85-year-old stands to lose it all once California's 70 state parks close

85-year-old stands to lose it all once California's 70 state parks close
In this photo taken Friday July 15, 2011, a family sits on the beach at China Camp State Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

CHINA CAMP STATE PARK, Calif. (AP) — Floating in the bay just outside 85-year-old Frank Quan's house, a replica Chinese junk named after his mother rocks in the waters where generations of Quans once caught delectable shrimp by the ton before drying, sorting and shipping them back to their ancestral homeland.

Quan and his rickety wooden shack heated by a wood stove are some of the few remnants left from one of the Chinese fishing villages that dotted the shores of San Francisco Bay in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The house and the small diner Quan runs just a few feet away are now part of China Camp State Park, one of 70 parks California plans to shut down to shave $22 million from the budget. Now Quan's fate is also hanging in the balance while officials and parks advocates scramble to find a way to save the beloved site near San Rafael in Marin County.

"We used to pull out 3 million pounds of shrimp a year around here. One boat could bring in two tons a day," Quan said Friday, as he walked through ramshackle wooden buildings holding some of the old shrimping equipment that has been restored as part of the fishing village's historic renovation. "It's hard to see this all go to hell in a lifetime."

Quan's story represents a dilemma that California faces in its plans to shutter sprawling, popular state parks next year: each one has a unique set of features and historic importance that will need to be handled carefully as the state pulls staff, locks bathrooms and blocks parking lots. As for China Camp, officials there say they are doing everything they can to not only save the park, but Quan's home.

"If I have my way Frank is going to stay here," said Danita Rodriguez, the superintendent of the Marin District for the state Department of Parks and Recreation. "I don't think our goal is to close China Camp and move Frank out. But at the end of the day some other people make that decision, but our goal is to keep Frank here."

If nothing is done by next July, the state will pull out park staff and greatly reduce maintenance at China Camp and 69 other of its 278 parks from beaches and groves of coastal redwoods to Jack London's former ranchlands. It's an idea that's never been executed and presents a major conundrum: most parks cannot actually be physically sealed off to the public — people will still access them, but their litter will not be collected and there will be no bathroom access. There will be no ranger on hand to enforce laws.

This has led to worries that the sites will become blighted — and as of now the state has few ideas to alleviate these concerns other than hoping people who love the parks care for them for free or pony up cash to pay for continued service.

"We have never had to close state parks, so this will be a trial and error process. Not locking the gates and letting visitors be our eyes and ears to protect the parks could be a solution." said Clark Blanchard, a parks spokesman, in an e-mail. "If that doesn't work, we will have to look for a Plan B."

As for Quan's unique situation?

"There is no final plan as of yet. State Parks is working to try to find a solution," Blanchard said.

Despite the bad news, lawmakers, parks officials and nonprofit groups are working to find a way to keep as many of the 70 parks open as possible through other methods.

The state Assembly in May unanimously approved legislation making it easier for nonprofit groups to take over operations at some parks. The bill, called AB42 and authored by Democratic Assemblyman Jared Huffman of San Rafael, is expected to help keep some parks open but is not an overall solution. It's awaiting action by the state Senate.

Also, the California League of Parks Associations is making an effort to organize volunteers from the state's hundreds of local parks groups to volunteer to provide some presence in the parks slated for closure. Rodriguez said Sonoma and Marin counties are currently trying to form groups who can fundraise and oversee volunteer staff to take over parks in there.

Another idea gaining traction is corporate partnerships — already Coca-Cola, Stater Bros. Supermarkets and Farmer John have agreed to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep some Southern California parks open.

Officials say these corporate partnerships do not include naming rights: so don't expect a Coca-Cola State Park anytime soon.

But even the most optimistic see tough times for state parks, and not only in California. Indeed, budget woes have led statehouses around the nation to close parks that have been open to the public for decades.

Minnesota closed all its state parks for a couple of weeks because the Legislature failed to reach a budget agreement by June 30. Parks officials there have reported vandalism, litter and human waste left behind by visitors in the closed parks. Oklahoma, Connecticut and others states have also considered privatizing or shuttering state parks over budget woes.

"For the first time in over 100 years we are going to leave a legacy of closed parks to future generations. This is nothing to be proud of," said Jerry Emory of the California State Parks Foundation. "This is happening all around the U.S."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.