Volunteers help parks, state should too

Union Democrat staff

The good news is that California was spared Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's threatened closure of 220 state parks. The bad is that up to 100 parks could still close.

The budget eventually signed by the governor lopped $8 million more from the Department of Parks and Recreation, bringing the total cut to more than to $14 million. And the department after Labor Day will release a new list of parks to be closed.

It's like a new, scary TV series, "Survivor: California State Parks."

The fittest parks, indeed, will likely survive - those which depend least on state funding and come closest to being self-sufficient.

"Right now all parks are vulnerable," said Sheryl Watson, state park information officer.

But she added that officials will weigh revenues against costs in determining which will remain open. Visitor counts, fee revenues, community support, partnerships and private contributions will be evaluated.

Which might be good news for the three state parks in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties - Columbia, Railtown 1897 and Calaveras Big Trees.

All enjoy strong local support, have hundreds of volunteers and benefit from many thousands of dollars worth of grant funding and private contributions.

What's more, the small, close-knit communities of the Mother Lode recognize the financial importance of the parks, and will do what they can to keep them alive and thriving.

A recent Sacramento State University study has found that each park visitor spends more than $57 a day, most of it in the parks and surrounding areas. Thus the 1.2 million annual visitors to this area's parks together spend more than $69 million.

That park businesses and neighbors recognize this was clear in June, when more than 200 people crowded into Columbia's Angelo's Hall to discuss that park's threatened future and arm it with plans to weather the crisis.

Gov. Schwarzenegger at least temporarily spared Columbia (as well as Railtown and Big Trees) the ax. But the Columbia Advisory Council (chaired by long-time Candy Kitchen concessionaire Janice Nelson) and a contingency team led by Columbia resident and retired park ranger Sherrin Grout are still in business, looking for funding and support.

Across the the Stanislaus River, the 350-member Big Trees Association in 2005 raised $500,000 toward the $1.5 million cost of a new visitors center near the park's entrance. It clearly has the clout, and dollars, to help the Arnold-area park persevere.

And a few miles down the road from Columbia, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park may be best suited to survive the political and financial storm.

"In fact we're being held up as an example of how good public-private partnerships can work," said Kim Baker, Railtown's superintendent.

Exhibit A is the local and statewide effort that is funding the lengthy and expensive (the pricetag is approaching $1 million) restoration of No. 3, an historic steam locomotive which reportedly pulled the first Sierra Railroad passenger train into Jamestown in 1897 and went on to star in more than 100 movies. The Sonora Area Foundation, its affiliated Irving J. Symons Foundation, the California Railroad Museum Foundation and hundreds of individual donors have combined to do something the state could never afford to do - come up with enough cash to save a priceless piece of California railroad history.

What's more, machinists, mechanics and boilermakers are among a corps of more than 100 Railtown volunteers who have together invested thousands of hours not only in the No. 3 job, but in keeping all the park's rolling stock actually rolling. Add volunteer engineers, conductors and docents, and you darn near have a park that's running on automatic pilot - or, perhaps more appropriately, automatic engineer.

Yes, entry fees are now being collected at Railtown, and excursion fares are up. Entry and camping fees at Big Trees were also hiked. But the modest income from those user charges won't alone save the parks.

Instead wide and deep community support and park administrators who know how to build and encourage are the keys to making our Mother Lode parks survivors.

That such support is here in abundance is a credit to both our parks and communities.

The Union Democrat
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