recession in 2008. The state’s experience with the previous economic crisis could offer a roadmap out of this one.
However, the state does still have some options, some of them adopted in the wake of the 2008 recession, to help its parks keep the trails clean and the lights on. Besides the enterprise fund, California also partners with a dedicated nonprofit organization, the California State Parks Foundation, which received more than $8 million in contributions in the 2018-19 fiscal year.
If that’s not enough, Margaret Walls, an economist with Resources for the Future, worries that California may increase park fees to balance its accounts—a move which could keep lower-resourced communities out.
“It’s really important to keep parks accessible for people who don’t have much income,” Walls says. Instead of raising entry fees, she suggests upping prices for things like campsite and boat rentals, which don’t bar entry to low income visitors. In a normal year, California’s state parks would play host to about 75 million visitors, with rental and use fees making up around a quarter of its budget; If the state is able to funnel hikers and tourists into its functioning units (including, partially, Sugarloaf Ridge), that cash could go a long way.
While California’s state parks have a steep climb ahead of them, Sugarloaf Ridge’s John Roney remains optimistic. In the ashy meadow near the Hurd Ranch section of the park, “there’s green rushes already sprouting through, just about ten days after the fire, without any rain.”
“That just struck me,” he says. “We’ve been here before, and we got through it. We’ll get through it again.”