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A Place in the Woods

As park closure deadline nears, a scramble to save what we can

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It was overcast that August morning, and cool enough for a campfire. Theresa Aubuchon sat by the fire reading a book.

Like a lot of Fortuna families, the Aubuchons treated this campground like an outdoor home away from home for a couple of weeks each summer. On this midweek morning, the rest of her family had gone to town -- to work or get supplies, check the mail, do some laundry, maybe pay some bills. Later in the day when they returned and the afternoon sun had warmed the river, they'd all go for a swim in that sweet spot in the Van Duzen where Grizzly Creek pours in.

A beeping erupted next to Aubuchon. She turned off the timer, got up, grabbed a long tool and lifted the lid off the Dutch oven propped in the fire. She peered inside: a long ways to go yet. She put the lid back, replaced the cooled coals nestled on it with hot ones, set the timer for another eight minutes, and returned to her book. She repeated these motions often, each time sinking again into her book, until a half hour had passed.

Beep-beep-beep-beep. Surely, now, they would be done. She stood up again and then stopped, staring across the campfire at the road that flanked her campsite. Four women stood there, alert as raccoons, watching her.

"Well," said one of them, "we're two sites away and we're just dying to know what you're doing. We keep hearing this beeping, and we see you get up and lift this lid, then add some coals ..."

They looked at Aubuchon expectantly. She lifted the lid, looked in, and removed the pot from the fire. She counted the cinnamon rolls inside, then counted the women again, then glanced through the trees at the four men hanging back, looking wary but hopeful. She had just enough to feed everybody.

 

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Such perfect days like that one a few Augusts ago, full of familiar routine and random wonders, might not happen again at Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park -- nor at Benbow Lake State Recreation Area nor dozens of other state parks in California which, this summer, could close indefinitely. The Department of Parks and Recreation announced last year it would have to shut down 70 of its 279 state parks by July 1, 2012, because there is no more money to run them. The closures were announced after the Legislature cut $11 million in general fund support for the parks system from last year's budget and threatened to increase the reduction to $22 million in the 2012-2013 budget.

Since then, private, public and nonprofit entities have temporarily rescued 11 of the parks from closure by donating money or offering to run the parks themselves. The National Park Service, for instance, will run Del Norte Coast Redwoods and two other state parks for a year, said Roy Stearns, state parks deputy director. Negotiations are under way with potential saviors to keep another 24 parks open -- including Grizzly Creek, Benbow and, not far south in Mendocino County, Standish-Hickey. In addition, the state has solicited requests for proposals from concessionaires to run 11 of those parks.

Meanwhile, efforts to halt the closures or make it easier for non-state operators have been ongoing by nonprofits such as the California State Parks Foundation, which fundraises and advocates for state parks. The foundation started a Save Our State Parks Campaign, has met with every state legislator, and has co-sponsored several bills -- including Jared Huffman's recently approved AB42, which allows nonprofits to enter into agreements to run state parks. Foundation spokesperson Alexis Stoxen said a new Huffman bill directs the Department of Parks and Recreation to find new ways to fund parks and make them more self-sufficient -- by collecting entry fees instead of just parking fees, for instance, or starting a license plate fund. (Currently, the majority of the park system's funding comes from the general fund.)

But the clock is ticking. Will deals happen in time to ward of closures this summer? What is to become of Humboldt's doomed three -- Grizzly, Benbow and Fort Humboldt State Historic Park?

 

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Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park

Ping!Pongpongpongpongpongpong.

The bird called from somewhere high. Then came the uh-uh-uh-uh-uh of a woodpecker knocking on a snag. A car pulled into a moss-covered space in the parking lot next to the only other car there. Its middle-aged occupants got out, stretched, locked the doors and wandered up the trail with their dogs, the skunky eau d'Humboldt wafting off their clothing. They walked past the quaint, cabin-like visitor center. It was shuttered for the day, as was the fee booth at the entrance, and there was no ranger in sight. But a self-pay notice on one wall of the visitor center encouraged visitors to grab a small envelope from the box nearby, put their camping or day-use fee in, and deposit it in the slot.

The campground host's RV space likewise was empty, save for a forlorn white plastic chair. Only one of the 32 campsites had an occupant in it, but then it was April, not the height of camping season. Over where the ranger, on summer nights, would deliver campfire talks, catastrophe had recently struck -- a redwood, felled by wind, had landed on the amphitheater and busted several benches. Somebody had been sawing the tree into firewood and stacking it neatly to the side. Tall trees, some with blooming trillium at their feet, filtered the cloud-thinned sunlight. The Van Duzen was a cold roar of muddy jade brightened by white riffles, and Grizzly Creek chattered loudly in from the side, full and willow-tugging swift.

In some ways, the dappled emptiness seemed just another pre-busy-season Saturday in early April, the quiet prelude before the regulars -- the Aubuchons and other families who've come here for decades -- show up to mingle with folks from around the world. But it also felt like a premonition of abandonment.

Grizzly, 17 miles east of Fortuna on Highway 36, is just 430 acres. It consists of three parcels, including the original patch of woods donated in 1943 by Owen Cheatham, the founder of Georgia Pacific Corp. (yes, the timber products company). A grove of old-growth redwoods named after Cheatham was acquired in 1983 with help from the Save the Redwoods League. The park's 4.5 miles of trail wend through a virgin redwood grove where part of Return of the Jedi was filmed and through leafy woods of tanoak and maple. Near the river and campsites there's a horsehoe pit, exhibits, picnic tables and the visitor center. And there's the river for swimming in the summer when the water has slowed and warmed.

The campground is open year-round, and the day use area is open sunrise to sunset. On average, the park draws more than 27,000 visitors a year. Normally the state assigns a full-time maintenance person to the park and a full-time ranger, plus three seasonal employees for 4½ months in the summer. Because of the impending closure, the ranger was reassigned to Humboldt Redwoods State Park farther south on Highway 101, said Michelle Gardner, interim director of the state's North Coast Redwoods District and superintendent of the Eel River sector. The seasonals will have to find work elsewhere. Only the maintenance worker has been kept on, for now; he'll be able to transfer to another position in the system if the park does close.

So, who would take on this remote little park by the river, where redwoods mingle with Doug fir and madrone, mossy-trunked tanoak and big-leaf maple, where trillium opens its three-petaled pale face to the world each spring, where big cats roam and woodpeckers rattle on dead wood, where countless people from near and far have whiled away the summer weeks in a neighborly outdoor fashion?

Well, Humboldt County might. Last week, the county sent a proposal to California State Parks headquarters in Sacramento to keep the park open from May 16, 2012, to May 15, 2013, using a combination of county staff, state staff and volunteers. In addition, the nonprofit Save the Redwoods League has tentatively committed to giving the county up to $60,000 for Grizzly Creek -- with the caveat that some of that money be used to develop a long-term strategy to fund and maintain it into the future.

"We could run Grizzly pretty cost-effectively," Hank Seemann, the county environmental services manager, said recently by phone. "However, campgrounds don't generally pay for themselves."

Seemann said that, based on past Grizzly revenues, the campground might bring in between $55,000 to $65,000 a year. He figures the county would need $95,000 to run the entire park. "That includes labor, garbage disposal, electricity, the phone bill, propane for the campground host." The League money would fill the gap between revenues and costs.

Under the proposal, the county's resident caretaker at Van Duzen County Park, only six miles west of Grizzly Creek state park on Highway 36, would coordinate operations, and sheriff's deputies would take care of law enforcement. The county would provide money to the state to retain the current Grizzly Creek park maintenance worker full time from mid-May through the end of September and part time for the rest of the year. The state would maintain the water system. And the county would invite back the camp host, a volunteer. County staff and volunteers would run the visitor center.

The campground, which is open year-round now, might only be open in the summer, under the proposal. And the county would opt out of the online Reserve America system; instead, sites would be available on a first-come, first-served basis, which Seemann said might cause a drop in out-of-area campers. But the camping fee would only be $25 -- a drop from the state's $35 fee. Seemann said the county hopes the lower rate will encourage more local campers. The day use area would remain open year-round, with a $5 entrance fee.

The proposal also suggests setting up a fund-raising account with the Humboldt Area Foundation as part of the strategy to make the park self-sufficient so it can stay open beyond the next 12 months.

If the state likes the proposal, the parties will develop an operating agreement. Seemann aims to present that agreement to the Board of Supervisors at its May 8 meeting.

Other, richer counties have recently rescued several state parks from closure, including Sonoma County. Not-so-flush Humboldt is glad it could pick up even one, said Seemann. But parks are important, he said, places where people can have "transformative, life-changing experiences."

"So it's kind of a blow to the gut to lose that," he said.

If for some reason the deal breaks, Grizzly will be mothballed, said Gardner: Equipment, tools and everything from inside the visitor center hauled to storage; windows boarded up; gates locked. Either way, the campground closes at least temporarily this week.

 

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Benbow Lake State Recreation Area

John Porter, co-owner of the Benbow Inn hotel, golf course and RV resort, slowed the rattling golf cart to a halt at the top of a rise, got out, and stood gazing at the scene spread before him. The east branch of the South Fork Eel River snaked under the Highway 101 bridge to meet the Eel's east fork, flowing past the Tudor-style inn and the grassy tree-dotted state park's day use area. A stand of forest on the other side concealed the state park campground and its 75 campsites. Porter pointed straight down at two concrete dam ramparts where, for decades, a seasonal dam has been installed in the summer and taken out again in the fall.

Nine Benbow brothers and sisters bought the land here in 1922, and in 1926, they built the inn. They built the dam in 1928 for power and a recreational lake, and built the rest of the resort later. The Roosevelts once tootled through here, and Herbert Hoover, and famous heartthrobs and lovelies such as Spencer Tracy, Nelson Eddy and Joan Fontaine were drawn to this remote riverside nook in the redwoods.

In the 1950s, the Benbows began shuffling much of the land to the state to protect -- and the Benbow Lake State Recreation Area was born. It grew to 1,200 acres, flanking the 50-acre private inn property. In 1994, Porter and his wife, Teresa, and another couple bought the inn. They bought the golf course and RV resort in 2004. And the lake was always a draw for their guests.

In recent years, however, there's been no lake. The state can't afford the dam's upkeep and, besides, conservationists worry it is hurting salmon. There's talk of removing the structure permanently and restoring the river.

Porter shrugged. His guests have gotten used to the lake's absence, he said, and seem happy to frolic in the river or swim in his pool by the golf course. He's also not too concerned that the campground might close indefinitely. Even before they heard that the state had included Benbow on the closure list, he said, he and his partners were planning to open some of their 112 RV sites to tent camping this summer, charging the same price the state charges at its campgrounds, $35 a night. A consultant had suggested that as a way to make up for the loss in RV and golf tourists, whose numbers have dropped off lately.

Porter is miffed, however, about the pending closure of the day use area -- his guests like to amble and picnic there. He could run it, if only the state would let him.

"When I heard last year that the state park was going to close, the first thing I did was contact the local superintendent -- Michelle Gardner -- and said, how can we help, what can we do?" Porter recalled. "I said, the day use area would be pretty simple for us to run -- it's a matter of mowing the lawn and keeping it maintained. We have a golf course, so we have mowers, staff, PVC pipe. We have the ability to jump in and take that over."

The campground would be trickier: It's farther away, and it involves nighttime duties. But he'd consider running that, too, he said he told Gardner. "I said we were willing to take the risk of income versus expenses, and if we made a profit we'd keep it and if we lost money we'd absorb it."

But a park can't be run for profit. Under state rules, there are three ways to rescue a state park from closure. Someone can donate the money to allow the state to keep operating it. A nonprofit can put in a proposal to run it. Or a business or concessionaire can respond to the state's request for proposal (RFP) to run it -- with the understanding that if the private operator makes a profit from fees or sales, the money has to be reinvested in the park. Nonprofit and private would-be operators must submit bids to run a park. "The department determines which one is the best for the park," Gardner said.

In February, at Gardner's urging, Porter went to a seminar for prospective park operators in Fort Bragg. In March, he said, Gardner told him the state had found money to run the Benbow day use area but needed help with the utilities: Would he donate the money?

"The email kind of irritated me," Porter said. He wrote back: "Tell you what: You pay for the utilities and I'll run the park. I already have the staff and equipment for it."

Nevertheless, Porter asked to see copies of past utility bills. He also contacted Benbow Water Co. to see if it would be willing to donate water -- likely the costliest utility -- to the park and was waiting for a response. But he has not filled out that 132-page RFP that Gardner emailed him a couple weeks ago.

"To be honest with you, I didn't even open it up," Porter said. "I think the wind has been taken out of my sails. This is not something we need to do. It's something we thought we could do to help out. But they just seem to make it more difficult. I don't blame Michelle Gardner. But to me, this just epitomizes to me the bureaucracy of the state -- no wonder the state's in such a financial position."

Gardner sounds equally frustrated. She'd love to just let Porter run the park. "But Sacramento said we can't go ahead without doing bidding."

If no deal is struck, with Porter or anyone else, the campground and possibly the day use area, which draw together an average of 35,890 people a year, will close. There is one bright spot: Justin Crellin, general manager of the nonprofit Mateel Community Center in Redway, said his organization has signed an agreement with the state to operate the Benbow campground and day use area over two weekends this summer: during the Mateel's Summer Arts and Music Festival June 2 and 3 and during Reggae on the River July 21 and 22. Gardner said the Mateel is paying state employees time-and-a-half to keep the campground open and maintain the day use area for the public on those two weekends: $30,000 for the Summer Arts weekend alone. The Mateel also is handling all reservations for those weekends.

 

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Fort Humboldt State Historic Park

This is a strange and empty space. A flat, grassy bluff on the south end of Eureka, overlooking the Bayshore Mall and Humboldt Bay, that yields scant clues about the richness of its past. Traffic sounds drift up from Highway 101, at the base of the bluff, underscoring the loaded silence.

Oh, there are some signs: tiny rectangular ones staked into the lawn that you have to crouch down to read, that tell of the time between 1853 and 1865 when this was Fort Humboldt: Here is where the assistant surgeon's wife lived and wrote colorful letters home. Here is where hunter Seth Kinman fed soldiers elk and adventure tales and played wild music for them on his mule-skull fiddle. Here is where soldiers heading into the hinterlands could stock up on supplies -- and where a young Ulysses S. Grant famously malingered for about a year before slumping off to his wife's family farm in 1854.

And there's the huge old white hospital, of course, the only building left of the 14 built during the fort's time. It was a museum most recently, but was closed after the 2010 earthquake toppled its chimney through the roof. Nearby stands a replica of the surgeon's quarters, a two-story white house, but it too is closed, its uncovered windows revealing a jumbled mess of haphazard furniture and cleaning supplies.

There's so much more of this land's story yet to be told: How soldiers and their wives mingled with traders, children played, and local tribes people -- brought to the fort for their own "protection" during that violent time when gold-rushers and settlers flooded in -- settled uneasily into limbo before being shifted to other places. How, when the fort was abandoned, townspeople rushed in to tear off pieces of the buildings for souvenirs -- Grant, after leading the Union to victory in the Civil War, had become president by then. And how later, in 1935, reporters sat on this bluff and watched as the five-week labor strike down below at the Holmes-Eureka Mill turned bloody one day when police fired into the strikers.

Across the grassy expanse from the fort site lie, frankly, bigger tourist draws: the visitor center and an outdoor logging history display.

But everything is about to change out here -- and it isn't what you're thinking. First, Fort Humboldt isn't completely closing. Starting July 1, it will be closed on weekends -- gates and bathrooms locked. But it has to stay open on the weekdays, because the district office is here, out of which 20 people handle various functions for the 22 parks in the district from Laytonville to the Oregon border. So on weekdays the gates will be open and the public able to drive in and enjoy the park. School tours and events will still take place. Gardner said the district will have to borrow already stretched-thin staff from other parks to clean the bathrooms, mow the lawn and do other maintenance.

Second, and ironically, there is going to be much more to see. Four years ago, the district received $200,000 in bonds to revamp the fort-related exhibits and construct an ADA-approved path around the entire facility. That work is culminating this summer: The path has been built, and soon new interpretive displays will sprout throughout the park, said Susan Doniger, the district's interpretive coordinator.

"We're sort of flushing out stories that haven't been told," she said. "It's really exciting. Kids will really identify with the families who were living on the fort. There were laundresses and people building boats and wagons, and farmers hired to supply the fort. I think of Fort Humboldt as the Home Depot of its time. There was a constant play between Eureka and the fort. The fort played this economic role that spurred history. And it had the more difficult role of trying to mediate between tribes and the settlers."

The bond money also allowed the district to refurbish the surgeon's house, where staff is busy installing recently acquired period pieces: a bear-hide rocker, a roll-top desk, surgical instruments and a homeopathic kit that contains a tincture of marijuana.

Third, and most controversially, the district plans to eventually dismantle the displays of 19th and 20th century logging equipment spread across an area shaded by enormous pines. The idea has flustered members of the Timber Heritage Association, who want to develop a big timber heritage museum out on Samoa. The association's treasurer, Mike Kellogg, said the state has not been forthcoming with details, which has fueled their fears. He said some members heard rumors that the district planned to send everything up to Del Norte County or down to the state's railroad museum in Sacramento -- including the Falk Locomotive, which according to its donation deed must be displayed locally.

"They don't talk to us," Kellogg said. "And we don't know why they're sending the stuff out of the area, instead of donating it to a group that's talking about creating a timber heritage museum right here."

Gardner said the district hasn't decided yet what to do with the displays. Some items probably will go to a state park in Del Norte County -- first into storage, where they'll be protected, she said, and later on display in a new museum there. The district will keep other items at Fort Humboldt. The remainder will go back to donors or be found new owners locally if that's what their deeds require. The Falk, added Gardner, won't be sent away.

The timber folks also fear loss of the Bear Harbor Gypsy Locomotive, donated to the park by the Partain family, which they heard was going to the Sacramento Railroad Museum. It is, said Gardner -- to be restored, for free. After it's restored, the museum will display it for a while and then return it to Humboldt.

"Restore it for free in exchange for a little display time? That's a great deal," Gardner said.

 

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In 2009, when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he was going to shut down 223 state parks, everybody freaked out. Those parks are our heritage! Repositories of our history, our culture, our natural state. Our last green, wild hope -- or at least our best close-by escape from the doldrums of the office and the hard, urban streets.

Skeptical folks said it was a political ploy to scare Californians into really thinking about, and acknowledging, the serious, deep-debt doo doo our state was in and summon the will to do something about it.

And the threat slunk away.

Now it's back, reduced but still troubling. What does the closure of 70 state parks -- or 60 or 50 or, really, any -- say about us as Californians? What did we do wrong? How did we get so broke, and broken, that we now have to close state parks?

"We're a very complicated state," Dan Walters, a political columnist for the Sacramento Bee, said over the phone recently. Walters (no relation to me), like U.S. Grant, in his youth did a term in Eureka -- on occasion taking his young children camping at Benbow Lake -- before heading for more fruitful ground. "We try to do too many different things with our dollars and we end up not doing any of them well."

Until we figure out how to wrangle our diverse priorities into a short list to focus on -- and change the tax structure, Walters adds -- the only thing to do is what's already happening: cuts and more cuts.

"The underlying thing is, over the years, voters and legislators collectively have committed California to spending more money than the revenue system can produce -- even when the economy is doing well," Walters said. "In round numbers, the general fund has a $100 billion budget, and revenues are a little over $80 billion. So something has to give."

And every state sector is giving -- except perhaps prisons and pensions, notes Walters -- including, now, our parks.

So what happens to these shuttered beauties -- and the people who have taken care of them -- once we lock the gates and drive away?

Well, locally, nobody except seasonal employees will be out of a job, reports Gardner with grim optimism. The ranks have already thinned, and there's room for displaced employees at other parks. "We ran five parks last year with two rangers, open positions we couldn't fill because of the budget," she said. "We imported rangers from outside the area -- including from some desert parks -- to help us out during busy times."

The deterioration many state parks already have experienced over 20 years of steadily decreased funding -- resulting in more than $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance statewide -- will continue and possibly grow worse.

Perhaps, however, without all of us tromping through, plants and animals will flourish in some parks. Or perhaps not. Just because gates are locked doesn't mean people won't tromp through.

"There's liable to be higher vandalism," Gardner said. "There's the fear of crimes such as marijuana grows. Fire danger. I worry about the increased poaching of resources, of trees and tree burls and animals. We have problems like that in the parks now."

Gardner said a park employee would check on the closed parks occasionally, but there would be no regular patrol.

Doniger, the district interpretive coordinator, said she hopes neighbors of these parks will keep an eye on them. And it appears at least one group has committed to do so out at Grizzly, if the deal with the county falls through: EarthFirst! Humboldt, which used the park often as a base camp for staging its tree-sits and blockades during the Pacific Lumber/Maxxam days. The group plans to organize hikes in the park to keep an eye out for tree and burl poachers, and will report problems to law enforcement.

It's that instinct to protect, to do something good -- demonstrated by everyone from a private inn owner to a small county to a scraggle of committed forest defenders -- that created our state park system in the first place. Maybe it can save it.

 

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When Theresa Aubuchon was just 11 years old, the '64 flood buried in silt the first spot where her family loved to camp, on private land by the Mattole River. She remembers how, after the flood, her mom and grandmother, the big campers in the family, chose Richardson Grove State Park as their new family summer getaway. And they went there for years, until Aubuchon was grown up, married, and had her own kids -- and her mother was too frail to make the hike from the campsite down to the river anymore.

"One time my mother said, 'Let's try Grizzly Creek,'" Aubuchon recalled recently. The Aubuchons lived in Fortuna. "I laughed and said, 'That's not real camping! That's like going-up-the-street-type camping!'"

But they did it, and they got hooked on the convenience. Aubuchon's husband, Ron, could go to work during the week and camp with them on the weekends. They'd stay up till midnight playing cards and laughing. Sometimes, said Aubuchon, they'd roll her mom in her wheelchair right to edge of the river, settle an inner tube around her, and set her to sail, and then they'd catch her downstream. And now Aubuchon's children have begun bringing their kids there for those glorious two weeks in the summer. They swim, talk to people from Japan and Europe and Wisconsin, eat Dutch oven pizzas and brown-bears-in-an-apple-orchard (an applesauce-gingerbread concoction) sleep in a tent, listen to the river.

"That's what you do in the summer," said Theresa Aubuchon.

 

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