Many of us who stay in California do so in part because of its beauty. As friends and neighbors plot moves to lower-tax, lower-regulation and higher-sanity places such as Nevada or Tennessee, we bitter-enders console ourselves. We’ve got Yosemite, the sequoias, Mount Shasta, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and the rugged coastline.
Sure, the social engineers and regulators can chase away middle-class families. They can drive up the cost of everything and make living here difficult for anyone not on a trust fund. They can ignore the infrastructure and leave us bottled up in endless congestion. They can, as one congressman noted, make the Nevada desert a wiser choice to start a business than magnificent Lake Tahoe. But even they can’t screw up Big Sur, right?
Maybe, maybe not. Many of California’s best-known attractions are, of course, part of the federal parks system. But California runs the largest park system outside of Alaska. The system has not only endured its share of scandal, but is in a state of perpetual crisis. No, officials can’t screw up the state’s beauty, but they can make a mess of the parks that give the public access to it.
Last week, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat published a feature detailing the park system’s ongoing travails. This being California, the focus always is on money. Sonoma Coast State Park, for instance, is seeking new fees. The article details myriad and failed attempts to hike state funding and points to the latest efforts, which include possible revenue if the state legalizes recreational marijuana this fall.
No one doubts the financial problems facing the state’s 280 parks. “Chronic underfunding, management miscues and a failure to modernize have translated into scaled-back services, shorter public hours, skimps staffing and visible signs of decay,” according to the article. It quotes the current natural resources secretary, John Laird, who notes the state’s parks budget is one of the few discretionary parts of California’s $171 billion budget.
The situation sometimes echoes the “Washington Monument Syndrome.” Whenever the government is “shut down” over a dispute in the multitrillion-dollar budget, the monument is closed. It’s a good way to annoy tourists and to pressure Congress for more cash. In California, our beloved parks are threatened whenever there’s a budget problem. During one “crisis,” the state turned off the showers at a popular beach. It no doubt cost more to have employees turn off the valves than it did to keep the water running, but it sure was annoying.
In 2015, the Parks Forward Commission released its plan. It called for “a fundamental transformation of the department, rededication to working with park partners, and expansion of park access for all Californians.” Its two-year blueprint is filled with detailed suggestions on reorganizing the bureaucracy, improving leadership, and stabilizing funding. It had some good ideas, the best of which involved working with non-profits.
The chance of legislators passing significant policy changes that transform the bureaucracy and improve the culture is in the ballpark of zero. The unions that represent the public employees who work there essentially have veto power over anything significant. With parks and all state problems, there’s something of a cottage industry of oversight commissions that offer sensible ideas that are promptly ignored. The reports usually follow scandal.
In 2012, the parks department was found to have been sitting on $54 million that news reports referred to as “hidden assets.” It became a huge scandal because the state — then facing massive budget deficits — had been looking at slashing park funding and closing many parks as the money was accumulating. “The money would have been enough to cover — twice over — the $22 million in state budget cuts imposed on parks in 2011,” the Sacramento Bee reported.
The current budget proposal earmarks an additional $60 million to upgrade parks, the Press Democrat explained, but is far short of the $1.3 billion tab for deferred maintenance. If we look at any of the state’s infrastructure holdings, there’s no way these backlogs can ever be brought up to snuff. There isn’t enough tax revenue to do so, especially the way the state spends money. Its priorities are askew. This is a state where, as the Los Angeles Times reported this week, government port pilots (they ferry little boats that guide ships into the harbor) earn $450,000 a year. It’s a state where public-employee unions basically own the Capitol.
Environmentalists are another prime interest group. Many of them aren’t even sure they want to expand access to public parks. They’re more interested in banning motor vehicles and letting more government-owned land remain in its natural state, available only to those who enjoy more rugged exploration. It’s hard to improve something when the mission isn’t clear.
Ironically, the best hope for California’s park system came around the time of the proposed cutbacks and plans to shutter 70 of them. Non-profits, corporations, private donors, Indian tribes, and localities immediately came up with plans to run the parks. Californians aren’t about to let their parks go to seed once the state surrenders them — but they for some reason shrug their shoulders as the parks go to seed while the government mismanages them.
Those of us of a free-market bent have long understood that government — whether local, state, or federal — naturally mismanages its resources. In government, management and marketing decisions are based on the whims of politicians and bureaucrats, who pay no price for their poor decisions. Staffing is determined by what’s best for government employees rather than “customers.” User fees often have little relation to supply and demand. The focus always is on getting more tax dollars, rather than using existing dollars more efficiently.
It’s no surprise a state that does such a poor job managing all of its infrastructure is allowing its treasure trove of parks to crumble. But the situation is an allegory for the state in general. Even our dysfunctional state government can’t ruin California’s natural beauty, but it’s doing its best to erode one of the remaining reasons for staying.