Thursday, May 30, 2013

Parks for People? Or Just a Few People?

At the Warming Hut last Winter
The Trail Through the North Grove
Murphys -- The Gulf Coast town where I grew up offered pretty much everything a kid could need: neighborhoods, schools, friends, family and a  park a few blocks away with ball fields, a playground and tennis courts.
If I wanted a wilderness experience I could explore the mostly undeveloped swamps, bayous and hills nearby. The sugar-white beaches of the Gulf of Mexico were close.
If I wanted to go camping I went with my Boy Scout troop, or slept out on an old Army blanket on the sand beaches.
Today private land is mostly closed off for fear of “unsuitable” people or lawsuits and beaches are wall-to-wall condominiums. If you tried throwing down a blanket to sleep you would probably be arrested as a vagrant.
Public parks -- both state and national -- have become much more important to me.
The Great Smoky Mountains provided my first park experience It was stunning to learn that unnamed people in earlier generations saved this special place for me.
 I discovered state parks initially on Florida’s beaches and in her swamps. Fishing from the beach, watching a storm come in off the ocean or snorkeling on a  coral reef were part of  state parks.
When I migrated to California and was living near Yosemite National Park, it was  a dream come true. My first trip there on an October day over 30 years ago,  we woke up to snow covering our old VW camper. Wonderful.
My family discovered the wealth of state and National Forest parks and campgrounds across the state. There were almost no limits to where we could go and what we could see. Waking to the Pacific thundering onto a rocky beach, or a Roosevelt Elk’s bugling call, were made possible because of California’s parks.
All of this was affordable, from Yosemite to Prairie Creek on the North Coast, and could be reached within a day’s drive. A few more days put us into Washington, Nevada and Utah with enough parks to satisfy even me.
Today, the parks are still  available where we can get in touch with our souls, or simply sit on a rock.

The sequoias are the largest trees in the world

I settled in Calaveras County because of my  experience at parks along Highway 4’s corridor.  Our initial criteria for our home was to be as close to Calaveras Big Trees State Park as possible.
A success story in recent years is the little park by the creek in downtown Murphys. It is available to everyone and used by many. “First Friday” concerts in the summer draw more people than live in the town. Kids play in the creek or on the playground equipment while families picnic. Office workers take their lunch breaks near the bubbling water. People dance, sing and play. The park is part of the glue that holds the community together. With no town government, local people support the park through fundraising efforts.
But there are no guarantees any of these parks will be available to our children and grandchildren. And potlucks and raffles won't keep state and national parks open.

A recent investigation by a watchdog group recommends the state system  be revamped and modernized. Interestingly, they did not recommend the park system be privatized, and encouraged better taxpayer support for the system. They did recommend the forging of new partnerships with local communities and people.
National Parks have gone through lean years as well, which led to decisions to raise entry fees dramatically, and the rates for overnight stays in lodging have been climbing dramatically. When attendance immediately dropped, park officials wondered aloud  what had happened.

Neither the California legislature nor the public has been very enthusiastic about parks in the last five years or so.

As a result, state and national parks may some day be reserved for the small group of people that can afford to pay prices too high for the average family. That is not what community should be.That was not the idea when the parks were set aside for everybody. I want my grandchildren to benefit the way I did.
People who love parks have to do a better job of explaining why parks have value for everyone. Parks really are places where knowledge is gained, health is restored, and we learn important stuff about our world and ourselves.
You know what parks do for you. Now is a good time to speak up.
In the old days they knew how to be tourists!

 Note: This was originally written for the local paper, the Calaveras Enterprise, and was published last week. I added the pictures to give you an idea what my local state park looks like.


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