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Does the Federal Government Really Want to Seize Six California State Parks?


"Drown me! Roast me! Hang me! Do whatever you please," said Brer Rabbit. "Only please, Brer Fox, please don't throw me into the briar patch."
[Brer Rabbit meets a Tar Baby, Uncle Remus tales]

California’s horrendous budget deficit of around $26 billion (down from about $42 billion in January) has forced Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to make some very difficult decisions. Carving away at the state budget has gone way past the fat-cutting stage and is now deep into muscle, sinew, and bone. Everything is painful. Nothing is safe. And sometimes you run into a budgetary snag like the one that has created “cause for pause” in the matter of pruning California’s state park system to save a few bucks.

Well, it’s actually more than a few bucks. Gov. Schwarzenegger figured he could save $143 million by closing 220 of California’s state parks. That’s just 0.55% of the budget deficit, but yes, that’s more than a few bucks.

Here’s the rub. The federal government has provided California’s state park system with hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies over the past four decades (and more), and federal land has also been conveyed to the state of California to benefit the state park system. At least $286 million in federal funds have been funneled to the California state park system since 1965, and six of the 220 parks on the hit list occupy land transferred from federal ownership under the terms of the Federal Lands to Parks Program.

Now California has been reminded that these goodies came with strings attached. Closing the parks will bring repercussions. State parks that have received federal funding may not get federal funding in the future if the public is denied access to them even temporarily. Moreover, the state parks occupying land acquired from the federal government by transfer are subject to seizure and reversion to federal ownership if they are closed

In a letter dated June 8, Jon Jarvis, National Park Service Pacific West regional director, bluntly warned Gov. Schwarzenegger that all six California state parks occupying former federal land could revert to the U.S. government if the state fails to keep the parks open. Having been conveyed to the state through the Federal Lands to Parks Program, Jarvis pointed out, the parklands “must be open for public park and recreation use in perpetuity as a condition of the deed.”

You can read the full text of Jarvis' letter at this site.

Sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? Especially the part about those six state parks reverting to federal ownership.

But wait a minute. Consider which six parks would revert to federal ownership. And consider whether federal ownership would be such a bad thing for the state of California.

The six state parks subject to reversion are Angel Island, (the top of )Mount Diablo, Point Sur State Historic Park, and three beach parks (Fort Ord Dunes, Point Mugu State Park, and Border Fields). These are not remote parks stuck way the hell and gone back in the boonies. They are situated where Californians can easily get at them. And they are mighty fine parcels of recreational land, too.

Angel Island, which variously served as a former federal military and immigration facility, sits in San Francisco Bay not far from Alcatraz and easily reachable by ferry. Day-trippers love to hike the trails and enjoy the view of The City by the Bay.

Mount Diablo is an easy drive to the east of San Francisco, and when you drive to the top of this ecological treasure you are rewarded with what is purported to be the longest-range view from a mountaintop anywhere in the coterminous 48 states. (I can personally attest that you can see all the way to Yosemite on a clear day.) It’s sure easy to see why the Navy used to operate a microwave relay station up there. Line-of-sight wise, you can’t beat it anywhere.

Point Sur State Historic Park is in coastal Big Sur, which is easily reachable via California Highway 1 (the most unrelentingly scenic coastal highway in North America) north from Los Angeles or south from San Francisco. The former Point Sur Naval Facility, the West Coast’s only Sound Surveillance System facility, was transferred to California State Parks (except for one building) in 2000. How gorgeous and special is Big Sur? A betting person would be well advised to bet that National Seashore #11 will be established right there at Big Sur.

The 979-acre Fort Ord Dunes State Park, once a rifle range area of the Fort Ord military base, commands four miles of oceanfront beach with drop-dead gorgeous views of Monterey Bay. Like Point Sur State Historic Park, Fort Ord Dunes State Park is highway accessible, but lots closer to Carmel and Monterey and San Francisco. (Fort Ord Dunes State Park was one of 48 state parks that Gov. Schwarzenegger tried to close in January 2008 as a cost-cutting measure.)

Situated on Highway 1 about 15 miles from Oxnard, the 13,300-acre Point Mugu State Park is in the Santa Monica Mountains, Malibu’s and the greater Los Angeles metro area’s recreational backyard. It’s got five miles of gorgeous ocean shoreline, tremendously diverse terrain (with more than 70 miles of hiking trails), and even a genuine wilderness area (the Boney Mountains State Wilderness Area). Wow!

Border Fields State Park, which is situated on the Mexican border just 15 miles south of San Diego, is an estuarine/beach realm with salt marsh, dune, and beach habitat that is extraordinarily natural for so heavily populated a region.

OK, so what would happen if these properties were to revert to federal ownership? Well, then the taxpayers of California would be relieved of the expense of operating the parks without losing the “free work” that these ecosystems perform. They probably wouldn’t even lose recreational access to these parklands. How bad could that be?

It’s inconceivable that the federal government would regain ownership of these parklands and then dispose of them without protecting their ecological/recreational qualities. It’s beyond the pale to think that the federal government would sit on these properties and deny public access to them.

California accounts for over ten percent of the entire U.S. population and a huge bounty of electoral votes. This is not to mention that Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, is a Californian. In your wildest imagination, can you conceive of a scenario in which California taxpayers get brutally shafted for temporarily closing those six parks as part of a desperate strategy to avoid a fiscal catastrophe?

Five will get you fifty that the reversion warning is an empty threat.


From the sound of it, the Fed could be open to court action if it does not enforce the conditions of the deed transfers to California. Who would see it as in their interest to file the lawsuit(s), I don't know.

Certainly, California's behavior is giving 'drunken sailors' a good name. It not only behooves, but is incumbant upon anyone with any kind of stake in the State to speak up loud & clear, reaffirming any claim they have, on the public record. Failure to do so can be construed as giving tacit approval to a process or condition that clearly endangers their claim. That might make the Fed's statements relatively pro forma.

[Only one bank has announced they will cash California State IOUs - and they have agreed to do so only through July 10. When banks refuse to cash the IOUs, a cascading series of additional fiscal & business crises will likely ensue.]

Then again, while the Obama Admin clearly wants to appear sympathetic & 'nominally' helpful to California, there are other states also ... essentially in a race to the bottom with them. It is in the interest of the Fed to squelch any notion of Uncle Sam solving these State problems ... to such an extent that they may be glad to have an excuse to appear stern & assertive, while also seeming to protect the interests of the national public.

Is it really going to happen? Depends totally on California. How far are they willing to push the brinkmanship? If the State really unravels, yes, the Fed will grab the properties.

It looks to me like the Democrats and Republicans in Sacramento may be engaged in a true death match (they fake it all the time ... WWF has nothing on these guys). They have each other by the throat ... and the media is not even covering the story for what it is (a test-case for national politics).

Obama is using a very similar fiscal model, in trying to address the economic collapse, as got California in trouble in the first place: Throw money at anything & everything. Events in California are a glaring preview of what could happen to the country as a whole. ("A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.")

In terms of the National Parks Traveler, failure of the stimulus to effect recovery could (would be expected to) result not only in the absence of the desired economic activity, but a need to return to the budget (as California has) looking for places to slash & prune.

The punchline is, of course, that just as California looks to its parks as a discretionary outlay that is easily deleted, so also the Fed would look at the National Parks budget as a good place to whittle.

Five will get you fifty that the reversion warning is an empty threat.

I couldn't agree with you more Bob.

It is often said that California is the bellwether state of America and if this opening act of fiscal disaster is any indication of things to come, as it concerns the impending bankruptcy of the Feds, it will surely make Arnold's multi-billion dollar financial black hole look like chump change by comparison.

The Feds are most certainly broke and can't afford these parks any more than the Bear Republic can. It will be interesting to see how all of this shakes out. I'll stay tuned to NPT and hope for the best.

once i agree with the gov. with the way now,they cant even pay their much spending on stupid things,and too many illegals draining their resources.

Unfortunately, our state is unmanageable for a whole host of reasons. Personally, I might be better off with the Feds owning Mt Diablo, since the state parks current policies on mountain biking are pretty restrictive in that park.

In the end, both sides will agree to some crappy solution that will only deflect the problem until next year but won't solve the systemic issue.

Personally I hope NPS does take over Angel Island--as the Ellis Island of the West Coast it ought to be a national historic site. It could be managed as part of GGNRA. Yes, NPS is short of money--but that is nothing new. The way most posters on this site opine, one would think this money shortage is inevitable; in reality it is just a matter of priorities. No, not every "worthy" natural or historical site can be part of our national park system. But that shouldn't mean that no more places may be included. Angel Island would be an excellent addition to the system. And, as pointed out, there are benefits for California were this to happen.

Pork, is hard to see when it is on your own plate... We all like to complain about pork spending, but then in your comments, you made the same assumptions that have kept this country in the pork barrel. You like to pick on the Cuyahoga Valley National Park as an example of political games, but yet you figure that since the Speaker of the House is from California that you have a greater chance to get the parks converted to national park service properties.

I agree with your article as a whole, but pork spending is not a bad thing to the person or group getting the money. Give the NPS an alotment of money and let them spend it as the see fit, without the micromanagement of Congress who is more interested in getting re-elected than doing right for the country.

I am in Ohio, and I think that several of those ocean front properties would make good NPS properties, and should be preserved. That is the reason it should get done, because the project is the right thing to do... not just because of who happens to live near it.

This is all just classic California politics. The voters here (yes, that includes me, so I'll take some of the blame!), through our intiative system, have created a political-financial system that requires compromise on the part of our politicians for it to work. A large majority is required to pass a budget (requiring votes from members of both major parties), and a balanced budget is likewise required. Our problem is that we have elected politicians who refuse to compromise. If they won't compromise then the only thing any individual politician can really do is make noise and threats. Parks are loved by the people, so they become a powerful tool in the political arsenal. While parks here in California have been closed in the past for financial reasons, most of this is just political posturing. Will some parks be closed? Most likely. Will the State allow the feds to take over some of the jewels of the State Park system? Californian pride is not likely going to allow that to happen!!!

Things are going to change (maybe) in the next few years. The redistricting will no longer done by the politicians but by an independent panel, so that should cut down on the number of districts where the parties are entrenched. Hopefully, that should yield more compromise minded politicians.

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