Sunset for Desert State Parks

Cloudy Sunset at Salton Sea State Recreation Area, with Mt. San Jacinto in distance | Photo by Chris Clarke

As reported here on Friday, the California Department of Parks and Recreation has come up with a list of 70 parks statewide that it will close by July 2012 to cut costs during the state's ongoing budget crisis.

While Northern California seems to have borne the brunt of the closures -- just 13 of the 70 parks slated for closure are south of San Luis Obispo -- the list includes about half of California's desert state parks.

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The desert's "Crown Jewel" parks -- Anza Borrego Desert State Park, the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, and Red Rock Canyon near Ridgecrest -- will remain open, as will the desert's State Vehicular Recreation Areas at Heber Dunes and Ocotillo Wells. Also spared closure for now are the obscure (but lovely) Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland west of Lancaster and the Indio Hills Palms, a relatively inaccessible park holding with no facilities whose management tasks are performed by the adjacent Coachella Valley Preserve.

Of the six desert parks on the closure list, the largest is the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, which stretches along the Sea's northeast shore for about a dozen miles. With 1,600 campsites in five campgrounds, and an annual visitation of about 200,000 people, permanent closure of the Salton Sea SRA will make a serious dent in California desert's state park capacity. Fortunately, the 400-odd bird species known to visit the SRA won't be affected as directly by closure.

Closing Providence Mountains State Recreation Area out in the East Mojave won't make as much of a dent in the desert campsite supply. For one thing, the park has been closed for some months already, due to a backlog of deferred maintenance. For another, even when the park is open it only has six campsites. But closing Providence Mountains SRA would mean that California no longer has a single limestone cavern in its parks inventory. The popular Mitchell Caverns Natural Preserve within the SRA actually comprises three separate caves; the El Pakiva and Tecopa caverns were open for public tours until the park closed for repairs in January. The far less accessible Winding Stair cavern, a vertical cave, has been used for cave rescue training since at least 1968, when this video was shot:

Providence Mountains SRA is completely surrounded by the Mojave National Preserve; giving over the land to National Park Service management may be a long-term way of restoring public access to the caves, as well as to the mountains' above-ground features. NPS and the state of California discussed transferring the SRA to federal control when the Mojave National Preserve was established in 1994, an initiative stymied when the GOP-controlled 104th Congress set the Preserve's annual budget at $1. Transferring the SRA now would have serious budgetary implications for NPS, as the park's facilities will still need expensive rehab in order to meet building and safety codes. It may be a while before you can visit Mitchell Caverns again.

Another asset of the Providence Mountains SRA: the astonishing views | Photo by Chris Clarke

You do still have a chance to check out Saddleback Butte State Park, east of Lancaster in LA County. Until 1970, this 3,000-acre park was confusingly named "Joshua Tree State Park," which disappointed not a few visitors who expected giant granite boulders when they arrived. Saddleback Butte doesn't have them. It does have Joshua trees, however, with a few miles of hiking trails and about 50 serviceable campsites, and it's only two hours from downtown LA if traffic permits. Close at hand, by desert standards, the Antelope Valley Indian Museum State Historic Park offers a glimpse at indigenous culture in the Mojave and Great Basin deserts. Check both of these Antelope Valley parks out soon; you may not be able to for long. (The weather's supposed to be nice this coming weekend, for instance.)

Two remaining desert parks on the chopping block are much farther afield from the populated parts of Southern California. The Picacho State Recreation Area is even remote from most of the desert. This SRA is along the Colorado River about 20 miles north of Yuma, AZ, and about 12 of those miles are by dirt road. Popular with local boaters, birders, and desert rats, Picacho is a network of riverside sloughs and lakes hard up against forbidding desert mountains. It's bracketed upriver and down by units of the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, and as in the case of Providence Mountains and NPS it's possible that the US Fish and Wildlife Service might take over some management duties at Picacho should the California State Parks follow through on its treats to close the SRA.

The Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve near Yosemite | Photo by Chris Clarke

The last desert park on the closure list isn't in Southern California; it's actually farther north than the Golden Gate Bridge. But a desert park it is nonetheless, in California's portion of the Great Basin desert, and it's one dear to many ecologically conscious Southern Californians' hearts. The Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve near Lee Vining east of Yosemite National Park, one of the state of California's most spectacularly odd landscapes, somehow made it onto the list of parks to be closed. Angelenos of a certain age will recall the decades-long campaign to save Mono Lake from water diversions by LADWP, and the city's greener residents take justifiable pride in that campaign's eventual success. As with the Salton Sea, those who depend most on Mono Lake -- the wildlife drawn to its hypersaline waters -- will be relatively unaffected by the park closures. Still, Angelenos fought to save the place and Angelenos ought to be able to go see it.

There is a chance, of course, that the closure list will be whittled down during the budget process, or that public outcry will make the list go away the way it did with Governor Schwarzenegger's similar park closure list in 2009. The California State Parks Foundation is working to oppose the closures; you can check out their park closure campaign website at savestateparks.org for more information.

And as the CA State Parks Foundation points out, the best way to support your state parks is to visit them. Parks on the list may be closing soon, and all of them are scheduled to be shut down by next summer, so don't wait too long before you go.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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