Lawless future

Hard times extra hard for state parks

  • Larryn Carver stands in what once was the generator room at the historic Hunt Ranch.

    Khai Le
  • The High Up House, boarded up and deteriorating, a victim of budget cuts to California state parks.

    Khai Le
  • Vandals have left their mark in the High Up House in California's Wildwood State Park.

    Khai Le
  • Vandals have left their mark in the High Up House in California's Wildwood State Park.

    Khai Le
 

Standing in the foyer of the High Up House, a 1950s-era ranch headquarters in California's Wildwood Canyon State Park, Larryn Carver contemplates swastikas. Four have been splotched on the wall here in sloppy paint, along with nonsensical slogans and cheery hearts. "Did the person who did this understand it?" Carver asks. "Or was it just a kid trying to do the ultimate bad thing?"

A 43-year-old archaeologist with California State Parks, Carver once considered the High Up House, with its broad stone fireplace and high airy ceilings, a potential visitors' center for this 850-acre swatch of oak-covered foothills near the San Bernardino Mountains. Built over a 25-year period following the Great Depression, it harks back to a time when a man could lose everything in the city and yet still prosper in the woods, supporting his family with a well-run farm.

But today the house is disintegrating, as are the buildings just down the hill that make up the historic Hunt Ranch, where sunlight pours through dilapidated rooftops and house wrens nest in cabinets. "We could have saved this building if we'd had the funds," Carver laments, standing in a beat-up barn and looking up through its shredded ceiling. "Now it'll just have to be torn down."

The same entropy that plagues these crumbling structures threatens state parks all over the West, which have quickly become standing metaphors for the tattered U.S. economy. Arizona closed two historic parks in its 30-park system due to an $8 million loss in state funding and a $200 million maintenance backlog. Idaho reduced hours at its state parks after losing $9 million in state funds; Colorado raised camping fees to pay state park bills. Just about the only state park system in the West not suffering is in Oregon, which funds parks with lottery revenue.

The state park decline is most dramatic in California. California State Parks lost 10 percent of the $143 million it gets from the state's general fund, as both the Legislature and Gov. Schwarzenegger scrambled to resolve the state's $24 billion deficit. And because that lost revenue "snowballs to other cuts," says parks spokesperson Roy Stearns, "our total loss for the year is $38.6 million."

Stearns predicts that as many as 100 of the state's 279 parks may close, many of them historic sites, such as Monterey State Historic Park with its 19th century adobes, and the fabled Bodie ghost town. "Historic sites have the lowest visitation," Stearns says. They can't compete with Southern California's state beaches, which bring in two to three million visitors a year. "But they represent the legacy of who we are as a people. We shouldn't just abandon them." The structures at Wildwood Canyon offer a clue to what happens when we do.

Set aside to save land from exurban development, Wildwood Canyon State Park was never given any money at all; when the state Legislature agreed to fold it into the state park system in 2003, it was on the condition that no funds would be dedicated for its operation. There is no ranger to mind the grounds, no workers to maintain trails. A few times a month, a maintenance crew comes out to see whether the plywood bolted over the windows has held up. Often it hasn't. The last time the barricades were shored up, the High Up House was vandalized within the next hour.

Buildings aren't all that's at risk. Swaths of state parkland preserved for migrating wildlife could end up overtaken by off-highway vehicle enthusiasts who resent the rules of state-managed land. Ten miles west of Wildwood lie the badlands of San Timoteo Canyon, 1,200 acres of state park land linking the San Bernardino Mountains with the Colorado Desert. The corridor benefits a number of non-charismatic but significant creatures, such as the endangered Stephen's kangaroo rat. A gurgling perennial creek -- a marvel in this dust-dry canyon -- makes the parcel a crucial byway for birds: The least Bell's vireo, an endangered songbird, travels through here, as do burrowing owls.

But while California State Parks rescued "San Tim" from tract housing, it did not raise enough money to keep out the riffraff. Off-highway vehicles ravage the hillsides; tree branches sag under platforms built by paintballers. Carver, who is tall but delicate, has been instructed not to leave her truck if she visits the park without a ranger. "The last time I spent any time out here, I was with a group of students who were planning to do a survey," she recalls. "We left after a couple of trucks pulled up loaded to the gills with automatic weapons."

A list of California state parks that might face a lawless future will be released after Labor Day; until then, park advocates continue to search for new funding. On Aug. 17, the State Department of Parks and Recreation raised day-use and camping fees; now, corporate donors are being canvassed for help. Carver doubts such donors can make much difference. "Corporate money might come in to save the glamour parks," she predicts. "But I worry about the parks that don't have a natural tie-in to beer and sunscreen," and have little to attract visitors but open space and history. 

"Some of these parks are not actually closeable," she adds. "You can say they're closed, but there's no actual way to keep people out. And once the things they're meant to save are destroyed, there's no getting them back."

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....