IN 1936 THE CIVILIAN CONSERVATION CORPS, founded to provide jobs for laid-off Depression-era workers, finished constructing a vast open-air theater in Mount Tamalpais State Park just north of San Francisco. Crews from the corps had been dispatched to parks across the country to build lodges, cabins, and picnic areas—or, in this case, to install 5,000 terraced stone seats in a natural amphitheater. Like most successful public spaces, the outdoor theater proved both ennobling and useful. More than seven decades later, busloads of visitors arrive on summer weekends to recline on blankets beneath the trees and watch the season's Mountain Play. In the foreground is Annie or Fiddler on the Roof and in the background the glittering San Francisco Bay.
But supervising ranger Laura Wong no longer sees the splendor. She sees overgrown pines and madrones she can't afford to thin. "Half those trees should be removed," Wong says. "Half. That's the hard truth and it keeps me up at night."
It's not the only reason she's losing sleep. Wong also lacks the cash to adequately patrol the busy campgrounds of nearby Samuel P. Taylor State Park, a redwood-shaded refuge from the swelter of summer. "We're getting ground down," Wong says. "By the time people understand what's happened at our parks, it will be too late."
Alas, she's in good, if demoralized, company. "It's very, very tough out there right now," says Philip McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors. Throughout the West, tax revenue shortfalls have brutally squeezed the region's 1,600 state parks. Cherished for their beauty and history, they range from Hearst Castle on California's Central Coast to Alaska's 1.6-million-acre Wood-Tikchik wilderness. Some, such as Bear Lake on the Utah-Idaho border, are famous among water-skiers; others, including Arizona's Tombstone Courthouse, draw history buffs.
All are under stress. Nevada may turn some year-round parks seasonal, while Idaho has toyed with closures. Most famously, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger last year proposed shutting 48 California state parks and beaches. Although that particular plan fizzled, the news on the state's budget keeps getting worse. The gates are still open at places such as Sutter's Fort—a historic Central Valley settlement—but there isn't enough money to repair the site's timeworn 2½-foot-thick adobe walls. The National Trust for Historic Preservation put California's park system on its 2008 most endangered list. "Without proper care, historic buildings and landscapes will deteriorate to a point where restoration may no longer be feasible," said President Richard Moe.
Cruelly, the weak economy now ravaging the parks is driving more vacationers their way. State park visits nationwide rose by 18 million in 2008. "To go to a national park or Disneyland requires travel and money," McKnelly says, "but most people can get to a state park within 100 miles." Meanwhile, fewer staffers are stocking bathrooms and collecting trash. "It's falling apart," says Wong. "Everything feels overwhelming. Maybe I should move to Oregon."
MAYBE SHE SHOULD. Oregon is one state whose parks seem poised to weather the economic crisis with a modicum of grace. And it's all about how the bills are paid. If the mountain amphitheater is a diamond in the rough, Vista House—650 miles north—is a polished jewel. While California's parks get money from a pot of tax dollars divvied up among schools, prisons, and other concerns, Oregon's parks have their own income no legislator can touch. In 1998, voters mandated that a portion of the state lottery proceeds flow straight to the parks, bypassing Salem. "It changed the landscape significantly," says Dave Eshbaugh, executive director of the nonprofit Oregon State Parks Trust. "The budget isn't subject to the sharp knives and the whims of the moment."
With its nest egg in place, Oregon's parks department laid long-term goals, building ties with communities, investing in sustainable energy, and catching up on repairs. Among the more ambitious fixes: an overhaul of the troubled Vista House. Opened in 1918, it had been established for the homeliest of purposes: to provide toilets for motorists on the Columbia River Highway. But it was no ordinary rest stop. Perched on a promontory with commanding views of the gorge, the building was designed to reflect the grandeur of its setting. From the outside, Vista House is a striking art nouveau octagon with opalescent windows and a green tile roof. Visitors enter through a pink limestone rotunda with gilded bas-reliefs, hand-carved drinking fountains, and floors of soft Alaskan marble.
But from the beginning Vista House leaked disastrously, and over the decades hideous fixes—boarded-up windows, tarredover skylights—failed to help. When Kevin Price took charge in 1988, he and his staff were pumping, mopping, and squeegeeing out as much as 65 gallons of water every day it rained.
Lottery income helped rewrite the script. In the last decade, the leaking has been halted, skylights uncovered, windows restored, and wheelchair-accessible elevators installed, the dazzling restoration funded by a partnership between nonprofits, the parks system, and the local community. Today Vista House is staffed in large part with volunteers galvanized by the chance to rescue a landmark. Ten years ago, staff spent little time fostering community ties; today staffers regularly devote their energies to reaching out and rallying local support.
"Volunteerism is highly valued at the highest levels of our organization," says M.G. Devereux, park manager at Tryon Creek, a lush 645-acre park full of maples, alders, and thimbleberry bushes just minutes from downtown Portland. Devereux regularly calls on a pool of 150 volunteers, who have done everything from clearing trails to leading the campaign to make the park environmentally sustainable. Which it now is, with waterless urinals, recycled carpeting in the nature center, and LED lights. "I don't think it could have happened without the ballot measure," says Dave Eshbaugh of the Oregon parks trust.
Other states have succeeded in different ways. In 2003, Montana was on the verge of closing a handful of parks when voters elected to tack an optional $4 fee on to vehicle registrations. "It's the price of a cup of coffee," says Chas VanGenderen, acting administrator of Montana's parks, "and we've made progress in leaps and bounds." Almost overnight the budget grew, enabling the parks not just to stay open but to mend cracked sidewalks, retile grotty bathrooms, and replace decrepit boat ramps. In return for that $4 fee, Montanans are no longer charged to enter the parks. The result: More people are boating on Ackley Lake and picnicking beside the Yellowstone River.
"By no means are all our money problems solved," says VanGenderen. "But then they're never going to completely go away." Oregon's Eshbaugh agrees: "I think it's going to be damned hard in the next few years. But we're not doing badly by comparison with some of our surrounding states."
HE'S TALKING ABOUT CALIFORNIA, of course. With 279 parks covering 1.5 million acres, the state has the most varied parks system in the country and, after decades of neglect, one of the most distressed. Trying to learn from Montana's success, last year a California assemblyman proposed tacking a $10 fee on vehicle registration renewals to fund parks. The surcharge was projected to bring in some $282 million a year, seven times the $40 million from day-use fees. It might have done the trick. But when Sacramento did enact a vehicle surcharge this year, the revenue was set aside to meet general obligations.
Meanwhile, even voter-approved projects are frozen, including the rehabilitation of Yosemite Slough in San Francisco's Candlestick Point State Recreation Area. This was California's first nature-oriented urban state park—a slice of attractive bay shore—yet it has no volunteer base, its facilities are aging, and in one fenced-off corner sits a rubble-strewn brownfield requiring tens of millions of dollars to restore. Tryon Creek, Oregon's first urban state park, runs on sustainable energy, boasts a corps of devoted volunteers, and is virtually litter free. Which park is in better shape to face a tough economic future?
Here's the larger, harder question: Should we really get worked up about parks when families are losing their homes, schools their teachers, and retirees their pensions?
Yes, says Traci Verardo-Torres, legislative and policy director of the California State Parks Foundation. She estimates that each dollar California spends on its parks gives back $2.35 to the state's general fund. Even if that figure sounds generous, which it does, there's no doubt that park visitors help fill a region's many shops and restaurants. After California proposed closing Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, Tuolumne County officials estimated they would lose $13 million in revenue.
A healthy state parks system could also spark the economy more directly. Many parks were built and beautified during the last major economic crisis. If that was a good idea yesterday, why not today? Moreover, while the Mount Tamalpais theater project probably looked like charity at the time, it turned out to be a fine bet. Consider the many dividends that Californians have reaped from that venture. There's no reason to believe a future investment in our parks won't prove equally valuable.
Candlestick Point all along has been among the parks proposed for closure, but on a cloudless Sunday afternoon it's hard to imagine telling the families at picnic tables to take their coolers elsewhere, or informing the dozen anglers they can no longer cast for sturgeon from the docks. Opened in 1978, the 252-acre park is achingly beautiful. On this ribbon of land wedged between the sparkling bay and a low-income neighborhood, native oaks, ground squirrels, flowering flannel bushes, and ash-throated flycatchers have staked their claim.
Tiny pockets like this are far more poignant than dramatic wildernesses because they are more fragile—more easily overlooked and dismissed. Yet they are, in their way, as precious as the Yellowstones and Yosemites. People can bike to state parks from their homes. They can camp on weekends or drive in for afternoons of fishing, hiking, or dawdling. It may seem in times like these that we can't afford places like Candlestick Point, but it is probably in times like these that we need them most.
STATE PARKS WE LOVE
VIA has long steered readers to the West's state parks not that we've covered them all by any means. Oregon has 228, California 279, Idaho 30, offering activities ranging from hiking and birding to boating and off-road vehicle riding. To find details on hundreds of stellar sites, including links for making campground reservations and hints on getting the most from the parks' amenities, visit the state Web sites named below. Here are brief overviews of 10 of the region's most unforgettable spots.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park East of San Diego. California's largest, with badlands, arroyos lined with native palms, bighorn sheep, dry washes, and dramatic vistas.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park Near Santa Cruz. California's first, with 18,000 acres of virgin forest, creeks, and 67 miles of trails.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve Near Monterey. A craggy jumble of granite, meadows, coves, and tide pools, with sea otters and whales.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park Near Crescent City. More than 14,000 acres of majestic coast redwoods, huckleberries, and ferns.
Bruneau Dunes State Park South of Mountain Home. The nation's tallest single-structure sand dune rises here beside two small lakes.
Harriman State Park Northeast of Idaho Falls. Hiking, biking, fishing, and wildlife viewing in sight of the Teton Range's western slopes.
Priest Lake State Park North of Priest River near the Canadian border. Three separate parks totaling 755 acres two on a spectacular 19-mile-long lake surrounded by firs, cedars, and tamaracks.
Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park East of Reno. A century-old gold-mining town preserved adjacent to a fossil site with Mesozoic marine reptiles.
Cathedral Gorge State Park Northeast of Las Vegas. A dramatic desert canyon lined with stone spires eroded from an ancient lakebed.
Valley of Fire State Park Near Lake Mead. Nevada's oldest, with red sandstone formations, petrified wood, and Native petroglyphs.
Ecola State Park South of Astoria. Coves, forests, and rocky points with views of an old lighthouse on more than 1,300 acres north of Cannon Beach at Tillamook Head.
Guy W. Talbot State Park East of Portland. Picnic spots and access to other nearby parks. A short trail leads to 250-foot Latourell Falls.
Silver Falls State Park Northeast of Salem. An 8.7-mile trail along Silver Creek passes 10 waterfalls, including 177-foot South Falls.
Wallowa Lake State Recreation Area South of Joseph. Camping and picnicking facilities near 1,500-acre Wallowa Lake. A tram nearby climbs 8,200-foot Mount Howard.
Antelope Island State Park Near Salt Lake City. The Great Salt Lake's largest island, with antelope, bison, bighorn sheep, bobcats, migratory birds, and plenty of hiking trails.
Dead Horse Point State Park Near Moab. Sweeping vistas of the Colorado River gorge from a tall promontory between Canyonlands and Arches national parks.
Wasatch Mountain State Park Near Park City. Utah's most visited state park sits on 22,000 acres between the Heber Valley's farmland and the Wasatch Range's east slope.