10:54 PM PST on Monday, February 28, 2011

By JIM MILLER and IMRAN GHORI
The Press-Enterprise

Some state parks in Inland Southern California are likely to be among dozens recommended for closure or downsizing as officials finish a plan to reduce parks spending.

The proposed cuts in Gov. Jerry Brown’s January spending plan — $11 million in fiscal 2011-12, growing to $22 million in fiscal 2012-13 — are a fraction of the estimated $26.6 billion budget hole facing the state through June 2012.

But California’s 278 parks have an outsized public presence. People visited the system 72.5 million times in the year ending in July 2009, drawn by quiet trails, beaches and other attractions.

Last fall, however, 57 percent of voters opposed the idea of paying higher vehicle fees to help parks.

Officials continue to fine-tune a list of state parks that will be affected. Hours will be cut at some and others would be closed altogether.

Lawmakers wanted the plan by mid-February. Department spokesman Roy Stearns said officials are still working on the package, weighing criteria that include a park’s attendance, revenue and historic value.

“This administration has told us to step back and think about the mission,” Stearns said. “We continue to look and examine the list, all these parks, and all these possibilities in hopes that we just get it right.”

The state’s parks system already has been hit by a mix of one-time cuts and deferred maintenance. But lawmakers so far have avoided shutting down any parks.

California Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside and Mt. San Jacinto State Park near Idyllwild were included in a January 2008 parks closure plan. But the recommendations, which would have saved $17 million, never were carried out.

A year later, as many as 220 parks faced closure or severe cutbacks.

Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders agreed to keep the parks open with revenue generated by expanded offshore oil drilling. Ultimately, the drilling measure failed, but no parks closed.

It’s unknown how many parks the department will recommend closing this time.

Kelly Elliott, the citrus park’s superintendent, said regular visitors are aware the park could be on a future closure list.

“We hear it all the time. It is a concern,” she said. “A lot of the people who come to our park really enjoy it and they’re not just passing through.”

Susan Boydston, of Riverside, who was walking her two dogs through the park Sunday, said she visits the park once or twice a month. “I like to bring the dogs here, and love the view of the mountains,” she said.

David and Maria Duarte, of Riverside, were first-time visitors to the park Sunday with their children Pamela, 9, and Mason, 6. The kids had come to the park on a field trip recently and enjoyed it so much they wanted to come back.

“We didn’t have any idea of how many oranges and lemons there are,” said Maria Duarte as they walked through a citrus grove.

Both Citrus and Mt. San Jacinto draw just a fraction of the visitors that the region’s most popular park, Lake Perris State Recreation Area, draws.

Ron Krueper, state parks’ Inland Empire superintendent, said the district has provided information to state officials compiling the closure list.

“Each park is unique. There is no cookie-cutter approach,” he said.

OUTSIDE HELP

Parks supporters suffered a blow in November when voters rejected a ballot measure that would have increased vehicle license fees $18 to help pay for the parks system.

Earlier this month, the California State Parks Foundation and the Save-the-Redwoods League released a report focused on keeping state parks afloat financially and increasing their attendance.

The report recommended a mix of revenue from taxpayers, nonprofit foundations and charitable donations, as well as from added business concessions at the parks.
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Kurt Miller / The Press-Enterprise
Maria Crombie of Riverside samples citrus during a taste testing offered by the Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside on Sunday.

Some local governments and nonprofit groups, meanwhile, have expressed an interest in taking over the operation of any shuttered parks.

For the second time in two years, Riverside is sponsoring legislation to let it run the citrus park. An earlier bill stalled in the Senate in 2009.

The latest measure would force the state to let the city enter into a 25-year operating agreement for the citrus park. City officials see the park as a potentially popular regional attraction — given the right management.

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