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Is a Closed State Park a Teachable Moment?

Posted Jan. 21, 2010, 4:00 am

(unassigned)

Steve Stajich, Mirror Contributing Writer

Consider Christmas… with its upbeat music and good tidings for all, especially children. Many responsible adults will use Christmas as an opportunity to teach children about the needs of others less fortunate. Kids will get involved in great charity events, and as a result get a sense of holiday celebration that includes the all-important giving and caring parts. In the process, they might meet some folks who have daily concerns in life that run deeper than finding a new skateboard under the tree. Let’s call it a dose of reality, with a plate of cookies waiting nearby.

Arriving with no music and gruesome reality, the tragedy in Haiti has already precipitated an outpouring of American generosity, strongly suggesting that many of those Christmas lessons years ago took hold as children became caring adults. So there’s ample evidence that “the teachable moment” is something more than just new-age nomenclature.

Mirror columnist Tom Elias, taking a properly parental tone, suggested on these pages last week that California taxpayers need not look far for the villains in assessing our state’s current money troubles. He said, quite clearly, we’re to blame. As voters who must supply the tax dollars for the things we want on our wish lists, we’re the ones that insist on having what we want in programs then acting surprised when there isn’t enough money to fund what Elias described as “government services galore”, which besides being a possible overstatement is also the worst name ever for a James Bond girl.

Still, only one day after the Elias piece appeared in the Mirror the LA Times ran an article announcing that the state of Arizona has decided to close nearly all of its state parks because of Arizona’s multi-billiondollar budget deficit. Someone quoted in the piece was quick to point out that the move was especially bad during a recession when folks need to get out of town and release some stress. Arriving at the gate to an Arizona state park with a station wagon full of kids only to discover the park is closed would definitely induce some stress. I’m not sure those wounds could be healed by lunch at the pizza place where the chairs look like you’re sitting on a cactus.

But Arizona is closing those parks, 13 of them by June 3. And at some point, somebody will have to explain to a youngster why the park is closed and the big camping weekend is off. A tough reality, but… could it become a “teachable moment”? Not just for kids, who often don’t get an education in taxation until that first paycheck from the part-time gig at the Burger Corral, but also for Mom and Dad. After all, it was somebody’s Mom and Dad who thought subprime loans were looking good back in ’08 when they were driving up bank stocks and then later killing Arizona’s economy.

There was once a proposal to close many of our national parks for a few years, especially Yellowstone, because at that time the park lands and foot paths desperately needed a break from the workout they were getting from increased visitor traffic. There was a great moaning against the idea, especially from those who travel in Winnebagos and others who enjoy nature from the thickly padded seat of a snowmobile. Ultimately there was some curbing of visitor access to certain terrain, but the parks stayed open. If the issue hadn’t been visitor wear and tear but rather that the money to keep the parks open just wasn’t there, things might have gone differently. The land, the critters, and the air around the parks would have gotten a rejuvenating break. And attention to national park budgets and funds would have been in sharper focus.

In May our own “Governator” pitched the closing of 220 of California’s state parks and then, tough guy that he is, he backed down after protests. But perhaps those closings would have caused us to better feel the weight of such things as California’s $89 billion in long-term bond debt. As Mr. Elias pointed out last week, it costs California roughly $10 billion a year to make payments on what we already owe. That’s money that goes out and doesn’t come back as, say, new schools or maybe a raise for teachers.

None of us wants to drive past Smokey the Bear holding a sign that reads “Will StampOut Campfire for Food,” and I’m not promoting closures or the laying-off of park personnel who are some of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. To me it’s enough knowing that in some California cities public libraries have to be closed because of shortfalls, their shelves of knowledge locked up and unavailable because the money just couldn’t be found.

But every economic shortfall has its consequences and Mr. Elias was right to assert that we should not be shielded from a harsher realistic view that includes consequences. In Arizona, the town of Camp Verde raised $18,000 of its own money to keep nearby Ft. Verde Historical Park open. Closing the park, in the words of the town manager, would have been “catastrophic” to the local economy. Arriving at those closed gates, visitors would have swallowed a hard pill. That day, instead of a lesson in what happened during the period known as the Indian Wars, youngsters might have had a short course in state economics and how things go when adults get in a little over their heads.

Contact Steve Stajich

opinion@smmirror.com

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