Northern California's largest state park and a significant portion of South Santa Clara County's wilderness could be closed to the public for at least two years if the governor's latest proposal to help balance the budget passes.
Henry W. Coe State Park, east of Morgan Hill, San Martin, and Gilroy is on the list of 220 parks that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested closing this week. The proposal to eliminate all of the state's general fund expenditures devoted to parks would shut down 80 percent of those parks and eliminate jobs for up to 2,000 state employees.
"We would have to lay people off," said Roy Stearns, California Department of Parks and Recreation spokesman. "And if there's nobody to run the parks, we would have to close parks."
Morgan Hill Mayor Steve Tate said many local residents would be disappointed if the park closed. He said Morgan Hill residents are active in Henry W. Coe's volunteer programs, and the park's 37,000 annual visitors include people who live in town.
"Coe Park has a bigger impact on Morgan Hill than people realize. You don't hear much about the park but it's used a lot by the local population," Tate said.
The park is about 12 miles outside the city limits, with its main entrance at the end of Dunne Avenue. A southern entrance is in Gilroy, near the end of Gilroy Hot Springs Road.
Stearns noted that it is unclear when the parks would close if the governor's proposal makes it into the budget intact, but all state parks that are currently open will remain open at least through Labor Day weekend in the beginning of September.
"We want people to continue their vacation plans and don't cancel them, and we want to make sure businesses surrounding the parks still get the revenue (from park visitors)," Stearns said.
Henry W. Coe State Park is known by regular visitors for its steep, rugged and remote terrain, plus hundreds of miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. The 80,000-acre park also offers numerous campgrounds, picnic areas, and back country fishing areas.
The park charges fees for camping and day use, but Stearns did not know how much revenue those fees bring in each year.
The governor's proposal would save a total of about $145 million over two years, a chip in the $24 billion gap state officials seek to close in next year's budget.
Stearns said the proposal has to go through a series of budget hearings before it reaches the floor of the legislature for a vote, and by then it could change significantly. A public hearing to allow citizen input on the possible park closures is scheduled for Tuesday at the state capitol in Sacramento.
The California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes state parks and assists in their improvement and maintenance, is opposed to the governor's suggestion. CSPF spokesman Jerry Emory said closing 220 parks would be "devastating."
He said it will cost the state money to execute the logistics of closing vast areas of wilderness, the proposal would drain resources from local communities that benefit economically from park visitors, and the lack of maintenance for two years would result in large expenses when the parks open up again. Plus, there would likely be a strain on law enforcement agencies as they try to keep people out of the parks.
"There's a lot of practical considerations or problems in how you close a park," Emory said. "Henry Coe is a huge wilderness on the doorstep of the Bay Area. What's going to happen if it's closed?"
Other nearby parks on the governor's closure list are Fremont Peak in Hollister; Mount Diablo in San Jose; and numerous beaches in the areas around Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay.