January 23, 2022

State Parks Commission Cancels Public Input On Proposed Park Closures


Local organizers posted serial signs in the classic “Burma Shave” style at both entrances to Topanga Canyon urging action, as the state erected a wall of silence on the issue of proposed closure of 48 state parks, including Topanga State Park and Will Rogers State Historic Park.

Public hearings scheduled to be held by the State Park and Recreation Commission were cancelled in the wake of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s March 17 termination of two of the Commission’s members: his brother-in-law Bobby Shriver and his friend, actor-director Clint Eastwood. The nine-member Commission is charged with approving plans for California’s state parks and recommending ways to protect and develop the state park system.

Both men were originally appointed to the commission in 2001 by former Gov. Gray Davis, and subsequently reappointed in 2004 after Schwarzenegger took office. Shriver, the Commission chair and a Santa Monica City Councilman who is the brother of the governor’s wife Maria Shriver and a nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy, had requested reappointment to a third term on the Commission. Eastwood, the Commission’s vice-chair, a two-time Oscar-winner for Best Director and the former mayor of Carmel, had also sought a third term.


State Parks Commission Cancels Public Input On Proposed Park Closures

“Burma Shave” signs urging action in response to the threatened closure and possible sale of Topanga State Park appeared at both ends of the Canyon. The signs were up only a week when the Highway Patrol removed and discarded those on the Valley side in response to a citizen complaint. Those on the ocean side appear safe for the time being.

However, after the two opposed a Schwarzenegger-backed plan to build a controversial toll road through San Onofre State Park, the governor’s office informed both men that their appointments would not be renewed. A spokesman for the governor denied that the men’s positions on the toll road entered into the governor’s decision to replace them. “It’s not uncommon for people to serve their terms, and when they expire the governor appoints someone new,” said Aaron McLear, speaking on behalf of the governor. However, replacements have not yet been named and no date for an announcement has been given.

There can be little doubt that Shriver and Eastwood first earned the ire of the governor in 2005 when they led the Commission in unanimously opposing the proposed six-lane toll road which Schwarzenegger claimed was “essential” to relieving freeway gridlock in Orange and San Diego counties. In 2006, they went a step further, supporting a lawsuit to block the toll road, and urging the California Coastal Commission to torpedo the project, which it did this February.

But some have suggested that the straw that broke the camel’s back was actually the decision by the media-savvy Shriver and movie star Eastwood to hold public hearings up and down the state asking people whether they thought it was a good idea to close 48 parks and fire half of Southern California’s lifeguards.

“I had hoped to continue to do this work and continue to protect the park system from developers,” Shriver is reported to have said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. “It shows you how strong these developers were that were able to arm-wrestle the governor into firing us.”

The governor’s move sparked an uproar in the environmental community. The National Resources Defense Council and other large environmental defense groups asked the State Senate to hold hearings into oversight of the state park system, stating “It’s difficult to recall any time in California’s history when our world-class system of parks has been more at risk from a range of threats.”

The news of the dismissal of Shriver and Eastwood, who were widely viewed as allies of the parks and the environment on the commission, was particularly upsetting to park advocates caught up in the battle to save 48 state parks from closure under the governor’s proposed budget-cutting measures. Those budget cuts also call for the number of lifeguards at state beaches in San Diego, Orange and Santa Cruz counties to be cut in half.

With Shriver and Eastwood gone, and other commissioners quite possibly intimidated by the governor’s actions, many activists debated whether there was any point in going through the motions of participating in the public hearings the Commission had called on the proposed park closures, said Lynne Haigh, president of the Topanga State Park Docents and one of the founders of Save Topanga State Park.org. “If no one trusts the Governor’s Commission, should we go?” Haigh paraphrased the controversy. “Or how would we approach it? An article in the Mirror says they are holding hearings ‘seeking creative ideas for funding parks’ in hopes of avoiding closures. Well, I don’t know if we want to go in that direction with this Commission.”

The question was rendered moot when the hearings, which were scheduled to be held at 6 p.m. on April 16 in the Santa Monica Auditorium were suddenly cancelled. The rug was also pulled out from under other hearings slated for Northern California on proximate dates. The reason give: California Department of Parks and Recreation Staff were too busy covering the legislative budget hearings in Sacramento to attend hearings elsewhere eliciting public input on the issue.

Haigh says she has recently been informed that the hearings may be rescheduled, but not until sometime in May after the Governor’s revised budget has been submitted and a new chair and vice chair of the commission have been appointed. By that time, of course, the public hearings will have precious little value in terms of providing public input into the decision whether the public’s parks should be closed as part of the budget-cutting process.

Moreover, the timing jives neatly with Haigh’s personal theory as to why the hearings were cancelled: “They might have been afraid the hearings could have become a rallying point for demonstrations or public protest,” she said, shaking her head. In a budget process much of which involves the kind of horse trading that takes place behind the closed doors of proverbial smoke-filled rooms, there are relatively few such focal points for the public to come together to make their voices heard.

Still, Haigh and her group, which includes representatives of the Topanga State Park Docents, the Topanga Town Council, the Topanga Chamber of Commerce, Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness, the Topanga Watershed Committee, Topanga Association for a Scenic Community, the Topanga Community Club, the Topanga Community Club, equestrian and running groups and other interested parties, remain undaunted. They recently launched a drive to obtain 10,000 signatures on a petition to be sent to all state legislators, as well as the governor, prior to the May 15 budget revision. Haigh would like to see every Topangan’s name on the petition. “Since it’s not a legal document, like a ballot measure or a recall petition, kids can sign it too. And they should—they are users of the park whose futures will be affected by this decision,” she stated.

In an effort to drive visitors to the web site, where they can sign the online petition and find other action steps to save the park, the group dug into their pockets to sponsor the Burma Shave-style signs on both sides of the Canyon. They were frustrated to see the Valley-side signs come down in only a week. But a call to California Highway Patrol Captain Steve Webb found a sympathetic ear, said Rebecca Goldfarb, one of the founding members of Save Topanga State Park.org. “When he learned who had been behind the signs, he was very apologetic and went dumpster diving to see if he could retrieve them. Unfortunately, the trash had already been emptied.”