(Part 1 of a 2-part series)
UPDATE: Tuesday evening the city of Benicia approved the plan to pay the state $15,500 to handle minimal maintenance services for the next year.
Benicia State Recreation Area is one of the few parks that doesn't have an agreement worked out to help keep it running. The city recently proposed a bare bones plan where it would pay the state $15,500 to run limited water, restroom and trash pick-up services for the next year. That's significantly less than the approximately $250,000 budget the park has had in the past, and doesn't address deferred maintenance costs.
"Unfortunately, there's a lot of misinformation floating around. You get information from state parks and local, and people are confused. They think everything's fine, everything's ok. It isn't," says Roy Stutzman, a retired community college professor who volunteers for the nonprofit Benicia State Parks Association.
On a recent sunny Saturday morning, the regular volunteers are working on the native plants garden they built in some 14 years ago.
Dan Jensen helps to coordinate the volunteers, and combat garden invaders.
"Here's a invasive that's come in and look how it's leaning over this beautiful redbud that's trying to grow. So we will take that right out," he says as he jumps enthusiastically onto a shovel, attacking the roots of the pesky weed.
The garden is only a small section of 469-acre park, but it's exemplary of the dedication of people who cherish this public space.
"(The garden) is all volunteer work, 100 percent volunteer service," says founder Norma Deaner. "Originally we got a $60,000 grant from the Coastal Conservancy, and that's what we used to do the infrastructure. …We have around 3,000 plants here, representing around 300 species."
The garden is set on the slope of one of the park's rolling hills, looking out over a turquoise Southhampton bay in Carquinez strait. Many visitors are locals. They come here to jog, walk, bike, fish, or just sit and watch the boats motor by.
"We're struggling to get the word out, and keep everybody excited about protecting this park," Jensen says.
There are signs all over the park, and in downtown Benicia urging people to help save the state recreation area. One biker says she's been jogging or walking with her daughter in this park for more than 20 years:
"I'm sad. Way sad. In fact we just stuck $10 bucks in and didn't even park in the parking lot."
Other park users say they've written letters to the legislature and to the governor. Still, so far, it's hasn't been enough. Just before July 1, the park was granted a one-month extension, but it's still facing closure in August .
"Many people would say, 'well park closure, what does that mean?' We're not sure what that means, for SRA. Does that mean simply closing gate, and the state providing no services here, which means no trash pick up and those sorts of things," says Stutzman, with the Benicia State Parks Association.
Even though the park hasn't closed yet, it's already seen cutbacks and their effects.
Just ask Robert Hanna. He's from Roseville and has devoted the last year to saving the 70 parks on the state's closure list, including Benicia.
"Right now, with the park technically open, they're still right now experiencing a lot of the graffiti, vandalism, so as you can imagine, any hint of closure, it won't take long before people who are out doing wrong things get that message," says Hanna.
Hanna says when he heard about the parks closures a year ago, he knew he had to fight. In addition to a childhood spent exploring some of California's wilderness, he's the great-great grandson of John Muir, the naturalist often known as the father of national parks.
A hike up a steep grassy hill gains a beautiful view of the waves chopping in the bay below. Hanna points out 8-foot diameter holes that have been filled in. He says thieves have figured out where old copper power lines are buried underground:
"And they're digging out 8- to 20-foot sections, all over this place. Old copper," says Hanna.
Hanna says with the one ranger here now pared down to a
part-time role, it's impossible to keep vandals in check. Up on the
top of a bluff, there's a power tower, and the door to keep people
from climbing the several hundred foot tower is swinging wide
"You can see some of the graffiti," Hanna says, pointing to spray painted tags on the steel structure. "Litter, coffee cups, hair ties, water bottles, graffiti, graffiti."
"What I don't want to happen is with these press releases that come out, make it seem like this situation is over, we were able to do it. We need to make sure none of these parks are closed in the near future, and then we got to start working on the long-term funding source."
With closure looming for the Benicia State Rec Area, the city of Benicia has agreed to pay $15,500 for minimal, weekly maintenance. This will keep water, trash pickup and some restrooms services running for the next year. Similar extensions at other parks range from 6 months to 5 years. But Hanna says those are only short-term solutions. State Parks Director Ruth Coleman agrees.
"I think the important thing for everybody to understand is we really look at this as reprieve. These aren't saved parks, these are parks that have a reprieve."
Read part 2 in our parks series here.