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Give Providence Mountains to the National Park Service

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The Providence Mountains in California's Mojave Desert | Photo: Steve Berardi/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Last week brought the revelation that the California Department of Parks and Recreation had squirreled away $54 million in secret park maintenance funds, even as the state threatened to close down more than fifty parks. That revelation hit hard those who care about the one California state park that remains closed: the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area in the eastern Mojave Desert.

The Providence Mountains SRA, a remote jewel in the California State Park's system that includes the division's only limestone solution caverns, closed in 2011 due to a $100,000 backlog of deferred maintenance. It was later vandalized on at least four separate occasions, damage to which the park would never have been subject had State Parks spent just half of a percent of its secret slush fund on long-deferred upkeep to the SRA's buildings.

Of the State Parks' secret slush fund, $33.5 million was part of the state's Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Trust Fund, which most press covering the scandal is describing as restricted to spending on motorized recreation with non-street-legal vehicles -- the so-called "Green Sticker" activities. They're getting that wrong: The law requires State Parks to spend that fund to "support both motorized and nonmotorized recreation related to off-highway vehicle use." Which means that if park visitors arrive at their preferred wildlife viewing spot in a State Park by traveling a dirt road in their Prius, the OHV Trust Fund could be tapped to provide them with a picnic table. There are a lot of dirt roads surrounding the Providence Mountains SRA, and the fact that no money from the OHV Trust Fund went to help preserve dirt-road drivers' access to walking tours of caverns and nature trails there is due to the OHV Division's continuing and deliberate misrepresentation of state law.

But let's assume for the sake of argument that the OHV Trust Fund surplus was off-limits. That still leaves a $20 million surplus in the Parks and Recreation Fund from which $100,000 could have been taken to keep Providence Mountains open.

State Parks staff -- or at least those remaining after Director Ruth Coleman resigned in disgrace and her second-in-command was fired over the slush fund revelations -- say that the state's parks have a $1.3 billion backlog in deferred maintenance. $54 million wouldn't make much of a dent in that bill.

But Providence Mountains SRA was closed in 2011 when a long-time head ranger there retired, and State Parks decided that was as good a time as any to shutter the place rather than fix it up. It's one thing not to spend all of a cash reserve on systemic problems that result from decades of antipathy to government spending. It's another to deliberately let a park close because you aren't willing to spend a fraction of a percent of your slush fund to keep it open.

Especially when there is no other park like it in the entire system. California has at least a dozen redwood parks, and dozens of state beaches, but only one limestone cave -- Mitchell Caverns, in the Providence Mountains SRA. And they let it close rather than dipping into their stash.

The vast majority of California's State Parks staff are fine people, and those who work in the desert were as upset over Providence Mountains' closure and subsequent vandalism as anyone in the state. But the agency as a whole has clearly shown that it isn't interested in maintaining Providence Mountains SRA. The agency as a whole has shown that it would rather abandon the Providence Mountains SRA to disuse and vandalism than spend a nearly unnoticeable fraction of its slush fund to keep it open to the public they are supposed to serve.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation, in short, does not deserve to manage the Providence Mountains SRA.

The investigative process has begun, and it may well be that high-ranking State Parks staff will face criminal charges as a result of the maintenance of the slush funds. In the meantime, pending approval of investigators, State Parks should dip into that cash and start immediate repairs to the Providence Mountains SRA to make it safe for visitors and rangers.

When that's done, State Parks needs to give the SRA to the National Park Service, whose Mojave National Preserve completely surrounds the State Park property. Transferring the SRA to National Parks ownership has been discussed since the Preserve was established in 1994. The National Park Service has its own budgetary problems, and whenever transfer is discussed NPS staff point out that the money to maintain the SRA would have to come from somewhere. Still, at least the National Park Service would be interested in maintaining the place rather than letting it fall apart, and they do have cave experts on staff.

Advocating that one agency give land to another is always politically touchy, and State and National parks' staff have taken pains over the years to make sure neither side has hurt feelings. But this last week makes it clear: California's State Parks doesn't really want to take care of the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area. They should give it to someone who does.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

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