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Fixing State Parks without the “scandal”

by on July 31, 2012

Photo by Eva Luedin.
Photo by Eva Luedin.

It’s certainly not hard to apply words like “outrageous” and “appalling” to the current scandal surrounding $54 million dollars in funding for state parks that had gone unspent and undiscovered for over ten years.

But it’s not going to do our beleagured parks any good to engage in overheated rhetoric about corrupt and incompetent government bureaucrats.

It’s true that $54 million would more than cover two years of the funding that Governor Jerry Brown was proposing to cut from the State Park’s general fund budget. But it doesn’t come close to resolving an ongoing budget shortfall for the parks, to say nothing of the $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance, accumulated over more than a decade of declining park budgets. So I would ask everyone involved to keep that overarching fact in mind as we try to find out what went wrong and who was responsible for it.

Here are several comments and questions I’d like to throw out for consideration:

1. The largest portion of the unspent funds ($33.5 million) was from the Off-Highway Vehicle Trust Fund. It is my understanding that those funds are reserved for spending on State Vehicle Recreation Areas—those properties set aside by the state for the people who like to drive high-powered, noise-generating, wildlife-scattering motorcycles, dune buggies, etc. over formerly natural areas. It is also my understanding that this account generally operates at a surplus, but that the stakeholders of these parks (including the manufacturers of “recreational” vehicles and assorted user groups) have resisted most attempts to release some of these funds for the benefit of less-vehicularly-oriented parks.

2. Take away the Off Highway Vehicle Trust Fund dollars, and we’re left with some $20.5 million. Which would have been almost, but not quite, enough to stave off the crisis for one year. But remember, the governor’s tax plan on the November ballot (which is supposedly now in trouble due to this hidden funds mess) doesn’t include any funding for state parks. It would just provide funding for education and public safety, and hopefully thereby reduce pressure for any additional funding cuts for state parks.

3. I.e., there is nothing currently on the horizon that would restore, not to mention increase, former insufficient levels of general fund support for state parks. On the contrary, the defeat of Brown’s tax measure would almost certainly lead to deeper cuts. In which case, that $54 million (or $20 million) would sure come in handy. But not for long.

4. It doesn’t appear that we’re looking at corruption in the usual sense here, as there have been no allegations that anyone profited from these unspent funds.

5. So the big mystery is, why? Who benefitted from sitting on this money? What motive was there for NOT spending it? It’s almost as if the department had squirreled away a “rainy day fund” but then forgot about it when the actual downpour hit.

6. I certainly believe just-resigned director of State Parks when she says that she didn’t know about these funds. But that points to a department steeped in an opaque and entrenched bureaucratic culture, the same sort of culture that produced the list of 70 parks to be closed and then failed to be transparent about the selection criteria used. If this current scandal can lead to a cultural change at the department, then perhaps it will ultimately have been a positive thing, though admittedly it’s difficult now to see the end of this particular tunnel.

7. And finally, to all of those who were motivated by the funding crisis to get involved and get active on behalf of your state parks, I would say that your efforts have not been wasted. The recent outpouring of grassroots support points the way to a more participatory and transparent relationship between the state parks and the public they serve. We, the people, now have an even greater stake in the parks we have paid for twice over (first through taxes, then through donations), and we certainly have the right to look over the shoulders of those hired to manage our collective property.

David Loeb is the executive director of the Bay Nature Institute and publisher of Bay Nature Magazine.

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Jeff Miller on August 2nd, 2012 at 3:53 pm

I beg to differ – we should not concede or let the off-roaders take away the $33.5 million in Off Highway Vehicle Trust Fund dollars. The argument by off-road vehicle groups and lobbyists and even the former Parks Director to justify hiding the secret off-road vehicle fund as their money – is wrong on several fronts.

The Legislature established a dedicated funding stream and budget fund for the off-road vehicle division consisting of park entrance fees, off-road vehicle registration “sticker” fees and fuel tax transfers. The vast majority of the off-road vehicle budget is from fuel tax transfers rather than park entrance fees or sticker fees; and the vast majority of those funds are paid by people using street legal vehicles to drive on dirt roads to picnic, camp, fish or hike – not ride motorcycles or ATVs. The off-road vehicle division is subsidized by our tax dollars.

The off-road vehicle division of State Parks is an insular rogue organization dominated and controlled by the off-road vehicle lobby, not an accountable public agency, catering to and answering to a small set of park users. And it does not operate a pay to play system. It presides over a gross misallocation of tax dollars that benefits a narrow set of park users, while trashing our public natural resources. The off-road vehicle lobby perpetuates the funding myth to conceal the huge subsidies from the general public.

The off-road vehicle fund became a slush fund to be hidden from the Governor, the Legislature and public taxpayers. Keeping two sets of books is fraud. Secret funds in state government are fraudulent, corrupt and can never be justified or tolerated.

Jeff Miller on August 2nd, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Another point – it is not just “formerly natural areas” that the off-roaders want to destroy. In eastern Alameda County they are trying to expand the off-road mayhem at Carnegie State Vehicle Recreation Area – one of the worst-managed state parks, with massive erosion, water quality and endangered species killing problems – into Tesla Valley, an incredible natural area with numerous endangered species and rare plants.

David Loeb
David Loeb on August 2nd, 2012 at 5:58 pm

I’m not sure there’s any disagreement here, Jeff. You may be (in fact, probably are) right that those Off Highway Vehicle Trust Fund dollars should not be considered off-limits for spending on the parks that serve the majority of the state’s population — folks who don’t want to recreate with off-road vehicles in places that have been scarred and abused. I was simply pointing out that these funds are currently considered off-limits, and would not have been used to save those 70 parks slated for closure in any event. Changing this unfortunate state of affairs would be a major political battle. (Which–bless you–you have never shied away from!) However, a battle that we should definitely engage in–and have a good chance of winning–is the one you refer to in your second comment: saving Tesla Valley east of Livermore from being incorporated into the Carnegie State Vehicle Recreation Area. One way to get involved is to contact the Friends of Tesla Park (http://www.teslapark.org/) who are spearheading this campaign. You can also read a great Bay Nature article about the irreplaceable natural and cultural resources of this beautiful valley (http://baynature.org/articles/the-vale-of-tesla/).

Peter Rauch on August 2nd, 2012 at 6:47 pm

You state, “4. It doesn’t appear that we’re looking at corruption in the usual sense here, as there have been no allegations that anyone profited from these unspent funds.”

Whether this is corruption in the usual or the unusual sense, it _is_ incompetence, insensitivity, and dereliction of duty. The result of this un-voted-for behavior and conduct of State business created much anguish, hardship, and actual physical imperilment to our State Parks (by not spending available resources in a timely manner).

The behavior, I’d say, did indeed corrupt the system –is that “corruption” ?


Peter Rauch on August 2nd, 2012 at 6:54 pm

You also state, “It is my understanding that those funds are reserved for spending on State Vehicle Recreation Areas—those properties set aside by the state for the people who like to drive high-powered, noise-generating, wildlife-scattering motorcycles, dune buggies, etc. over formerly natural areas.”

Those OHV/SVRA funds are spent precisely on CONVERTING natural areas to devastated State Park-owned areas. And, they are spent on badly-failed attempts by OHMVR to “restore” their inventory of environmentally devastated SVRAs –OHMVR does not know the meaning of the concept “restoration”.

To lead the Bay Nature readership to a notion that OHV/SVRA riders use “formerly natural areas” is to hide the larger truth –they create, and they “maintain”, those devastations.


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