California operates the largest state park system in the country. But in order to balance the budget, the state is planning to close one quarter of all its state parks. In the first of two stories, Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports on the surprising richness packed inside one small urban park.
GELLERMAN: Thirty-three states faced with red ink are getting out the ax and cutting to the bone - in some states, recreational areas are on the chopping block. But in California, they’re using a chain saw. The new budget there will close a quarter of the state’s parks. We have the first in a series of two stories from Living On Earth’s Ingrid Lobet.
LOBET: Since California announced it would close 70 of its 278 state parks, there have been shouts of ‘NO!’ from several quarters. Just recently, park users gathered at the state capital.
[VOICES AT RALLY: “Save our state parks!”]
LOBET: Shannon Ross came with daughters Amelia, six, and Fiona, ten. Fiona says she got to camp in Adobe State Park, two and a half hours to the north, with her class this year. Now it’s on the list to be closed.
FIONA ROSS: We slept overnight! And we were the last class to get to go there and it’s been something that our school’s done for years.
LOBET: The parks in this, the most populous state, get 70 million visits a year. But finances have reached a point of crisis and each cut relieves some small burden of debt.
LOBET: Places like Los Encinos State Historic Park in Los Angeles are slated to lock the gates.
[SOUNDS OF TRAFFIC]
DANDURAND: This park is right on Ventura Blvd and Balboa Blvd. And people who drive by have no idea that there’s this nice quiet little oasis in the middle of the San Fernando Valley.
LOBET: Jennifer Dandurand is park interpreter at Los Encinos. Almost as soon as you turn your back on that city traffic, it melts away. Five acres spread out before you.
DANDURAND: When people walk into the park, first of all they see several big lawns. And so a lot of kids like to use that just for running around or they like picnic games or they just enjoy laying around in the grass with their book, but probably the number one main attraction here is the pond.
LOBET: Dandurand sweeps her arm toward a fenced, concrete-lined pond in the shape of a guitar.
DANDURAND: People love to come feed the ducks and we sell duck food here. I mean, that’s actually how we fund almost all our education and interpretation programs - is through that duck food.
LOBET: This duck pond is actually what drew the first people to what was once a generous stretch of rolling oak land. It’s a natural hot spring, the site of an Indian village of longstanding. But 400 years ago, explorers from Spain found it just as attractive, and the native people of this place were soon forced into a new Catholic Mission: Mission San Fernando. Later, Mexico took away the church’s lands, and they passed to ranchers who raised beef to feed the new seekers of the Gold Rush. All that, right here, in urban Los Angeles.
DANDURAND: Pretty much when you think of the history of California, especially economically, you will find it played out exactly here at Los Encinos.
[SOUND OF DOOR UNLOCKING, STEPPING INDOORS]
DANDURAND: What we are in right now is an 1849 adobe building…
LOBET: With walls that are two feet thick and dark plank floors, this long adobe was built by the first Spanish private owners of the land. Now it’s full of furniture and kitchen tools, saddles and a wedding dress, intended to convey ranching and frontier life to today’s 10-year olds.
DANDURAND: About two weeks ago we had 180 kids, so seven classrooms of kids. So that was challenging, but it was fun.
LOBET: This ranch, or rancho, was also on the road that originally connected the missions: Camino Real. That means it was on the stagecoach route. The park has a mock-up of a stagecoach kids can step into to get a feel for just how unpleasant that early form of travel must have been.
DANDURAND: You would sit so close to the person across from you that your knees would interlock and you would bounce along - definitely makes flying by airplane and coach a lot more comfortable.
LOBET: But California’s sad finances mean fewer school field trips.
DANDURAND: A lot of the public school have problems because they don’t have bus money so it’s hard for them to come.
LOBET: Still, here in the heart of the LA’s San Fernando Valley, population is so dense some schools are close enough to walk here.
DANDURAND: So we have schools that come walking and they’ll come in - and if it were to close, they wouldn’t have that possibility.
LOBET: Ironically, aIl the exhibits here look new. Turns out the park re-opened just four years ago - after the Northridge earthquake. Because it’s so recently rebuilt, the place is wheelchair accessible.
DANDURAND: And so it’s one of the few places where, in a state park, people with disabilities are able to have exactly the same experience as the able-bodied.
LOBET: A bad economy erodes daily life in small and large ways. Los Encinos State Historic Parks - for all its rich history, pretty grass, and easy access - is a small and less used park. It was empty during most of this visit. Mike Wells is a state parks scientist, former district superintendent, and a veteran of prior rounds of brutal budget prioritizing.
WELLS: I hate for people to think that there are any unnecessary parks in this state park system, because they’re all part of the park system for a reason. And speaking as someone who had to go through this process of trying to triage, you know, which park units are non-essential - it is a terribly painful process and nothing any of us wanted to do. But there are certain realities that had to be dealt with.
LOBET: We’ll be hearing more from Mike Wells - about challenges in state parks and some creative ways of bringing money and volunteers to help them - next week. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.
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