Union Democrat staff

Yes, economic times are tough, California is amid an epic budget crisis, and we all know that sacrifices lie ahead.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to defray part of the state's $24.3 billion deficit by shutting 220 California parks - including Columbia, Big Trees and Railtown - is an ill-timed cure that will only worsen the disease.

First off, the $150 million supposedly saved accounts for less than 1 percent of the deficit and less than one-tenth of one percent of the entire state budget.

Secondly, there is evidence that administration plans to close these parks will actually cost more than it saves:

• Studies have shown that every dollar the state invests in its parks system generates enough spending to produce $2.35 in California sales tax revenue. If you don't believe this, ask merchants in Columbia, Jamestown or Arnold how hard closures of the nearby parks would hit them.

• Some 75 million people visit state parks each year and, according to a study just released by California State University, Sacramento, they spend $4.3 billion while doing so. This generates $300 million in sales tax revenue, $122 million of which is paid by out of state visitors.

Not only that, but visitation at state parks is up, as the tough economy is forcing residents of California and neighboring Western states to choose destinations closer to home.

Parks in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties certainly generate their share: According to Calaveras Sector Superintendent Vince Sereno, Columbia and Big Trees each attract between 500,000 and 600,000 visitors a year. Railtown draws another 65,000.

According to the Sac State study, the average visitor spends $24.63 inside parks and another $33 coming to or from the park. That's $57.63 per visitor.

Thus the 1.2 million visitors here together spend more than $69 million, generating more than $4.8 million in yearly sales tax revenues. That's nearly twice the combined budgets of the three local parks.

There's more: Each of the parks has a dedicated volunteer corps that puts in tens of thousands of hours of free labor.

Railtown's 135 docents last year worked an incredible 21,000 hours. Columbia and Big Trees each have about 150 volunteers who together logged at least 20,000 more.

These dedicated volunteers are a bargain for the state. By closing the parks, it will not only lose contributed labor worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but will risk the loyalty of these volunteers. Once told to stay home, how many would be ready and willing to return once the parks reopen?

But how do we convince the governor and the Legislature to spare the parks?

For concessionaires and residents of Columbia State Historic Park, the answer is easy: Attend Wednesday night's Columbia Advisory Council meeting (7 p.m., Angelo's Hall).

Jess Cooper, acting Central Valley District parks superintendent, will be on hand. Suggestions, ideas, options will be discussed. "This is the chance for the community to speak," said Janice Nelson of the council.

Columbia faces something of a double whammy: Not only is closure of the entire park threatened, but on June 21 Forever Resorts will likely leave rather than abide by the terms of a City Hotel complex concession contract drawn up by the state. Barring an 11th-hour miracle, the hotel, its restaurant, the What Cheer Saloon, and the Fallon Hotel will all close on the 21st. (The Fallon House Theater will remain open.)

Breaking the huge concession pact down into smaller, individual business agreements may be discussed Wednesday, as might other options.

There will no doubt be some animosity toward state officials, but keep in mind that Parks Department staff members have a major stake in keeping Columbia open for business. A cooperative approach may be the key to success.

As for Big Trees and Railtown?

Contact your legislators, talk to docents, read information provided by the fund-raising California State Parks Foundation and raise your voice.