A massive volunteer-led signature drive is finding its way to street corners, grocery stores and weekend festivities along California’s Central Coast, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
The corps of name gatherers, who range from college students to retirees, has seen the gates come down across many of California’s 278 state parks this year, and the group thinks the cash-starved park system can be resurrected with a ballot measure.
“I don’t remember signature-gathering on this scale before,” said Bonny Hawley, executive director of Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks and one of the organizers of the statewide effort to qualify the state parks measure for the November ballot. “People are really excited about this.”
The measure proposes an $18 hike in vehicle license fees to create a new, nearly $500 million pot of money for the park system to run on.
Proponents say the measure would give parks their own financial footing and protect the coveted beaches, forests and historic monuments from the whims of the Legislature, which has had to reduce money for parks to balance the state budget.
Under the proposed measure, entrance to state parks, now $10 a day in most of Santa Cruz County and $125 for an annual pass, would be free.
“It’s not just one of those ballot measures where we raise money and the benefits are intangible. Residents get free access to state parks,” said Garrison Frost, a spokesman for Audubon California, one of the measure’s chief proponents. “That’s why people are really energized by it.”
Advocates also see the impact that budget cuts are having on parks, including those in the Monterey Bay Area — home to Big Basin State Park, the oldest park in the system, and popular coastal destinations like Natural Bridges, Seabright and Manresa state beaches.
Day-use parking lots in many of these areas have been gated off more frequently than usual and winter campground closures have dragged out longer this year, part of an effort to save money. Meanwhile, many services for visitors and upkeep at parks have been put on hold.
“We just have fewer and less of everything,” said Kirk Lingenfelter, superintendent of the Pajaro Coast sector of State Parks. “We have fewer people cleaning restrooms, fewer people managing campground operations, fewer lifeguards on the beach.”
Statewide, park officials say the backlog for maintenance is approaching $1.5 billion.
“I’ve just watched the struggle for years as the budget has been frozen,” said Santa Cruz resident Carol Fuller, who has been carrying around a parks petition for friends and neighbors to sign. “These parks are places where nature is left. I think they’re of tremendous value to our spirit, our souls.”
The measure, officially dubbed the State Parks and Wildlife Conservation Trust Fund Act of 2010, would direct 85% of the vehicle license fee surcharges to the state parks system. The income is expected to more than double what the system currently receives from the state’s general fund and day-use fees.
The remainder of the new revenue would go to other state conservation efforts.
Campaign organizers have not said how many of the 477,000 signatures needed to put a measure on the ballot have been collected to date. But they say they’re on track to qualify, with thousands coming from Santa Cruz County.
More than 100 volunteers are part of the signature drive locally, organizers say, adding to a paid staff also on the streets.
Financial reports filed with the secretary of state show the campaign for the ballot measure has so far raised more than $1.5 million. No organized opposition has filed.