Monday, September 24, 2012

California Forever: Why State Parks Matter (1)

From a vantage point on the Berkeley fire trail, which runs above the University of California campus, walkers and runners have views across a wide expanse of the Bay Area.  Depending on the weather, San Francisco might glitter across a bay which looks still enough to cross on foot, or might consist of the tops of two golden suspension towers jutting out of the fog.  It is a long way down to Oakland’s skyline, the mess of freeways that converge at the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, Treasure Island, Alameda, the Berkeley Marina and, on a clear day, the Farallon Islands.  The huge urban area is strangely quiet from this vantage point; the noise from the individual vehicles, lives, and neighbourhoods is transformed into a soft hum by the time it makes it up to the top of the East Bay hills.

Castle Crags
Life in a crowded urban landscape becomes liveable because of spaces like this, and from the hill, you can see any number of similar areas: Robert W Crown Memorial State Beach, Eastshore State Park, Candlestick Point State Recreational Area, San Bruno Mountain State Park, Angel Island State Park, Mt Diablo State Park, Mt Tamalpais State Park.  And then there are the Regional Parks, including Tilden and Wildcat Canyon, and the East Bay MUD lands, with their still reservoirs and quiet trails.  Growing up, we were surrounded by such peaceful areas, but it was nonetheless a treat to visit places like the Burney Falls Memorial State Park, Castle Crags State Park, or Trinidad State Beach that were set aside expressly for the purpose.  School field trips took us to Shasta State Historical Park and to Bidwell Mansion State Historical Park (after visiting the mansion we’d have lunch and play soccer in Bidwell-Sacramento River State Park).

These are the kinds of areas that sprung to mind when I had the opportunity to watch a screening of the film California Forever at the College of Natural Resources here at Berkeley.  This was a beautiful, two-part homage to the California State Parks, their creation, their character, and their maintenance, in the form of a special which is airing on PBS.  The footage was truly stunning, the narration compelling, the story sweeping.  I felt like standing up and pointing every time I recognised a beautiful spot along the foggy coast or amongst the verdant redwood forests.  The screening was followed by a conversation with writers/directors/producers David Vassar and Sally Kaplan, Carolyn Finney (of Berkeley’s Geography Department), Rolf Diamant (formerly of the U.S. National Parks), and Caryl Hart (Chair of the State Park and Recreation Commission). 

The news about the undiscovered funds at Parks and Recreation didn’t come out until after the film was finished, but what has become an obsession and casus belli for the Parks’ critics didn’t change the story for Vassar and Kaplan, who spoke with tearful commitment about the many parks they’d been able to visit.  Their film, which I have to admit tugged quite forcefully at my heartstrings, suggested that it is particularly urgent, if we as a society are to remain optimistic about a better future, to hold the line where things like state parks are concerned at a time when they seem less essential.  Parks are, if you like, Big Small Things.  Less obviously essential than things like health, roads and schools, less apparently omnipresent than death and taxes, they are nonetheless essential in a different kind of way, for the solace and community, the beauty and splendour that they offer. 

I’ve suspected from the beginning that Governor Jerry Brown’s move to close State Parks was a gimmick.  Others have pointed out that the money saved does virtually nothing more than throw pennies at the budget deficit, while actually hammering communities that depend on those parks.  This was confirmed by Hart, who recalled that as Chair of the State Parks Commission she was not consulted before Brown’s announcement.  There was, as far as she and her colleagues were concerned, no rationale behind individual closures, no process of consultation, no serious thought.  It was, in other words, vintage Brown: carless, shoot-from-the-hip, made for the headlines rather than the long-term. 

Hart, together with the filmmakers, paid tribute to the “uprising of the public to make sure that parks did not close”, and cited the 70 parks maintained by coalitions of public and private groups of citizens.  That people would work so hard and give up much time and money at a time of great social and economic uncertainty should certainly be read as a tribute to the importance of the parks.  This grassroots movement is, of course, nothing new: it is the manner, as the film conveys, in which our parks came into being.

Hart seemed sincerely committed to seeking to reinvigorate the organisation, a task which will be admittedly difficult if it goes underfunded—there is currently a billion-odd dollars in deferred maintenance, a figure which mocks the claims of the critics who seek to use the $54 million stash as an argument against funding parks.  Diamant, drawing on his experience at the federal level and in Vermont (where he is currently closely engaged with parks) suggested that the parks need to be about relationships, relevancy and reciprocity.  All three Rs highlight the urgency of engaging Californians with no long tradition of using parks.  Such re-engagement might change the way in which parks are managed, but it would not mark a real change.  The strong environmental component of parks has always been complemented by a communitarian spirit.  It would simply be a matter of accounting for different communities which have emerged since the earlier great wave of parks foundations.

But all of this will require a change in our collective political mindset.  “You know what the response in Sacramento was [to the public backlash against closing the parks]?” Hart asked.  “Zero”. 

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