Dominguez, a divorced mother facing eviction from her Santa Rosa home because her landlord wants to sell, gathered her three teenage kids and made the 45-minute drive to North Salmon Creek beach, where her family has free access to a wide swath of sand edging the Pacific just north of Bodega Bay.
The popular beach is part of Sonoma Coast State Park, which has encompassed 17 miles of this lightly developed coastline for more than 80 years. It was here, 21 years ago, that Dominguez, then just a 17-year-old girl recently arrived from Mexico, first saw the ocean.
“Don’t look,” a boy who’d ridden out to the coast with her said as they approached the cliff overlooking the beach. Moments later, she opened her eyes.
“Ay, Dios mío,” she said.
Oh, my God.
Generations of county residents and visitors have been similarly awestruck and enthralled during visits to the Sonoma Coast and 10 other state parks, nature reserves and historic sites within the county.
Now, to sustain California’s parks into the 21st century, state officials say the system needs an overhaul. The transformation, as outlined by a panel appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, is meant to move past a management scandal that engulfed the parks system in 2012 and to extend the promise of places that serve as playground, refuge, classroom and museum for up to 75 million visitors a year.
That future hinges in part on a plan to improve fee collection statewide. But the Sonoma Coast is the only place in California where the state is seeking new fees, advancing an unpopular plan to impose day-use charges of up to $8 at eight coastal sites that have always been free.
The infusion of money would help parks offer more services, protect more land and open new sites for future generations to enjoy, explained John Laird, California’s secretary for natural resources, overseeing state parks.
Laird was an assemblyman during the recession, when a budget gap decades in the making for the parks department became a crisis. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration floated a plan to close dozens of parks. To stave off that scenario, Laird backed a proposal in the Legislature that would have pumped millions into the parks system through an increase in vehicle license fees. It failed to gain support, and in 2010 California voters rejected a similar measure at the ballot box.
Laird took the defeats personally. Born in Santa Rosa, he has fond memories of time spent at his grandparents’ ranch on Gravenstein Highway and trips to the Sonoma Coast with his dad, where the pair tossed tennis balls into the ocean and let the waves carry them back.
“That’s a precious resource that we have to turn over to future generations, and really, is the reason I wanted a long-term fix,” Laird said. “The voters didn’t agree, and we’re stuck in this position. We’re trying to figure out, within the context of the budget, how to do things more efficiently and how to get more money from the Legislature when we can.”
Richard Charter is a Bodega Bay resident who over four decades has fought to protect the North Coast from offshore drilling and preserve public access. Charter questions why visitors would pay extra at sites that offer few amenities beyond a parking lot and portable restrooms.
“People are used to paying for campsites or museums,” said Charter, a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Foundation. “It’s when the state, because of a certain amount of malfeasance in Sacramento, sees a gravel parking lot with an overflowing Porta-Potty as something they can start charging for, I think that raises the main questions now.”
The free park sites make Sonoma County an outlier compared with other parts of the state, where entrance fees are routinely charged, Laird said.
“If the people of Sonoma County went and stood next to all the people from Los Angeles who are paying entrance fees and said, ‘We don’t like it, why should we do it?’ I think they would get an earful,” Laird said. “It’s about balancing interests.”
But Charter said the fee expansion represents a pivotal moment for California. He is among those who view the debate through the prism of social justice.
“Are we going to sit idly by and let the state begin to deny public access, which is really what happens when you throw financial hurdles in the way of families for whom it could serve as a roadblock to have to pay?” he said. “They simply will not go to the coast, and that changes the whole social dynamic, not just of Sonoma County, but in several counties, because Sonoma is where they come, particularly during hot-weather days.”
Rosa Rios, Dominguez’s 17-year-daughter, joined Charter and other environmental elders in April at a marathon Santa Rosa meeting of the California Coastal Commission, the influential entity that oversees protection and development of the coast. If the state were to expand day-use fees at beaches, Rios said, it would further limit the family’s options for spending time together — a point echoed throughout the day by park advocates and local elected officials.
“This is one of our favorite options to liberate us from our struggles and problems,” Rios said.
Forced to cut back
Four years removed from a scandal that toppled its director amid revelations that $54 million had been hidden by department officials to protect their budget — while dozens of parks were slated to be closed — California’s parks system faces a combination of pressures unrivaled in its 152-year history.
Chronic underfunding, management miscues and a failure to modernize have translated into scaled-back services, shorter public hours, skimpy staffing and visible signs of decay throughout the state’s 1.6 million acre parks system — the nation’s second largest behind Alaska.
In Sonoma County, cutbacks have closed bathrooms, campgrounds and water fountains in parks. In the nine-county Bay Area, park staffing is down 60 percent since before the recession, with 55 full-time state parks employees covering 28 sites, including eight in central and southern Sonoma County. The ranger corps in that territory has been cut in half since about 2008. More than $80 million in deferred repairs are needed in state parks in Sonoma County, part of a more than $1 billion backlog statewide.
Parks officials say they are seeking to overcome those hurdles, pointing to a coordinated effort in the aftermath of the 2012 scandal to overhaul management and bring park operations into the 21st century. That campaign includes upgrades in technology for visitors and rangers, greater diversity in leaders at the top of the agency and the concerted push to expand and improve fee collection.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find in our history of state parks an effort that’s been as robust as this,” said Lisa Mangat, who last year became the third director of the California Department of Parks and Recreation since 2012.
Of the 279 sites in the state park system, 171 charge fees. In Sonoma County, including state and county systems, most parks charge fees for day-use and overnight visitors. It is not fair that visitors at parks where fees are charged are subsidizing those who don’t have to, or simply don’t, pay to play, Mangat and other state park officials say.
The parks system collects more than $103 million in visitor fees annually, comprising about 20 percent of its budget.
“This is not a one-off conversation we are having with Sonoma County, but how it fits into the broader scope of the state,” Mangat said.
“We are responsible for 280 parks across the state,” she said. “There is this unprecedented initiative that’s going forward in terms of remodeling ourselves and standing up this kind of new model of stewardship, protection, preservation and interpretation for all people. That’s the overarching vision for California State Parks.”
But others, including local and state representatives, say fundamental change is still a distant dream for the state parks system. Many observers say the overhaul will achieve little if California doesn’t up its commitment to funding parks.
“The bottom line is that we have a state parks system in crisis,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, a prominent voice among those pushing for more money for parks. He opposes the state’s beach fee plan, which he called a “piecemeal approach” that would deter access for low-income visitors and not fully address parks’ budget woes.