Will Environmental Watchdogs Adopt Underfunded CA State Parks?

This was a fun one, primarily because it sent me way out to Livermore's Carnegie State Vehicle Recreation Area, about as far as one can travel from Oakland and still be in the East Bay. It's an off-highway vehicle park in a beautiful area, and a pair of environmental groups didn't believe its users and management were being proper stewards of the environment -- so they sued. It may be an isolated incident, or it may be a sign of what's to come. As the CA State Parks budget crisis deepens and recent cuts settle in, will parks have a hard time meeting their environmental mandates? If so, will environmental groups continue to intervene for protection of the parks' valuable resources? No one can predict the future, but my research suggested it's more than likely -- another interesting development in the soap opera that is California's budget.
A New Savior for California State Parks?
A recent lawsuit involving an East Bay park shows that private groups may assume responsibility for underfunded parks during the state budget crisis.
By Nate Seltenrich
California State Parks may have skirted disaster last summer, but they're not out of the woods yet. The budget crunch that had Governor Schwarzenegger threatening to close more than 200 parks is far from resolved, and there's little doubt that state parks will continue to suffer. What's less clear is what that'll look like. Yet a recent court case involving an East Bay recreation area may offer a hint of what's to come, as budget cuts reduce the state park system's ability to self-police and leave environmental watchdogs to fill in the gaps.

As one of the California State Parks system's eight designated off-highway vehicle recreation areas, Carnegie State Vehicle Recreation Area in Livermore may be an easy target for environmentalists' disdain. After all, it's a favorite haunt for ATV and dirt bike lovers, who have been known to run roughshod over pristine habitats. Situated in one of the East Bay's most remote and rugged locales, Carnegie also is a valuable 1,500-acre swath of public parkland. Located southeast of downtown Livermore, past a smattering of office parks and the Lawrence Livermore Lab, idyllic vineyards and assorted farm houses, and, finally, a five-mile expanse of rolling, cattle-grazed hills, it earns its place as perhaps Alameda County's most isolated environmental battleground.

The conflict at Carnegie began last September, when two nonprofit groups — Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national organization based in Washington, DC; and California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, based in Stockton — filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The crux of the suit amounted to unfiled paperwork — namely, a "Report of Waste Discharge" to the regional water quality control board — which alone was enough to almost close the park last December.

But the implications of the lawsuit were far broader. After being tipped off by state employees, Karen Schambach, California director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, determined that Carnegie failed to meet its environmental mandates as a state park — from mitigating erosion and managing wildlife habitats to protecting Corral Hollow Creek and its watershed — and that the time had come for outside intervention. "Suing's not something that we do lightly, despite what the off-roaders might say," Schambach said. "It has to be something blatant, and this was pretty blatant."

Her biggest gripe, and the one with the most legal traction, was the park's failure to prohibit visitors from riding off-road motorcycles and ATVs through and across the creek bed, which runs three miles down the valley floor from one end of the park to the other. Although the seasonal creek flows for only a few months each year, it's the park's lone riparian corridor and a critical section of the region's larger watershed. An Alameda County judge's decision in December supported Schambach's assertion that vehicles needed to keep out, and in January, Carnegie responded by installing plastic red posts reading, "CLOSED," every 25 to 30 feet along the creek.

Bob Williamson, district superintendent for three of the state's off-highway vehicle parks, agreed that Carnegie should've been barring riders from the creek all along. Starting in 2004, he said, the park hired consultants to conduct a concerted watershed assessment, and eventually drew up plans to install permanent berms on either side of the creek, build a series of four or five hard crossings for vehicles, and restore the creek's riparian vegetation zones. But they couldn't get their hands on any money. "Because of the size of those and the financial impact, you have to submit those through the budget process and it takes time," Williamson explained. "We have been moving forward as quickly as is possible through the state government to address this."

Williamson cited the state's "somewhat complex bureaucracy" as an impediment to securing funding, compounded by budget cuts in 2009 that impacted everything from land acquisition to natural resources protection. Any money that was not already allocated to operational or project funding, Williamson said, was lost, further delaying Carnegie's plans.

The situation at most other parks, which rely upon California's slashed general fund, is even worse; Carnegie, which receives money from the state's fuel tax, is comparatively flush. But as projects stalled by withdrawn funding accumulate, situations like Carnegie's may become more the norm than the exception. The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility lawsuit against Carnegie was its first directed at a state park and was noteworthy because the organization is made up of current and former public employees. And given its effectiveness — coupled with the state's expanding budget crisis — more could be on the way. "In my opinion, they were falling short of their environmental mandates even before the budget cuts," Schambach said, "and I'm sure it's worse now."

Jeff Miller, spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, agreed: Last year's cuts should nudge the California State Parks system's environmental protection record from bad to worse. His organization, a national nonprofit that uses legal action to protect endangered species, has four pending legal actions involving California State Parks alone. "Last year when they were cutting the budget, one of our thoughts was that it opened them up even further to litigation," Miller said. "They have certain obligations under state law and federal law to protect certain species and certain resources."

As a result, he anticipates a spike in lawsuits from third parties looking to protect natural resources on state lands — although he says it's too soon to say if such a trend has yet emerged. "Certainly it's an issue, with the fact that we've got no law enforcement out there, almost no rangers," he said. "State parks should be monitoring this, but they haven't been because of the budget."

Back at Carnegie, the newly installed signposts prohibiting entry into the creek seem to be working. On a typical weekend, the park sees as many as 2,000 visitors, and a pair of unimproved creek crossings still allow large numbers of riders to slog through the shallow creek, impeding vegetation growth and potentially polluting the watershed. Yet this is an improvement over the previous arrangement; prior to January, riders were permitted to ride inside the dry creek bed. During the rainy season, they were deterred only by limited staff supervision. Today, three months after the posts went up, vegetation seems to be recovering, yet it remains far from its natural state. "The important thing is whether the resources are being protected," Schambach said. "Finally, they are. After years of neglect, they're finally getting the protection that they're supposed to get."

But it's not clear how long the protection will last. In mid-March, an appellate court judge ruled that the plaintiffs in the lawsuit had no authority to sue over the missing Report of Waste Discharge without first exhausting administrative remedies. Still, unlike some riders and off-road recreation advocacy groups who have spoken out against the lawsuit, Carnegie sector superintendent Joe Ramos appreciates the environmental groups' willingness to asume responsibility for the creek's protection. "It's always good to have the public's input," Ramos said. "You have to make sure as much as you can that you can accommodate the recreational community and the environmental community. We have to protect the resources. That's what we're entrusted to do."