October 22, 2017

Topanga State Park: For Sale?

 

Topanga State Park for sale? That could be the case if a bill recently introduced by State Assembly Member Bonnie Garcia is adopted.

Garcia, a Republican who represents California’s 80th Assembly District, encompassing Blythe, Palm Springs, Indio, Desert Hot Springs, Coachella and other desert areas, introduced legislation on February 21 that, if passed, would declare 48 of the state’s parks “excess state land,” making them available for sale. The bill, A.B. 2392, requires only a majority vote to pass.

According to the legislative counsel’s digest of the bill, “existing law requires the Department of General Services to report annually to the Legislature regarding state land that has been reported in excess of the foreseeable needs of the state and request authorization to dispose of that land.” Garcia’s bill “would declare the intent of the Legislature to enact legislation that would designate 48 units of the state park system as excess property of the state.”

According to its most recent Statistical Digest, the State Park System contained a total of 258 classified units (including State Parks, State Beaches, State Historic Parks, State Recreation Areas, State Natural Reserves, State Vehicular Recreation Areas, a State Historical Monument, State Seashore, and Wayside Campground) and 20 major unclassified properties, for a total of 278 areas, during the 2006/07 fiscal year. Legislative counsel’s summary of Garcia’s bill does not indicate which 48 of the system’s units would be declared excess if the legislation were to pass. Yet it would appear to be no coincidence that Garcia seeks to declare “excess” exactly the same number of parks—48—including Topanga State Park, that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed to close for budget reasons.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY ANTHONY VEREBES

Topanga State Park: For Sale?

The “for sale” sign is not actually up at Topanga State Park quite yet, but it could be soon if A.B. 2392, a bill pending in the State Assembly to declare “excess” the 48 state parks Governor Schwarzenegger is proposing to close, passes.



Indeed, Garcia’s Legislative Director Sharon Gonsalves conceded that although not expressly stated in the current version of the bill, the intent was to declare excess the same 48 parks Schwarzenegger has slated for closure. “We were still working on the language,” said Gonsalves.

Paradoxically, Garcia’s Assembly home page features photos of California’s historical landmarks, including the Golden Gate Bridge (a National Recreation Area) and Yosemite National Park, which the Assembly member describes as “one of the first wilderness parks in the United States … best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, and vast wilderness areas. It was suggested to Gonsalves that it was unfortunate that the Assembly Member’s putative love of parks and nature did not extend far enough to embrace Topanga State Park, the largest wilderness park in an urban area, not only in California but anywhere in the world.

But Gonsalves said Garcia’s intent was not “anti-environmentalist.” Instead, she said, Garcia opposed the idea of shutting down the 48 state parks completely, and had introduced her bill with the intent of “trying to work out an idea to keep the parks open with the Parks’ Foundation” or other government or civic groups taking over the cost of running them. “We always intended they would remain in the public interest,”said Gonsalves.

Of course, that’s not what the bill itself says, as one Capitol insider, surprised to learn of the legislation’s existence, quickly observed in reading the single-page bill. “This is so blanket, so broad—it does everything necessary to let them sell the parks to developers,” the source stated.

Though Garcia introduced the bill only a little more than three weeks ago, Gonsalves, who initially did not want to be named in this article, now claims that her boss is “not pursuing it.” Gonsalves concedes that Garcia has not withdrawn the bill which already has been printed, published, and scheduled for a committee hearing as early as March 23. Even taking Gonsalves at her word, with the bill still formally pending, there is no assurance that it will not find sponsorship elsewhere in the legislature or otherwise come to be resurrected.

On learning of the bill, Topanga’s State Assembly Member Julia Brownley said, “it sounds like it’s dead on arrival to me. I don’t think it would ever get out of committee.”

But Brownley, who has vowed to fight tooth-and-nail to save the parks, also underscored the importance of constituents making their voices heard if they want to keep the state parks open.

In part because of the manner in which the park cutbacks and other austerity measures were portrayed—as Schwarzenegger’s opening gambit in a large-scale political ploy to shift the blame to Democrats for any forth-coming increases—in the Los Angeles Times and on television news when the Governor’s budget proposals were first announced, many Topangans seem to have gotten the message that the parks’ closure—much less sale of the park—isn’t a real threat. But the reality is that even a legislator as environmentally friendly as State Senator Sheila Kuehl is making no promises. Kuehl, like Brownley, has promised to fight the good fight, but has also advised constituents that she has countervailing responsibilities—to those in need of health care, to school kids and students in the state university system, and to many others in need of state services. Bearing the scars of many earlier budget battles in which Republicans have refused to budge on tax or fee increases, Kuehl says nothing is “off the table,” including the closure or even the sale of state park land. Brownley has beseeched Topangans to let their voices be heard if they hope to save the park.

Louise Rishoff, an aide to Brownley, said her office has been receiving a steady flow of mail opposing park closures, some from as far away as Massachusetts. However, while it was important that concerned citizens continue to let Topanga’s own legislative delegation hear from them, Rishoff said, their calls and e-mails should not stop there.

“They should be trying to talk to Republicans, especially those in nearby districts,” said Rishoff. “They have families. They use the parks. But the Republicans look at raising park fees as raising taxes, and they are required to sign a ‘no-tax’ pledge when they join the Republican caucus.”

Lynne Haigh, president of the Topanga State Park docents and one of the founders of SaveTopangaStatePark.org, a group including members of the Town Council, the State Park Docents, and other local civic groups, agrees that it is vital to expand the reach of the pro-park lobbying effort, but says that it is still important to keep the calls and e-mails going to Kuehl and Brownley. “I was discussing the park closures with Tracy Virrardo-Torres of the State Parks Foundation, and mentioned that while we have been sending hundreds of e-mails and letters to Julia Brownley, it seems a bit like preaching to the choir.” However, Virrardo-Torres underscored the importance of keeping the support for Brownley coming in, noting her key role as a member of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Natural Resources, said Haigh.

Haigh’s group has created a web site, www.SaveTopangaStatePark.org, carrying up-to-date information about the proposed park closures, as well as an on-line petition and other recommended action items to help save Topanga State Park. Haigh is also hoping to recruit a strong turnout of Topangans for a scheduled public hearing on the evening of April 16 before the State Parks and Recreation Commission in Santa Monica (the details of which have yet to be announced), which will be taking public testimony on the closures and on options for keeping the parks open.

“Many of these other budget priorities—schools, prisons, health care— have their own vocal constituencies in teachers’, nurses’, and corrections’ unions, and elsewhere. They’ve been dealing with this sort of thing a lot longer and