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Maria Gutzeit: Saving state parks will take more than money

SCV Voices

Posted: May 29, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: May 29, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Someone said to me the other day, "You guys (our family) are such outdoor people." It's true. We generally are happiest outdoors and take our dogs and daughter everywhere. Bike rides, hiking, beaches, camping, pools and wearing out park playground equipment in between.

Therefore, it struck me as alarming that I have officially resolved to never go to a California state park again.

I have been thoroughly and repeatedly disappointed when I visit them, and the reasons have little to do with funding. Sacramento is deciding on both taxes and fee hikes to save the parks, and, for now, I have to say I really don't care if they're saved in their current form.

First, they are not dog-friendly. I have no idea why the National Forests and Los Angeles County parks - which we frequent - have no problems with dogs tramping all over them, yet the state parks prohibit dogs from the vast majority of areas (except actual campgrounds and roads.)

The default reason they give is "to protect wildlife." I do get why we would want to protect wildlife, and I understand some warnings in areas such as the desert, where it is explained that endangered bighorn sheep get very stressed smelling dog odors.

But every state park has that issue? Doubtful.

An estimated 55 percent to 60 percent of campers bring their dogs with them (KOA Survey, 2010), and clearly one of the main reasons people visit state parks is for hiking.

Do I want to camp at a state park just to sit on my butt with my dog, walking laps around the campground road and/or figuring out how to stash him in my car, hopefully in some elusive shade, while I get in a hike or bike ride?

Do I want to leave my dog at home with an expensive dog sitter? No to both.

In addition, the parks can be unfriendly in general. We recently went camping north of Santa Barbara. I, like many camping wives (and maybe a few husbands), like to keep a list of the "good" sites where there is shade and a little separation between campsites so we can have a bit of peace.

While in the Santa Barbara area, we thought we would check out Refugio State Beach and make a note of which sites we might want to reserve there in the future.

The park attendant would not let us in without paying a $10 entrance fee, even though we assured the individual we'd just drive through the loops and leave in less than 15 minutes.

Really - did we 40- to 50-year-olds, with dog, toddler and "Shrek" on the DVD player - look like we were trying to scam the park system out of the $10 day-use fee?

Some areas seem to be going to "no specific site reservations" and "first come/first serve."

We love Leo Carrillo State Park, and it is near an adjacent dog-friendly beach. But the state recently stopped the ability to reserve specific sites, and workers at Leo Carrillo remain extremely spotty answering the phone.

When a report came that landslides had closed Pacific Coast Highway, we had no idea if the park was even accessible the weekend of our reservations, since no one returned phone calls.

So we canceled rather than schlepping all the way there with a finicky toddler and stuffed car - to find there was no access.

"Customer No Service" - to quote consumer guru Clark Howard - is no way to create fans who support the state park system. Someone really should take a bit of time and determine which areas really need to be off limits to dogs for legitimate reasons.

Get a decent online reservation system like the National Forests use. Inform contractors running the parks that it is their jobs to be welcoming liaisons for the parks, not gruff, cranky people shooing patrons away.

Visits to the state parks are good for the economy near them, as anyone who has forgotten the eggs or sunscreen on their trip knows. We all know getting children to experience nature is important.

We'd like to make getting outdoors a family tradition of our own and take biweekly trips all summer long. Sadly, our list of places we will go is getting shorter and shorter, and for now, the state parks are off that list.

Maria Gutzeit is a Santa Clarita resident, business owner and elected board member for the Newhall County Water District.



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